JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN (1853-1902)
Infant Portrait of Godfrey Twachtman, ca. 1897
Oil on canvas
30 x 25 inches
During his years in Greenwich, Connecticut, 1889-1902, John Henry Twachtman created the works for which he is best known: the Impressionist scenes of his home and property in all seasons of the year for which he is best known. In Greenwich, Twachtman also felt a satisfaction in his home life that had not been possible during the rootless years that had preceded his move. The small farmhouse, which he expanded over time, provided a secure and stable environment for his children to grow up, while the landscape was an idyllic playground for childhood romps. Three children‑‑Alden, Marjorie, and Elsie‑‑had been born to the Twachtmans before the move to Connecticut. In the years after the family settled in Greenwich, four more arrived. Born on the 12th of May 1890, Eric Christian lived only a year and a half; a plaque on the artist's property serves as his burial marker. The next September, Quentin was born, followed by Violet in May of 1895 (whose birth took place in Cincinnati), and Godfrey, who was born in early December 1897.1 The death of Elsie in 1895 from scarlet fever reduced the number of Twachtman's surviving children to five.
During Twachtman's Greenwich years, his wife and children provided the models for his only figurative images, and these works, created in pastel and oil, convey his pleasure in his family. In a few pastels, Twachtman used a refined and gentle draftsmanship similar to that of Thomas Dewing but, in contrast to the stately and idealized figures that appear in Dewing's pastels, Twachtman's subjects are depicted realistically and shown with a sensitivity that reveals their individuality. In Portrait of Elsie (private collection), Twachtman creates a lively portrait of a young child who appears both reflective and easily amused, while in Study of a Head (Brooklyn Museum), he depicts Marjorie as a young girl, whose alert gaze conveys a quiet intelligence. A very lightly drawn image of a baby, probably Violet (private collection), suggests the freshness of a child's first experiences. Twachtman probably rendered these works primarily for his personal enjoyment, but he obviously considered them to be artistically significant as well, as he included them in a number of exhibitions. A pastel of Elsie (location unknown) was amongst the twenty pastels in Twachtman's joint show with Weir at the Fifth Avenue Galleries in 1889, and at his 1891 exhibition at Wunderlich, he included a pastel of Marjorie and Elsie (private collection), both wearing large hats, which received a commendation from a critic for revealing "qualities of style which we should hardly know where else to look for in an American painter." 2
Twachtman also created a number of more finished figural paintings which feature his wife. In these works, he avoided the modes of Boston School Impressionists, such as Edmund Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, who portrayed figures in still and formal poses in both interiors and in the outdoors. Instead, his aim was to capture the casual moment, adhering to the advice that he gave to his students: "If you are working from the figure do not do the conventional sort of thing that we find in a sketch-class model, but rather the unconscious attitude. . . . Do we like people who pose? No. A figure that is obviously arranged affects one in the same way. Wherever you go watch attitudes and remember them for future use." 3
Twachtman's unconventional approach is evident in three oils in which he portrayed his son Godfrey at different ages. Representing a baby in a high chair, Infant Portrait of Godfrey is the earliest image that Twachtman created of his youngest child. The work's dark background suggests an indoor setting, making this painting one of only two known interiors with figures created by Twachtman during his Greenwich years, the other being Mother and Child (Jacob Stern Collection, on loan to the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums).
Portraying a figure brightly lit from the front within a dark atmospheric surrounding, Twachtman uses a format and approach that recall the art of his Munich period when, following the example of his friend and mentor, Frank Duveneck, he adopted a bold alla prima manner and the palette derived from such Old Masters as Hals and Velasquez. However, the only figurative work known from Twachtman's Munich years, Head of an Old Man (Cincinnati Art Museum), is a stiffly handled wooden characterization. In contrast, his portrait of Godfrey reveals the confident painterly bravura that he had developed during his Greenwich years. An animated white impasto is used to reveal sunlight washing over the child, who has perhaps been positioned before an open window. The freshness of the infant's white gown is suggested by the fluidity of Twachtman's brushwork. While not detailing the features of his son, Twachtman captures the pink cheeks and sweetness of the child, who enjoys the warm light that envelops him.
In keeping with the precepts of Impressionism, Infant Portrait of Godfrey Twachtman is a slice of ordinary life seen in a spontaneous moment. Devoid of sentimentality, the work expresses the same quiet pleasure in domestic life that is revealed in Mary Cassatt's images of children. Twachtman's enjoyment in his son is also expressed in the two other images of Godfrey that he created, a spontaneously rendered image of a toddler (private collection), and a freely sketched depiction of a young man holding a hawk (private collection).
In the forefront of the progressive art scene in America throughout the late nineteenth century, Twachtman was influenced by the significant avant-garde art developments of his day, but his most potent sources of inspiration were everyday and personal experiences of his home, property, and children. A joy in a casual and ordinary moment, Infant Portrait of Godfrey Twachtman, reveals this underpinning of Twachtman's art.
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1 Godfrey Twachtman died in 1979.
2 "My Notebook," Art Amateur 24 (April 1891), p. 116.
3 "An Art School in Cos Cob," Art Interchange 43 (September 1899), pp. 56-57.
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