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by Julie Aronson

everal of the leading artists associated with American Impressionism came from Cincinnati and enjoyed their first instruction in the Queen City. Most notable were John H. Twachtman (Fig. 1), Robert F. Blum, Joseph R. DeCamp (Fig. 2), and Edward H. Potthast. The term American Impressionism has been loosely applied to a wide spectrum of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paintings that take modern life and landscape for their subjects. In many instances, the stylistic debt to the French Impressionist group--Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, etc.--is limited. However, American Impressionists did share several attitudes with the French artists: the desire to paint subjects from the life around them without narrative content; an emphasis on brushwork rather than line; a stress on subjective impressions of nature; and an interest in alternative ways to articulate space and light. These tendencies were not restricted to the French Impressionists, but were international impulses that changed the face of European painting in the 1870s. For Twachtman, Blum, DeCamp, and Potthast, a first encounter with many of these notions came not from France, but from the Munich avant-garde via Frank Duveneck (1848–1919).

Fig. 1: John H. Twachtman (American, 1853-1902), Springtime, ca. 1884. Oil on canvas, 36-7/8 x 50 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. Gift of Frank Duveneck, 1908.1218.

No artist is more closely associated with Cincinnati than Frank Duveneck. Born across the river from Cincinnati, his art education in Munich during the 1870s coincided with the rise of a new kind of painting there. It favored realistic portrayals of unseemly characters with a rich, dark palette and paint-laden technique that referenced the baroque masters of the seventeenth century, particularly Franz Hals and Diego Velazquez. Duveneck became one of the most influential teachers of his generation.

In the late nineteenth century, the painting most familiar to Cincinnati residents was the work of the so-called Dusseldorf School of Germany favored by the city's collectors. By the 1870s such work, with its emphasis on storytelling and hard-edged precision, was fast becoming old-fashioned in Europe and on the East Coast, but remained popular in conservative Cincinnati. When Duveneck arrived from Munich in 1873, he introduced painterly realism (Fig. 3), which was a revelation to art students surrounded by Dusseldorf paintings.

Fig. 2: Joseph R. DeCamp (American, 1858-1923), Cellist, ca. 1907-1908. Oil on canvas, 28 x 23-1/16 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. John J. Emery Fund, 1924.476.

Twachtman, Blum, DeCamp, and Potthast had much in common. All were born in the 1850s, and each was a first-generation American whose parents had emigrated from Germany to Cincinnati. Their childhood experiences would have been similar, as they grew up in close proximity to one another in Over-the-Rhine, the city's boisterous German neighborhood. In fact, Twachtman and Blum knew each other as boys and shared an early enthusiasm for art. Of their fathers, Blum's never settled on a profession, but the other three were artisans: Twachtman's a painter of scenes on window shades, DeCamp's a brick mason, and Potthast's a cabinetmaker. Linked by common backgrounds, they all developed a deep respect and affection for Duveneck, who was only a few years older. Although Duveneck had grown up in Covington, Kentucky, he too was the American-born son of German parents. He forged close bonds with these four artists, three of whom would become his students. Potthast never studied with Duveneck, yet they would cross paths on numerous occasions and Potthast benefited from his influence.

Fig. 3: Frank Duveneck (American, 1848-1919), Italian Courtyard, 1886. Oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 33-3/16 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. Gift of the artist, 1915.76.

The early years of Cincinnati's McMicken School of Design saw the enrollment of all four American Impressionists-to-be, who valued their tutelage under Thomas Noble. (DeCamp credited his refined draftsmanship to his studies there.) Nevertheless, provided the opportunity to study with Duveneck at the Ohio Mechanics Institute, Twachtman, DeCamp, and Blum eagerly enrolled in his life class. While McMicken students were laboring over drawings from the Antique, Duveneck's proteges were out on the streets looking at unvarnished reality with fresh eyes. Noting their contribution to a student exhibition of head studies in both crayon and oil, an amazed critic said, "With these faces on its walls the hall was powerfully suggestive of the interior of an infirmary or municipal lodging house."1 Duveneck's commitment to the study of nature and his method of working in paint after only a quick sketch on the canvas profoundly impressed these young men.

