Saturday, March 24, 2012

WSJ: Americans Invigorate Florence

Exhibit through July 15, 2012

With the delightful new show "Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists," the Palazzo Strozzi, under director James Bradburne, again confirms its standing as the most vibrant temporary exhibit center in Florence.

With some 110 paintings, drawings, illustrations and photographs—landscapes, still lifes and especially portraits—the show focuses on American artists who flocked to Florence and Tuscany in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th—from the end of the U.S. Civil War until World War I. Some, like the travelers in Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad," came to absorb the art and history of the Renaissance, bringing with them their New World energy; others were sophisticated expatriates, almost more European than American, and many of them moved in the intellectual and literary circles of William and Henry James, Edith Wharton and Bernard Berenson. They included William Morris Hunt, John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Frederick Childe Hassam and the Italian-American Egisto Fabbri.

National Portrait Gallery, London
'Henry James' (1913) by John Singer Sargent

The title's reference to Impressionism is misleading, given the exhibition's long time frame. Although an important influence, Impressionism is only one of many styles displayed by the 30 American artists and the small contingent of Italians on show.

Born in Florence of nomadic American parents, trained in Paris under Carolus-Duran, Sargent was by far the most widely traveled and accomplished of the Florentine coterie. His incisive portraits of the imposing Henry James (1913), the British writer Vernon Lee (1881), his fellow Florence-born friend Flora Priestly, and the young British dandy, the Earl of Dalhousie (1900)—along with a 1906 self-portrait commissioned by Florence's Uffizi Gallery—stand out above all the rest.

Among the more Impressionistic works on hand are Chase's garden landscapes and dappled olive grove. But with his majestic handlebar mustache, he was also a fine subject, painted by Frank Duveneck (1876), James Carroll Beckwith (1881-82) and Thomas Eakins (circa 1899). He did himself justice—white ascot, jeweled tiepin, pince-nez—in a 1908 self-portrait commissioned by the Uffizi.

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