- Scenic Impressions: Southern Interpretations from the Johnson Collection by Estill Curtis Pennington and Martha R. Severens
The catalog Scenic Impressions: Southern Interpretations from the Johnson Collection accompanies an exhibition of the same title and features paintings from the Johnson Collection, a diverse body of works by southern artists housed permanently in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Traveling exhibition venues included the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. The catalog includes an essay each by curators Estill Curtis Pennington and Martha R. Severens, detailed catalog entries for each work exhibited, artists' biographies, and selected notes and bibliography.
Without a doubt, this handsomely illustrated volume will be of great interest to enthusiasts of southern art and history. The curators made a wise decision to focus on Impressionist works in the Johnson Collection. These works will have broad appeal to those acquainted already with the European and American permutations of Impressionist style, which favors loose brushwork, pastel colors, and picturesque subjects. While Impressionism will be familiar to most readers, many of the artists included in the catalog are considerably less well known. Scenic Impressions offers a refreshingly new direction down the hackneyed art-historical path of Impressionism.
In his essay "The Larger World of Scenic Impressions," Pennington contextualizes the development of Impressionism from its initial emergence in Paris [End Page 442] during the 1870s, at which time the movement was considered thoroughly revolutionary. As Pennington explains, the style quickly spread across the Atlantic to the United States through such expatriate artists as James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase. These seminal figures popularized the style among American artists, many of whom subsequently traveled to France in search of training at alternative art schools such as the Académie Julian.
Severens's essay offers a more specific narrative of how Impressionism flourished in the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As she explains, artists and patrons alike appreciated Impressionism as a style that epitomized the American spirit: it was unfettered by tradition, it emphasized freedom and spontaneity, and there were no strict rules. Southern cities like Charleston and Savannah beckoned to American artists as beacons of beauty and escape. The attraction of artists to the American South offers a fascinating parallel to how French artists of the late nineteenth century traveled to Brittany, Provence, and Polynesia in search of an ever-elusive primitive paradise. Undoubtedly, this correlation will offer a fruitful avenue for future research and discussion.
Scenic Impressions effectively fills a significant gap in the literature on American Impressionism, itself a fairly recent area of study. Although art historians have long considered American Impressionism to be a belated imitation of the French movement, scholars including William H. Gerdts have successfully demonstrated the unique character of the American movement. In the United States, Impressionism was not a divisive, avant-garde style of painting but rather a quintessentially American mode of visual expression. While valuable in mobilizing greater scholarly appreciation for American Impressionism, Gerdts's work follows the tendency of much Americanist art history by favoring artists active primarily in the Northeast and offering little consideration to artists of southern descent or those working actively in the southern states. The problem with this approach, of course, is that one is left with an extraordinarily narrow view of American art and, particularly, of American Impressionism. Pennington and Severens, who have spent their scholarly and curatorial careers focused on southern art, augment Gerdts's history of American Impressionism. As Pennington and Severens show using the works from the Johnson Collection, Impressionism offered a visual language that was uniquely suited to the landscape and artists of the South.