Learning to Unlearn Art: Twachtman’s Glimpse of Summer


John Henry Twachtman, Summer, late 1890s. Oil on canvas, 30 x 53 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1919

“It’s a pretty painting,” I thought, looking at John Henry Twachtman’s Summer in a first floor gallery at the Phillips.

But no, I couldn’t say just that about a painting. I had to come up with a deeper analysis of it; I had to identify features that pertained to the style of the painter’s period, the symbolism that spoke to the culture of his own time, and the significance it had on the history of art in a bigger picture.

I racked my brain as I struggled to come up with a more specific analysis of the painting, getting closer to the work to capture details.

“The brisk brushstrokes of paint, the interplay of natural light, and the use of bright colors all contribute to the vibrancy to this plein-air painting. The well-blended layers of sky blue and hazy white create soft edges of the sky. As for the symbolism…”

Then I got stuck.

When I’m in a gallery, I often find myself struggling like this to apply academic and stylistic terms to the works. Of course, these are all important components to the general understanding of art history, but was this really what Twachtman was getting at?

“I feel more and more contented with the isolation of country life. To be isolated is a fine thing and we are all then nearer to nature,” Twachtman writes in a letter to fellow artist Julian Weir. Unlike myself, who tried to do an extensive interpretation of the work, Twachtman sought to immerse himself in nature, focusing on the momentary impression of color and light of the landscape.

What’s your first impression of Twachtman’s work? Throw out any words that come to your mind when you see the painting. No need for any fancy, technical terms—”pretty” was all I came up with. After all, it’s not fair that we do a lengthy, grandiloquent interpretation of Twachtman’s work, when what he really wanted to do was share an immediate glimpse of what he saw.

Come visit the Phillips and indulge yourself with Twachtman’s snapshot of the view; the serene colors, natural beauty, or anything about it that catches your eye. Don’t struggle; just marvel.

Summer Park, Marketing & Communications Intern

The Emerald Pools

On vacation last week in Upstate New York, I climbed the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, spotting many pools that brought to mind John Twachtman’s The Emerald Pool (ca. 1895). Of course, Twachtman’s pool was likely a hot spring and surrounded by the open and dry dirt ground of Yellowstone Park and not the dark, wet stone and lush greenery of the glen. But the beautiful emerald effect of deep pooling water immediately brought this painting to my mind. Duncan Phillips was a great admirer of Twachtman, hanging The Emerald Pool in an esteemed spot alongside Monet for many years. And Marjorie Phillips recorded in her book that, after a visit to the Phillips in 1926, Pierre Bonnard said that it was his favorite American painting.

(Left) Twachtman, John Henry, The Emerald Pool, ca. 1895, Oil on canvas 25 x 25 in.; 63.5 x 63.5 cm.. Acquired 1921. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC. (Right) Photo by Sarah Osborne Bender

(Left) John Henry Twachtman, The Emerald Pool, ca. 1895, Oil on canvas 25 x 25 in.; 63.5 x 63.5 cm.. Acquired 1921. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC. (Right) Photo by Sarah Osborne Bender

Phillips Flashback: September 1926

John Henry Twachtman, The Emerald Pool, circa 1895. Oil on canvas, 25 x 25 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1921.

Duncan and Marjorie Phillips have the pleasure of meeting Pierre Bonnard, who visits them after serving as  juror for the 1926 Carnegie International exhibition. The Phillipses had attended the International the previous year and purchased their first works by the French painter, Early Spring (1908) and Woman with Dog (1922). In Bonnard, Phillips finds the essence of his approach to the enjoyment of art: delight in color and the visual world. The following year finds a flurry of acquisition with Phillips buying five paintings by Bonnard. In 1930, the Phillips Memorial Gallery hosts the first American solo exhibition by the artist.

Among the works Bonnard saw on his visit to the Phillips, it is John Henry Twachtman’s The Emerald Pool (above) that he proclaims to be his favorite of the American paintings on view. Phillips must be pleased to have his commitment to American artists endorsed by an artist he holds in such high regard; a French artist at that.