One of the foremost American painters of his generation, Julian Alden Weir kept a studio in New York and taught at the League. He also spent many productive summers in rural Connecticut. Weir’s art, friends, and family life in Windham, Connecticut, are the subject of a fine show at the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, entitled A Good Summer’s Work: J. Alden Weir, Connecticut Impressionist. The exhibition’s theme was an inspired choice by curator and art historian Anne E. Dawson. Though Weir was part of the Cos Cob Art Colony and his life in Connecticut has been primarily associated with his farm in Branchville, it was in Windham that he painted his best landscapes. His farm in central Connecticut offered respite from New York City, and something more, in the form of a bucolic ideal.
No hour in the day passes but what I recall the first Connecticut hours we had in the charming little village of Windham. This is really the first Connecticut village that I have really ever known, and now I feel that a chain is connected to all villages.
When Weir studied in Paris, he chose the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme, and was appalled by what he saw of impressionism. His initial abhorrence to the new art may be explained by his background: both Weir’s father and older brother were heavyweights in American academic art. Eventually Weir was not only reconciled with impressionism, he became one of its foremost proponents. There was some awkwardness in the reconciliation: a pre-impressionist portrait of his first wife, Anna with Greyhound (when she died in 1892, Weir married her older sister, Ella) is painted with rigid deference to convention, and hardly suggests the couple’s deep emotional connection. A later painting of Ella, notwithstanding its laboriously hatched color, is suffused with warm intimacy. Weir’s best portrait in the museum is installed apart from the exhibition on the first floor; a hybrid of traditional composition and broken color technique, it depicts Ella standing in a white dress.
The landscapes, too, vary in quality. The best of the lot are The Spreading Oak, in which Weir’s painted hachure weaves a powerful composition from the summer landscape (no mean feat, devoting half a canvas to dense shadowed foliage in the near distance); and U. S. Thread Mills, Willimantic, Connecticut, one of a series of canvases Weir painted of the immense thread factories near his farm, and the one whose design is most clearly influenced by Japanese prints. Unfortunately, Weir’s two greatest Windham area landscapes, and arguably the best he ever painted—The Red Bridge and Factory Village—are both in the Metropolitan Museum, and are absent from this show. They reveal Weir to have been in full and memorable voice when he was painting the interface between rural and industrial life in New England.
A Good Summer’s Work is fleshed out with paintings by some of Weir’s friends and visitors to Windham. Childe Hassam, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Emil Carlsen are represented, and John Twachtman was a confidante as well; at times Weir seems to channel characteristics of each of these artists. Influences and shared sympathies can be discerned, but Weir is not as vibrant as Hassam, as mystical as Ryder, nor as fine a designer as either Carlsen or Twachtman. If one’s taste for deft marksmanship need be indulged, there’s a quick portrait of Weir painted by Sargent, which effortlessly captures his handsome face as it begins to broaden in middle age.
Of our major artists, Weir is one of the least likely to inspire impassioned tribute. It’s not for lack of effort; in fact, the problem is that he tried too hard. His paintings are accretions of hesitant movements, impasted passages bearing the scars of knife scrapings and tentative draftsmanship, his landscapes seen under diffused sunlight, his portraits stilted and overworked. When Weir does hit the mark—and good fortune visited his easel often enough to grant him prominent standing among the first generation of American Impressionists—it wasn’t because of a sudden flash of clarity. He muddled through until the painting worked. It’s often said that great painters make the process look easy, but Weir inverted the cliché; one will search his catalogue in vain for a blithe stroke.
If Weir’s work was seldom spontaneous and never glib, it was often poetic and always genuine. His aversion to flourish is as much a charm as it is a deficiency. In a market taken with hyperbole and showmanship, the simple honesty of a good painter interpreting a sunny day is a rare enough thing, rare as a day in June.
A Good Summer’s Work: J. Alden Weir, Connecticut Impressionist will be on display at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, until September 11. Rare Light: J. Alden Weir in Windham, Connecticut, 1882–1919 is a book edited by Anne E. Dawson, the exhibition’s curator and Weir scholar and Professor of Art History at Eastern Connecticut State University.