PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938), the subject of a first-rate show at the Portsmouth Historical Society in New Hampshire, was the most prominent painter in Boston at the turn of the 20th century. Born in West Groton, he had studied at the newly formed School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and in Paris at the Academie Julian.
He returned to Boston in 1886, and three years later began teaching at the Museum School, where he later became chief instructor of painting. His students became known as “Tarbellites.” He was that kind of teacher.
Tarbell had imbibed some of the tenets of French Impressionism: the bright light, the vivid coloring, the broken brush strokes, the preference for everyday subjects. But his style remained grounded in established techniques of drawing, and his teaching was both traditional and rigorous.
He was the most prominent figure in what became known as the Boston School. With his friend and colleague Frank Benson, he was also a founding member of the New York-based group of Ten American Painters, known as The Ten (not to be confused with The Eight, the group associated with the painter and teacher Robert Henri, or the Canadian Group of Seven).
Tarbell and Benson both came to New Castle, a tiny town situated on an island in the mouth of the Piscataqua River, right next to Portsmouth, in 1889. They had both married the previous year, and now taught painting classes in the town.
Tarbell rented a series of summer cottages in New Castle over the following years, and eventually established his own home and studio there. (Sadly, the Greek Revival building, known as Old Cooper Place, burned down on Jan. 23 this year.)
The Portsmouth show, organized by conservator Jeremy Fogg, focuses on Tarbell’s local connections, and particularly his portraits. But because Tarbell’s relationship with Portsmouth was so enduring, it presents us, incidentally, with a handy overview of his career.
The show includes more than 60 works, including many drawings, pastels, prints, and studies, along with photographs, letters, and other ephemera — many lent by the Tarbell Charitable Trust, along with various Tarbell descendants, other private collectors, and museums.
It is complemented upstairs by a companion show, “A Legacy in Action,” organized by Alastair Dacey. With close to 50 works by six contemporary painters — including the curator, whose bio in the catalog notes that he once “had the privilege of working with Laura Bush when he was commissioned to create proposals for her White House portrait” — it tries to make the case “for Tarbell’s ongoing influence as a painter and teacher.”
It’s an anticlimax, to say the least. Some people — those, for instance, who tend to associate painting with interior decoration, marvelous detail, and charming family resemblances — will no doubt be delighted to learn that traditional painterly techniques applied to titillating nudes, saccharine still lifes, and clichéd landscapes live on. But it all depends on what you mean by “live.”
What’s fascinating about Tarbell is the way, having flirted with the Impressionism first of Monet and then of Degas, he began casting his eye back to the Dutch Golden Age. He was particularly taken by Johannes Vermeer, the Delft master of quietude and angled interior light.
Vermeer had been all but forgotten by art historians until his mid-19th-century revival, spearheaded by the French connoisseur Thore-Burger. The Dutch painter became a model for Tarbell.
His influence is clearest in “Woman Mending a Glove.” This late (1935) painting has a more vigorous, brushy surface than anything in Vermeer. But the light that falls softly and almost pools on the nose and chin of Tarbell’s daughter Mary, also picking out parts of her hands and red sleeve, is very reminiscent of the Dutchman.
“Solitaire,” painted in 1927, has a similar quality: Light slides in from the left, producing abrupt contrasts of light and shadow in the faces and on the clothes of two women seated at a table. The younger one’s slim hand, with its pensively curled pinkie, props up her flushing face. She watches her elder play out a solitary hand, and the air of sustained concentration, uncoupled from consequence, is intensely appealing.
The view in “Solitaire” through to a light-filled second room suggests more the influence of Pieter de Hooch than Vermeer. But it was Vermeer above all, filtered through Sargent and Whistler, who became the presiding spirit over the whole Boston School. Its best artists — among them, wonderful painters like Benson, Gretchen Woodman Rogers, and Lilian Westcott Hale — favored simple, healthy loveliness, tender light, and a sense of being insulated from unpleasant social realities. Their sensibilities stood in contrast to the penchant for gritty realism noticeable in New York at the same time.
Hale’s husband and Tarbell’s fellow Museum School instructor, Philip Hale, wrote a biography of Vermeer, praising the Dutchman’s painting as “singularly modern.” This is important to recognize when assessing Tarbell and his Boston peers: Their harking back to Vermeer was not inconsistent with a view of themselves as modern and progressive.
Many were also — and this is germane to the same issue — under the spell of Japan. Several Tarbell paintings here, among them “Mary With a Black Hat,” the beautifully colored “Still Life With Irises and Blue Jar,” and “Marjorie, Edmund, and Little Daniel,” have Japanese porcelains or paintings prominent in the background.
Thanks to figures like William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa, Edward Sylvester Morse, and Okakura Kakuzo, Boston was at the center of the West’s prolonged obsession with Japanese aesthetics. This interest combined aspects of what we think of as modern (flattened pictorial space, arbitrary cropping, a thirst for novelty) with a reactionary note, in the form of a deep yearning for the perceived harmony, spiritual fullness, and isolated simplicity of Japan’s fast-disappearing past.
Tarbell was a sentimentalist, but a confident one, which is, all in all, much better than being the anxious and insecure kind. He approached his subjects not only with feeling and warmth, but inner belief. If he overindulged his family, his horses, and his bejeweled or bewhiskered sitters, it mattered less than it might have, because in each case he knew how to make the thing good, commanding, authoritative.
You can’t argue with his 1910 portrait of Henry Clay Frick. It’s a superb piece of painting, which pulsates with presence. (Interesting to learn, from the label, that it was based partly on a photograph.) The same goes for “Portrait of Mrs Charles Taintor,” “Portrait of Mrs. Jonathan Sawyer,” and Tarbell’s turn-of-the-century symphony-in-white, titled “My Mother” — a stiff-backed salute both to his mom and to Whistler’s.
Tarbell was a dazzling colorist. Perhaps the most beautiful painting in the show is his profile portrait of a poised young woman with blushing cheeks, called “Girl’s Head (Lydia Hatch).” The harmony between those cheeks and Hatch’s yellow dress, darkened on one side with auburn shadows that help draw the two dominant hues together, is unforgettable, and way, way above the pay grade of any of the painters upstairs.
Illuminating Tarbell: Life and Art on the Piscataqua
At Portsmouth Historical Society, Portsmouth, N.H., through June 3. 603-436-8433, www.portsmouthhistory.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.