Impressionism began in the mid-1800s in France as an art movement and flourished during the later decades of the 19th century and into the early 20th century in America. The word impressionism is attributed to the title of Claude Monet’s painting, Impression, soleil levant or Impression, Sunrise. The style is readily identified by small visible brush strokes with an emphasis on lighting and an expansive composition. Impressionism as a popular style of painting waned during the 1920s but enjoyed a revived interest in the 1950s. Women impressionist painters in the United States made an important contribution to the style and its continued popularity, especially among open air painters.
Lilla Cabot Perry (1848 – 1933) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She painted impressionist portraits and landscapes. She traveled extensively in Japan, throughout Europe and France. Perry’s work was influenced by her travels and especially by the Boston School of artists. The Boston School rejected the idealized romantic style of the Hudson River School and embraced French impressionism. Perry’s painting, Lady With Bowl of Violets (1910) exemplifies the importance of brush strokes, light and movement in the impressionist style. There is a delicate tension in the portrait as the woman leans slightly forward as if preparing to rise. Her face is turned toward the light giving the impression that she is peering out a window. Perry’s impressionist portraits are captivating and energetic.
American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926) spent most of her life in France. She painted women engaged in ordinary activities, such as having a cup or tea, weaving, sewing and enjoying the opera. Cassatt’s portrait work captures the life-force of her subject in fine brush strokes and bold blocks of color. Her painting In the Box (1879) is a delicate combination of form and light that beautifully represents the American impressionist movement. Many of Cassatt’s impressionist paintings focused primarily on the private moments in the lives of women, such as mothers caring for children. Her work, Maternite (1890) is a bold work with strong lines and soft pastel colors.
Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (1875 – 1954) enjoyed success as a plein air impressionist painter during her life. Her work was exhibited in galleries across America. Wachtel was born in Wisconsin but moved to California with her husband, Elmer, who was also an artist. She became renowned for her impressionist Western landscape paintings. Wachtel painted in watercolor but was equally adept in oils. Her painting San Gabriel Valley (1920) is typical of her bold approach to impressionist landscape paintings.
Mary Agnes Yerkes (1886 – 1989) painted in oil and water color. She also created impressionist works of art using pastels. Yerkes traveled from Virginia to California with her husband who was a Navy officer. She spent much time near sea port towns. Her painting Blue Boat (1920) reflects the influence of her early life in port towns. Yerkes practiced open air painting and produced a number of landscapes during camping trips. Her pastel work Cliff Palace (1973) and the oil painting Early in the Day in Desert Quiet (1965) depict the quintessential American southwestern landscape.
Marilyn Bendell (1921 – 2003) was born in Michigan and studied painting at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. Bendell painted primarily still life, figures and abstract paintings until she moved to New Mexico in the 1980s. Once she settled in her new home, Bendell became interested in Native American culture and painted impressionist portraits of Native American women. Her paintings of indigenous people in the American Southwest are vibrant and filled with movement. Bendell’s choice of colors reflect the natural landscape of the desert. Her painting Autumn Afternoon depicts a Native American woman sitting near a stream and filling a pot with water. The play of light on the water, the woman’s flowing hair and the sweeping reeds fill this impressionist painting with a peaceful energy.
American women impressionist artists injected energy and strength into the impressionist movement in the United States. Their work continues to influence impressionist and plein air impressionist painters today.