Stepping Out

Long Island's art scene

Viewing Impressionism from an American perspective

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Heckscher Museum of Art devotes its exhibit space to a sweeping survey of Impressionism, shining a spotlight on artists with a local perspective.

“In a New Light: American Impressionism 1870-1940,” which runs through August 18, explores both the dissemination of Impressionism from its French roots to the American idiom and its reinterpretation of landscape painting.

The exhibit, on loan from the Bank of America collection, traces the emergence of a truly American style of painting, and the evolution of American Impressionism starting from Hudson River landscapes through to later, more abstract modernist trends. It explores how artists interpreted American daily life in rural, maritime, and urban spaces using Impressionistic techniques: brisk brushstrokes, a vibrant palette and atmospheric effects.

“We are tremendously excited to have this here,” says Kerrilyn Blee, the museum’s curatorial assistant. “Impressionism is so popular and this exhibit is special in that it complements the strength of our collections — American landscape painting.”

This is the first time since 2006 that the museum’s three galleries have been used for one show. “We felt it was so unique and important enough to take over the entire museum,” says Blee. “Typically that’s not the case for us.”

Blee and Heckscher Curator Lisa Chalif had to select from over a few hundred artists included in the traveling exhibit to focus on the group that would fit into the parameters of the museum’s space and needs.

The result includes a collection of artists who depicted scenes of Long Island and New York City.

These important works on view provide a historical context for the evolution of American Impressionism, beginning with majestic Hudson River School landscapes, to French-Impressionist-inspired subjects, and finally to 20th Century modernist trends. The exhibition also acknowledges the many artist colonies and communities established throughout the country during the period, which gave artists a scenic place to work and share ideas.

American artists of that time looked to Europe as a model for the future, reinterpreting and reevaluating the American tradition. They often sought training abroad, particularly in France, where they were exposed to plein air painting, or painting in the open air, and Impressionism. These artists would later translate the French genre into a uniquely American expression.

This selection gives distinct insight into the changing nature of American art as the 19th century moved into the 20th century. It traces not only artistic advances toward plein air painting and Impressionism in the U.S. but also the development of American landscape painting,

Among the highlights is Childe Hassam’s “Old House East Hampton.” “It’s a beautiful example of an Impressionistic landscape,” says Blee, of Hassam’s signature work.

Colin Campbell Cooper’s “West Front of the Capital Steps, Washington” is another striking scene. “It exemplifies how American Impressionism is different fro the French,” says Blee. “American artists sought out characteristically different subjects that reflected optimism and nationalism. They focused on local architecture and scenes. They added a recognizable American quality to their work, wanting to capture places that communicated a sense of national identity and were truly American. They translated French Impressionism into their own style. It’s especially notable in how they interpreted the time of day and sense of light.”

The exhibition is organized chronologically and begins with artists associated with the Hudson River School as well as the Boston painter William Morris Hunt, who is credited with bringing the Barbizon school to the attention of the American art world.

Different locations and art colonies are represented: the northeast, with its focus on city views; the midwest and southwest, where artists responded to differences in light and the changing landscape, and the west coast, which emphasized strong colors.

“These are all such important artists and it’s so exciting to look at their works in this context,” says Blee.

As always, the exhibit experience is enhanced by related programming. Earlier this month the museum invited local garden clubs to create vibrant floral arrangements inspired by the paintings on view. The 10 original floral designs were placed near the art that inspired them.

“The painter’s brushstrokes create mood, with light, texture, and composition,” says Jane White, of North Country Garden Club, one of the “Art in Bloom” participants. “Floral designers were inspired to select their paintings because of this emotional connection. In turn, we hope visitors recognize this connection and appreciate the creativity of floral design. These floral designs capture two dimensional art in a three dimensional way.”

Next month the museum will celebrate its 99th anniversary with a weekend of art-related activities, July 13-14.

In A New Light

When: Through Aug. 18. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday- Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where: Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Ave., Huntington. (631) 351-3250 or www.heckscher.org.