JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN (1853-1902)
Greenwich Garden, ca. late 1890s
Oil on canvas
30 x 30 inches
Signed lower left: J. Alden Twachtman
During his years in Greenwich, Connecticut, from 1889 to 1902, John Henry Twachtman was devoted to painting the familiar landscape. Working in an Impressionist style, he rendered his house and property in all seasons, communicating his love of winter in his numerous snow scenes, and conveying his pleasure in summer in the paintings of his
Twachtman painted the garden from many angles. In some canvases, the viewer is plunged into its midst. In others, flowers are gently restrained by paths. While some works present the garden plot as a vast tapestry of color, others show close-up glimpses of flowers. The freely growing blossoms provided Twachtman with an infinite and constantly changing source of inspiration, and in each view of the garden, he adjusted his treatment to accommodate the feeling he received from the subject. With their petals buoyed by the wind, and their colors constantly shifting in accordance with sunlight and shadow, flowers were the ideal vehicle for Twachtman in his search for a means of capturing the transitory, ephemeral, and vital powers of nature.
In many of his garden paintings, Twachtman includes his house as a backdrop, a geometric structure that reinforces the canvas's contours and provides a solid counterbalance to the volatile blooms. At the same time, he integrates the images of house and garden, linking flowers with the architectural components of the house's facade--he often joined the two by showing flowers rising toward the small gable above the back doorway which seems to arch crown-like around them. It was through the amalgamation of the floral and domestic environments that Twachtman suggested the similar feelings of pleasure and harmony that he received from both realms.
Greenwich Garden presents a direct, frontal view of the artist's garden with the back porch of his house behind it. The painting bears all of the hallmarks of John Henry Twachtman's art. Yet it was, at least in part, a collaborative venture as it is signed with the name of his son, J. Alden Twachtman. Trained as a painter by his father and later at Yale University School of Art, J. Alden adopted some characteristics of his father's style for the paintings he created in the early twentieth century. But J. Alden's extant canvases are quite different from his father's. Whereas during his Greenwich years John Henry employed a varied and animated brush handling, a rich palette, many layerings of color, and thick impasto dragged and swirled onto the canvas, his son generally relied on uniform, staccato brushstrokes, a linear definition of forms, cross-hatching, a restricted palette, and an even rather than a roughly textured surface. It can thus be surmised, with reasonable assurity, that J. Alden Twachtman's contribution to Greenwich Garden was mainly the addition of the foliage at the canvas's upper register. The regular staccato cross-hatched strokes in this area would not have been employed by John Henry, yet the rest of the canvas bears little or no sign of the son's hand. It is possible that the canvas was a cooperative effort from the start, yet it seems more probable that John Henry left the canvas unfinished at his death in 1902, and that it was later completed and signed by his son. Since there are no other examples of joint painting endeavors of this sort, it is difficult to calculate the circumstances in which this work was created. The work has belonged to the Twachtman family since it was executed, passing from J. Alden to his son Eric, who gave it to his son Alden (named for his grandfather).
Greenwich Garden is a painting that expresses the delight that John Henry Twachtman took in his garden. The canvas was built up in layers. Dragged and roughly applied strokes of variously colored paint‑‑sea green, dark green, turquoise, peach‑‑were laid down to convey the density of the garden's plantings. Yet the paint does not appear heavy or opaque as glimpses of the beige canvas prime are evident throughout the work, suggesting the free movement of the wind through the foliage. Over the layers of green, blossoms illuminated by sunlight were added with calligraphic swirls of white impasto into which dabs of pale blue were dashed. The round white buds are phlox, which was John Henry Twachtman's favorite flower, depicted in many of his best garden paintings including On the Terrace (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), The Flower Garden (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah), In the Sunlight (Private Collection), and Wildflowers (Spanierman Gallery). Touches of orange, red, and magenta indicate the presence of other types of flowers within the plot which blend and add color highlights to the vibrant display. The garden, however, is not the only colorful area of the canvas. The house is painted with scintillating pastel tonalities, soft pinks and blues, which echo shades found in the landscape.
Twachtman's composition in Greenwich Garden reveals his modernity. The viewer is drawn to the center of the square canvas from which flowers as well as the webbed branches of a bush both radiate. The result is a picture that may be read as a flat, decorative design. This emphasis on surface patterning is reinforced by the inclusion of the house as a backdrop for the image, as the walls of the house reinforce the surface emphasis. While the garden concentrates the viewer's attention on the vertical axis, the house establishes a horizontal emphasis. A similar arrangement was used by Twachtman for another painting, Tiger Lilies (Private Collection). In Tiger Lilies, the same webbed branches project from a single nucleus, which is also the point at which a cluster of flowers terminates. Yet the treatment in Greenwich Garden is more animated than in Tiger Lilies. The dynamic interwoven forms of blossoms and foliage are closer to that in other garden paintings such as On the Terrace (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), The Flower Garden (Brigham Young University), and The Cabbage Patch (Private Collection).
In the context of these works Greenwich Garden is one of the freshest, most dynamic, and most vibrant. The composition immerses the viewer in the landscape, in the midst of vibrating, rustling leaves and blossoms. At the same time, the flatness and frontality of the image seems to momentarily freeze its sensuousness and freshness so that it may be constantly experienced anew. It is this simultaneous capturing of the transitory and the universal that was the achievement of Twachtman's Greenwich years.
ŠThe essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.
 For an in-depth study of Twachtman's paintings of his garden, see In the Sunlight: The Floral and Figurative Art of J. H. Twachtman (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 1989).
Copyright ©2000 Spanierman Gallery.