Newport Harbor, ca. 1889

Pastel on pumice paper

12-1/4 x 9-3/4 inches

Signed lower right: J. H. Twachtman

Between his return from Europe in late 1885 and his move to Greenwich, Connecticut in approximately the fall of 1889, John Henry Twachtman appears to have led a nomadic existence and produced little art. The exception was his visit to Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1889, a time when he created an important group of works.

Twachtman may have been attracted to Newport because of its long history as an artist's colony ‑‑ John La Farge, who arrived in Newport in 1859 drew many artists to the charming and affluent coastal town. Twachtman's visit could also have been prompted by an invitation to teach. As indicated in the diary of Anna Hunter, an artist who ran a school in Newport, Twachtman taught Hunter and a number of other students during his stay.[1] A significant development appears to have occurred both in Twachtman's methods of instruction and in his art while in Newport. Hunter records that Twachtman was giving lessons in her studio in early June; by the twenty-first of the month, however, the artist was taking his students outside. "Studio in morning. Mr. Twachtman wishes us to begin big canvas out of doors," wrote Hunter.[2] Twachtman's Newport class was perhaps the first in plein air painting taught in America, preceding even that of William Merritt Chase in Shinnecock, Long Island.

Twachtman's own art also benefited from working in the open air. Although Hunter mentions Twachtman executing canvases, most of the Newport works known today are watercolors and pastels. His explorations of both media, which are especially amenable to a spontaneous and direct working method, led to the creation of a group of sparkling and original pictures. Waterside Scene (Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts), which features a Newport pier, is perhaps Twachtman's crispest and freshest watercolor, and Newport Harbor is among his most refined and delightful pastels.

Newport Harbor depicts a sailboat anchored alongside a shore lined with warehouses. Rather than focusing on picturesque aspects of the subject, as in a traditional marine view, Twachtman concentrates on the abstract properties of his scene. Using delicate and varied strokes, he captures the interplay of line and shape, the subtle shifting qualities of light and air. The boat, viewed from an oblique angle, curves boldly and graciously into space, cutting across the picture's foreground and middleground. Its plunging diagonal is restrained, however, by the gently outlined and shaded buildings on the shore, which reinforce the work's angular contours and its flat surface. Twachtman expresses the sinuous beauty of the boat's shape with a sustained streak of white chalk. The flickering reflections and shadows on the water are rendered with staccato dashes of color. The brown tone of the paper is brought into the design, with light toned colors blended gently into the background to convey atmospheric and luminous properties.

Newport Harbor demonstrates a progression in Twachtman's pastel aesthetic. In European works from the mid-1880s, such as Moonlight, Flanders (pl. 0), he covered his surfaces with a smooth layer of chalk. Here he takes more advantage of the medium's suitability to sketching. This stylistic shift reveals Twachtman's familiarity with James McNeill Whistler's pastels, which had been featured in a large show at Wunderlich Gallery in New York in March 1889. Indeed, when Twachtman's Newport pastels were shown at the same venue in May 1890, at the fourth exhibition of the Society of American Painters in Pastel, the press pointed out relationships between the works of the two artists.[3] One critic went so far as to note of Twachtman's pastels: "All it need hardly be said, were clever, and had they been signed with the Whistlerian `butterfly,' it would have seemed all right."[4]

Of the artists in the show, Twachtman was considered the one most allied to Whistler. One reviewer contrasted Twachtman's "elusive notes" with the detailed work of Hugh Bolton Jones and the brilliantly colored images of William Merritt Chase, Irving Wiles, and James Carroll Beckwith.[5] Yet, despite the similarities between Twachtman and Whistler, the former's pastels are perhaps not as "clever" as those of his contemporary. Works such as Newport Harbor are neither as broadly treated as Whistler's panoramic views of Venetian waterways nor as detailed, highly patterned, or consciously artistic as his depictions of the streets and building facades of Venice and London. Twachtman used pastel primarily as a means of expressing plein air experience. The directness of the medium suited his desire to convey immediate impressions of intimate scenes and to capture transitive and fleeting qualities in nature. Reviewing the 1890 exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel, one critic perceptively stated. "Among the twenty-nine contributors of the eighty-nine drawings, not one appears to have hit the right method of using pastels better than Mr. J. H. Twachtman. He uses paper of different shades--brownish, greenish, grayish, or pale straw, and does not elaborate and insist too much on his picture. [His] delightful marines are touched in with spirit. . ."[6]


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[1]. See Hunter Family Diaries, box 98, vault A, Archives, Newport Historical Society.

[2] Hunter Family Diaries, 21 June 1889.

[3] No catalogue exists for the 1890 Society of Painters in Pastel exhibition. However, reviews suggest that many of Twachtman's submissions were executed in Newport. Critics described the works as mostly marines. Titles discussed include Cliffs at Newport, Coal Dock, and Sailboats.

[4] "The Pastel Exhibition," Art Amateur 23 (June 1890), p. 4.

[5] See "Painters in Pastel," New-York Daily Tribune, 2 May 1890, p. 7.

[6] "Painters in Pastel," New York Times, 5 May 1890, p. 4.


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