The Bruce Museum in Greenwich has assembled 46 paintings by American Impressionist Charles Harold Davis for the first retrospective of the prolific landscape painter’s work in decades.
By Arthur Stampleman
The Bruce Museum in Greenwich has assembled 46 paintings by American Impressionist Charles Harold Davis for the first retrospective of the prolific landscape painter’s work in decades. Davis was a highly regarded member of the Connecticut Impressionists around 1900, showing with such luminaries as Childe Hassam and winning many prizes at the time.
The exhibit displays 46 Davis landscapes loaned by collectors, museums, and galleries, covering all phases of his career. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, each gallery focusing on a different style.
Davis (1856-1933) was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts. In 1874 visits to two art exhibits in Boston (including one with drawings by Jean-Francois Millet of the French Barbizon school) prompted him to pursue a career in art. By 1877 he was a pupil of the school at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Three years later, a generous benefactor sent him to Paris, where he enrolled at the Academie Julian.
In the first gallery, you’ll see how much the Barbizon school influenced Davis’ early works. The school was a loosely affiliated with a group of French landscape painters working in the village of Barbizon outside Paris from 1830 to 1870. They were among the first to pursue landscape painting as an independent genre.
Davis was uninterested in French Impressionism then. Instead, he painted with a tonal style of plein-air landscape painting that had been pioneered by Barbizon artists. Tonalism was a landscape painting style characterized by an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist, in which Davis incorporated Luminism, with an emphasis on tranquility.
From the beginning, Davis’ paintings were well received.
In 1891, Davis returned to the United States, where he continued his focus on landscapes. The following year he settled in Mystic, Connecticut. At this point, Davis’s artistic reputation was great enough to attract younger artists to Mystic to seek him as a teacher. In 1913 he founded the Mystic Art Association, which held annual exhibitions in which young artists could display their work as they built their reputations.
By the turn of the century Davis began changing his style and, as seen in the second gallery, experimenting with Impressionism with its loose, flowing brushwork, and capturing the fleeting appearance of landscape as it changes during the day and with each season. Davis, however, rarely applied unmixed colors directly to his canvas as the French had done.
The next gallery features Davis’s depiction of clouds. Like the Englishman John Constable and the Dutchman Jacob van Ruisdael, Davis has a reputation as a painter of clouds, particularly in his Impressionist period, as can be seen in the next gallery. In an interview from 1903 he said, “If you do not love skies sufficiently to observe and study them as you would the figure or the other elements of landscapes, put up your horizon line or otherwise eliminate the sky.”
Davis wanted to convey the vastness and depth of the open sky in his cloud paintings. Also, his treatment of skies is characterized by a strong Luminist element and a sense of wonderment. As might be expected, the horizon line in these paintings is much lower than in his earlier work.
In the final gallery, viewers will see the extent to which Davis’s style and working methods changed in late career. This was probably due to the introduction of European modern art to American audiences in 1913 at the famous Armory Show. Davis was one of the American painters who exhibited in that landmark show. He was interested in Europe’s innovations and began to push his art in new directions, and appears to have been particularly drawn to Cézanne’s landscapes. His working methods also gradually changed, and from the 1920s he mostly worked from his studio.
Davis fell out of favor in the 1920s, but the exhibit at the Bruce should restore him to prominence.
“Charles Harold Davis: Mystic Impressionist” is on view through January 3. Museum hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 on Sundays. Docent tours are offered most Tuesdays at 1:30 and Fridays at 12:30. For more information, contact 203-869-0376 or www. brucemuseum.org.