JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN (1853-1902)
The Ledges, ca. 1888-1889
Pastel on pumice board
8-3/4 x 13 inches
Signed lower left: J.H. Twachtman
John Twachtman began to experiment with pastels in the mid-1880s. By the last years of the decade, he had mastered the medium, developing a light and spontaneous touch and creating intimate and refreshing views of nature. The Ledges exemplifies Twachtman's achievement in pastel, his versatile technique and his adeptness in using the medium to express subtle nuances of light and form.
Executed in the countryside near Branchville, Connecticut, The Ledges probably dates from 1888-1889, a time when Twachtman was staying near fellow artist and close friend J. Alden Weir. For Twachtman, Weir, and other late nineteenth-century artists pastel allowed a means for an immediate representation of a scene. Unlike the more laborious process of painting on canvas which involved priming, glazing, and varnishing, in pastel a permanent effect could be obtained at once. A rough surface, such as the pumice board used for The Ledges, provided a ground to which even the lightest application of the pastel crayon could adhere and retain its color forever. The Ledges demonstrates this aspect of the medium; the blue, lavender and green tones are fresh as the day Twachtman created the work.
Twachtman's best pastels were executed in Branchville.1 The terrain with its rolling hills and low-lying fences curving along their contours provided a ready subject matter for pastel with its simultaneous capacity or smoothness and clarity of line. For The Ledges, Twachtman combined both these aspects of the medium, and in addition, the work shows his innovative use of the paper itself in the compositional scheme. The warm brown color of the paper conveys the basic light earth tone of the Branchville landscape. Green and blue pastel are softly rubbed in over the ground to express the sparse vegetation covering the landscape. From the line of the trees at the hill's crest, Twachtman overlaid two shades of green to suggest an area of greater density. The tree to the left of the center creates a focal point for the composition, balancing perfectly with the horizontality of the gentle Branchville hills.
It has been pointed out by scholars that the interest in pastels preceded the interest in impressionism in America, and was to a large extent the vehicle for the appreciation of impressionism that spread quickly in the 1890's.2 For Twachtman, pastels served as a transitional step to his most well-known work, the impressionist paintings of the 1890's. Yet The Ledges, and other Branchville pastels, attain the goal to which Twachtman aspired throughout his career, to use the inherent properties of a medium to express his visual and emotional experience of the landscape.
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1 Among the museum collections which include pastels of Branchville by Twachtman are the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo.
2 See Dianne H. Pilgrim, "The Revival of Pastels in Nineteenth-Century America: The Society of Painters in Pastel," American Art Journal 10 (November 1978): 43-62; and William H. Gerdts, American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville, 1984).
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