Fig. 4: Robert Frederick Blum (American, 1857-1903), Venetian Lace Makers, 1887. Oil on canvas, 30-1/8 x 41-1/4 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. Gift of Elizabeth S. Potter, 1905.8.
Cincinnati offered other significant opportunities for these budding talents. For Blum (Fig. 4) and Potthast (Fig. 5), the drive toward contemporary subject matter resulted not only from Duveneck's impact but also from the need to make a living. Both worked for many years drawing illustrations for Cincinnati's famous lithography industry and later for popular national magazines. Many of their assignments involved images of modern life.

The celebrated Industrial Expositions that began in Cincinnati in 1870 exposed them to contemporary work not seen elsewhere in the city. This was particularly critical for Blum, who discovered the paintings of Mariano Fortuny and Giovanni Boldini, whose sparkling colors, dazzling light, and sure, quick brushstrokes were inspirational.

Fig. 5: Edward Potthast (American, 1857-1927), Brother and Sister, ca. 1915. Oil on canvas, 24-1/8 x 20-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Walter J. Wichgar, 1978.333.

Each in his own time, these painters left Ohio for study in the great art centers of Europe. Impressed with Duveneck's bold paintings and his stories of the progressive work of the artists in Munich, all journeyed there. When Duveneck himself returned to Munich in 1875 after only a short time in Cincinnati, Twachtman accompanied him. Later in the decade, Twachtman and DeCamp were among the so-called "Duveneck Boys," the spirited group that studied with the "Old Man," in Munich, Polling (Bavaria), Florence, and Venice. All four eventually made their way to France, where the Impressionists were beginning to make an impact on the international community of painters studying in Paris. The Old Masters and contemporary paintings all around them, these Americans developed their individual styles and then returned home.

In 1883 Twachtman and DeCamp (with Kenyon Cox, Louis Ritter, and several other painters who had absorbed modern tendencies in Europe) staged an exhibition at A. B. Closson's gallery in Cincinnati. Local critics took an interest in the show and their commentary was largely positive. One, for example, perceptively observed, "These young men have had the audacity to see nature with their own eyes and not through Dusseldorf spectacles....In this sense they may be said to be of one school, although their works are individual in character."2 The attention of the press did not generate sales, however, and the painters moved away from Cincinnati feeling unappreciated and disheartened by the prospects for the city's artistic progress.

Fig. 6: Edward Potthast (American, 1857-1927), A Sailing Party (Going for a Sail), ca. 1924. Oil on canvas, 30-1/4 x 40-1/4 inches. Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum. Gift of Henry M. Goodyear, M.D., 1984.218.

By the 1880s New York offered the greatest opportunities in America for patronage. It was an irresistible lure for artists from smaller cities all across the country. In 1900 the Cincinnati Enquirer noted that DeCamp, Blum, Twachtman, and Cox were all instructors at New York's Art Students League, where years earlier Duveneck had also taught. These artists subsequently became identified with the places where they painted many of their finest mature works: Blum with Italy and Japan, Twachtman with Connecticut, DeCamp with Boston, and Potthast with the beaches of the Northeast (Fig. 6). Cincinnatians did not forget them, however, and as taste evolved, began to admire and collect their works. The Cincinnati Art Museum was the first museum in the country to purchase one of Twachtman's paintings. This was part of the museum's groundbreaking practice of acquiring works by contemporary American artists.

The Cincinnati Art Museum continues to highlight the work of Duveneck and his followers from the Queen City. Painting, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and metalwork by Cincinnati artists of all periods are permanently celebrated at the museum with the opening of The Cincinnati Wing in May 2003. This $10 million renovation of a 18,000 square foot gallery space provides a comprehensive overview of the city's rich cultural history.

Excerpt adapted from The Cincinnati Wing, The Story of Art in the Queen City, edited by Julie Aronson (Ohio University Press, 2003). 227 pages, 151 color plates, with nine essays on the arts in Cincinnati by Julie Aronson, Jennifer Howe, and Anita J. Ellis. Reprinted with the permission of Ohio University Press.

For more information on the book, visit http://www.ohiou.edu/oupress/cinwing.htm. Learn more about the new Cincinnati Wing at http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/cincywing/.

Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Julie Aronson is a scholar of American women sculptors of the turn of the twentieth century.

  1. "O. M. I.: Elections of Officers Last Night; Nineteenth Exhibition of the School of Design," Cincinnati Enquirer, 10 March 1875, p. 8, col. 3.

  2. "Cincinnati Art: Exhibition of Paintings at Closson's--'Whar's Dat Squirrel Gone?'" Cincinnati Enquirer, 6 February 1883, p. 8, col. 3.

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