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Specifics
An American Impressionist

Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938) was one of America’s most accomplished artists at the turn of the twentieth century. He lived most of his life in New England, including summers spent in the coastal village of New Castle, New Hampshire. Born in Massachusetts, Tarbell was trained in a traditional, academic manner in Boston and Paris at the time the Impressionists were challenging traditional artistic values. Tarbell followed the modern impressionist style he witnessed in France executing plein-air paintings, and with it, achieved national recognition. Tarbell became part of the faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and served as co-director with fellow artist Frank W. Benson. In 1898, he became a founding member of the Ten, a group of impressionist painters from Boston and New York, who joined together to exhibit and promote their work on a national level.

Summer Breeze, 1904, was painted at Tarbell’s vacation home in New Castle where he moved permanently in 1926. The painting is unusually bold and dynamic, especially in the tilted perspective of the figure clasping her bonnet as she leans into the wind. Lively, suggestive brushwork captures the essence of a blustery summer day and dissolves the figure into a decorative swirl of wispy, fair-weather clouds and fluttering ribbons.

In the early 1900s, Tarbell shifted his focus from outdoor landscape to decorative interiors featuring young women. These paintings defined Tarbell’s art as well as that of the Boston School. The Boston School was a distinct local style of painting tied to the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston and focused on beauty, elegance and refinement and avoidance of that which was considered common. Subjects included portraits, especially of elegant women, tastefully presented interiors, sun-filled landscapes and impeccably arranged still life paintings. Besides Tarbell, group members included Frank Benson, William Paxton and Joseph DeCamp.

For Tarbell in New Hampshire, his wife and four children were favorite subjects. In 1912, he painted Mercie Cutting Flowers. The work depicts Tarbell’s second daughter absorbed in arranging a bouquet and sitting on the shaded porch of her family’s home. Her proximity to the picture plane heightens the intimate quality of the scene. Details of setting and costume have been broken down into colorful patterns of light drawn directly from French Impressionism. On the other hand, the solid molding of the head and arms of the figure reflect a more formal academic style.

Finally, in the 1920s, Tarbell’s work demonstrated a new classicism devoted to larger, more monumental figures, simpler compositions and an emphasis on decorative elements of line, color and contour. Though he remained popular in Boston, he faded from the national art scene in the 1930s, as modernism became the mainstream of American art.

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Edmund Tarbell, Summer Breeze, 1904
Edmund Tarbell, Summer Breeze, 1904
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Edmund Tarbell, Mercie Cutting Flowers, 1912
Edmund Tarbell, Mercie Cutting Flowers, 1912
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