- Painters of the Northwest: Impressionism to Modernism, 1900–1930 by John Impert
When he first moved to Seattle in the 1980s, attorney and art lover John Impert was bemused by the lack of attention paid to regional art in the museums and literature of the Northwest. Over the next decades, he immersed himself in learning more about the painters who had flourished during the early twentieth century, collecting their work and eventually earning a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Washington. Although the situation is better now, and regional [End Page 118] art can be viewed in Seattle's and Portland's art museums—as well as at smaller institutions such as the Tacoma Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem, and the Cascadia Museum in Everett—there is still much to be learned about the early cultural history of Oregon and Washington. This book is Impert's effort to begin to fill that void by discussing and illustrating the works of several painters active in the early twentieth century, centered in Seattle and Portland, and working primarily in the surrounding landscapes of Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Painters of the Northwest is divided into five thematic chapters: mountains; landscape and seascape; cities, seaports, and farms; the people of the Northwest; and the advent of Modernism.
The painters Impert discusses, with the exceptions of C.S. Price and Mark Tobey (both Modernists), are little known today, although they had busy and active careers in the years between 1900 and 1930. Given the paucity of information about most of these figures, Impert has provided readers with a wealth of facts about each. There is also a profusion of accompanying full-color plates.
Impert focuses on the work of nine artists—Paul Morgan Gustin, C.C. McKim, Clyde Leon Keller, Edgar Forkner, Clara Jane Stephens, Dorothy Dolph Jensen, Eustace Paul Ziegler, Tobey, and Price—but also discusses several others. They are linked, in Impert's view, not only by their focus on the Northwest landscape but also by their impressionist style and their lack of interest in modernist approaches to color, composition, and subject matter. These are traditional, plein air painters, working at a time when Impressionism had become an academic style, and examples of new "isms" (Expressionism, Abstraction, and Surrealism)were exhibited and discussed in Northwest circles. Impert's final chapter, in which he covers the early works of Price and Tobey, enforces the author's contention that the rise of Modernism unfairly eclipsed the works of the artists he champions.
This is an interesting book, particularly for those interested in the Northwest's cultural history and its early art scene. I found the text occasionally meandering and poorly edited, however, with some hypotheses and conjectures not sufficiently supported by facts or visual evidence. The quality of some reproductions rendered many works dark and murky, at odds with the author's descriptions of vibrant color. Impert also advances some theories and uses phrases that seem out of touch with our moment, although its author dismisses these as examples of "presentism, the conceit that today's attitudes towards the state of humanity and the natural environment should have been prevalent in past periods, specifically one hundred years ago" (p. 175). All well and good, but his description of a woman's style as infused with "femininity," and his assertion that mountains were divine in Native American beliefs, were as inappropriate 120 years ago as they are today.