Landscape painter John Henry Twachtman was one of the most original and modern artists of the late nineteenth century. Trained in Munich and Paris, and a member of the most advanced American artist groups of his day, Twachtman was apprised of the innovative directions in European and American art throughout his career. The work of his Greenwich Period, for which he is best known, was influenced by Impressionism and Tonalism, yet Twachtman's stylistic synthesis was unique. Often compared with Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler, Twachtman developed an experimental technique to express the poetry and the changing emotional tenor of nature.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio to German immigrant parents, Twachtman found his first employment in the Breneman Brothers window shade factory where his father also worked. At age fifteen, he enrolled as a part-time student in the School of Design at the Ohio Mechanics' Institute. In 1871, he transferred to the McMicken School of Design where his classmates included Kenyon Cox, Joseph DeCamp, Robert Blum, Lewis Henry Meakin, and William Baer, all of whom achieved artistic prominence in their later careers. Frank Duveneck, however, was the most important contact of Twachtman's Cincinnati years. Twachtman had known Duveneck through mutual ties in the Cincinnati German community, but the younger Twachtman came under the slightly older artist's influence when he joined the evening class Duveneck taught at the Mechanics' Institute in 1874-75 on his return from four years of study at the Munich Royal Academy.
Duveneck invited Twachtman to paint in the studio he shared with Henry Farny and the sculptor Frank Dengler, and in 1875 when Duveneck returned to Munich, Twachtman accompanied him. Enrolling in the Munich Royal Academy in the Fall of 1875, Twachtman studied under Ludwig von Loefftz, a painter of realist genre scenes. In the spring of 1875, Twachtman probably accompanied Duveneck to Paris to visit the annual Salon, and during the summer of 1876, he visited the small nearby town of Polling, which had attracted a large community of artists including many American painters. American artists Charles Ulrich and Walter Shirlaw also spent time in Polling in the summer of 1876.
In the summer of 1877, Twachtman visited Polling again and then went with William Merritt Chase, an American colleague in Munich, and Duveneck to Venice where he spent nine months. Returning to America in 1878, Twachtman briefly visited Cincinnati before going to New York. There he participated in the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists, which elected him to membership in 1880. During his time in New York, Twachtman lived in the Benedict building on Washington Square, painted the city's harbors in a bold realist style, and participated in the activities of the Tile Club. Many important contacts were made in Tile Club gatherings including artists J. Alden Weir and R. Swain Gifford.
Twachtman returned to Cincinnati in the fall of 1879 to teach at the Women's Art Association, remaining in Cincinnati through the summer of 1880. In October he sailed for Venice where he joined the Duveneck "boys" and may have met Whistler who had become close to Duveneck and Otto Bacher during the summer. By November, Whistler had returned to London, and Twachtman joined Duveneck as an instructor at the school Duveneck had started in Florence.
After his marriage in 1881 in Cincinnati to the artist Martha Scudder, Twachtman again visited Europe, this time stopping in England, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. In Holland, he stayed with J. Alden Weir and his brother John Ferguson Weir, painting in Dordrecht and surrounding communities. During this trip, he also met the Dutch Hague School painter Anton Mauve who gave him encouragement and advice. During this trip Twachtman also became familiar with the work of the French painter of peasants, Jules Bastien-LePage.
In 1883, Twachtman went to Paris, continuing his studies at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. Fellow students included American artists Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, and Robert Reid, all of whom became lifelong friends. During the summers in France, Twachtman painted near Honfleur and Dieppe, and in Italy where he visited Duveneck and Blum. His work changed at this time; his palette remained low-key, but tones became more closely modulated and his brushwork fluid and not apparent.
Following his return to America in 1886, he went to Chicago where he worked on a cyclorama. During the late 1880's, he spent time in Branchville, Connecticut, near J. Alden Weir's home, and worked extensively in pastel. In 1889, Twachtman and Weir held a joint exhibition and sale of their works at the Ortgies Gallery in New York, and four years later, the American Art Gallery featured their work in a comparative exhibition with that of Monet and Paul Besnard. Twachtman produced illustrations for Scribner's from 1888 to 1893, and in 1889, he began to teach at the Art Students League. These activities provided the income with which he purchased a house and 17 acres of land in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1890. During the next decade, this property was Twachtman's primary subject matter. Although he continued his interest in soft tonal qualities, Twachtman turned to an Impressionist technique during his Greenwich Period. His introduction to the style came not only through seeing the work of French painters, but also through friends such as Theodore Robinson. An interest in structured compositions and a strong sense of design also become apparent in Greenwich paintings.
Twachtman was a founding member of the Ten American Painters in 1897, a group of primarily Impressionist painters who broke from the Society of American Artists. He continued to teach at the Art Students League through the 1890's, bringing students to the Holley House in Cos Cob during the summers where he occasionally resided. The summers of 1900 to 1902 were spent in Gloucester, Massachusetts where Twachtman joined his old friend Duveneck and other painters many of whom started their careers in Cincinnati. For his Gloucester works, Twachtman painted alla prima, returning to the bold painterly style of his Munich years, but retaining the bright colors of his Greenwich Period. One-man shows of his paintings and pastels were held in New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati in 1901. In the summer of 1902, Twachtman died suddenly in Gloucester. Several of his colleagues wrote at the time of Twachtman's modernity, the "great beauty of design" in his work, and his ability to express the spirit of the places he painted. Thomas Dewing wrote: "By the death of John H. Twachtman, the world has lost an artist of the first rank...He is too modern, probably, to be fully recognized or appreciated at present: but his place will be recognized in the future."1
Twachtman's works are in numerous important private and public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.;the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; the Cleveland Museum, Ohio; the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan; the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; the St. Louis Museum of Art, Missouri; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California and many others.
1 T. W. Dewing, "John H. Twachtman: An Estimation," North American Review 176 (April 1903), p. 554.