JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN (1853-1902)
Path in the Hills, Branchville, Connecticut, ca. 1888-1891
Pastel on paper
10 x 12 inches
Signed lower left: J.H. Twachtman-
John Twachtman first explored pastel while in Europe in the summer of 1885. Depicting moonlit waterways in Holland and the picturesque canals of Venice, he created quiet, tonal views, covering his papers with soft layerings of chalk. After his return to America the following winter, he continued to work extensively in pastel, developing a more lively and vigorous style and taking advantage of the medium's suitability to sketching. Working in the open air in Branchville, Connecticut, near the home of his friend J. Alden Weir, and on his own property in Greenwich, Connecticut, he created many of his most delicate, refreshing, and quietly appealing images.
Indeed, using pastel in the years before he adopted an Impressionist style, the medium eased Twachtman's transition to Impressionist painting. Whereas oil painting outdoors was cumbersome, involving heavy equipment and time in the preparation of a palette, pastels were easily transportable and could be used on the spot. No color mixing was necessary and the fresh tones of pastel encouraged Twachtman to capture the bright hues of nature. Inspired by pastel's spontaneity and vivid color, Twachtman adopted a sparing style and harmonized the tones of his chalks with those of his papers‑‑he often preferred to use rough-surfaced papers with sandpaper finishes to which the slightest touch of pastel would adhere and retain its fresh color forever. Invoking James McNeill Whistler's pastel style, Twachtman often left much of his papers exposed, using the color of the paper for a work's background, atmosphere, and to unify his designs. In some works, Twachtman used pastel colors that were close to his paper tones to convey a feeling of tranquility, whereas in other works, he created more contrast between paper and chalk to express a more exuberant feeling. Pastel also encouraged Twachtman often to reduce his designs to a single expressive element that summed up the essence of a site.
The years 1888 to 1891 were the time in Twachtman's career when he was most absorbed in pastel work. In his 1889 exhibition at the Fifth Avenue Galleries, he displayed ten pastels, and in 1891, when he had a solo show at Wunderlich Gallery in New York, thirty-one of the forty-three works shown were pastels. Among the pastels in the Wunderlich exhibition were the views of meadows and rolling hills, some crossed by paths, roads, or brooks, such as The Path across the Hills, Meadow Brook, Mill Pond Meadow, The Meadow, and Road to Round Hill. One of these may have been the pastel known today as Path in the Hills, Branchville, Connecticut, a view looking up a green hillside through which a narrow path gracefully meanders.
Twachtman's treatment in Path in the Hills, Branchville, Connecticut demonstrates the delicacy and assurity of his pastel technique as well as his sensitivity to the unique feelings that his sites evoked. With an expressive handling, he captures the exuberant and freeing qualities of a day in spring. Green pastel rubbed lightly with the side of the chalk stick over the fibrous beige oatmeal paper ground conveys the warm tone and freshness of new grass and foliage perhaps after a recent rainfall. Throughout the work, the color of the paper is evident, its supple texture and gentle tone establishing the atmosphere and the softness of the earth. Using the paper as part of his palette, in some areas, Twachtman blended green chalk and beige paper together, and in others, the paper tone is left exposed. Above the horizon line, gentle touches of white and blue convey the movement of clouds just beginning to break up an overcast sky.
Twachtman's eye for surprising relations in nature is apparent in his depiction of the path that extends through the scene, which in its lively, sinuous motion complies with the stirring of new vegetation on the hillside. A cluster of trees from through which the path passes before beginning its descent are rendered with rapid strokes of color, the "shorthand" style for which Twachtman was praised by critics of his era.
Reviewing Twachtman's Wunderlich show for the New York Mail and Express, a reviewer who noted Twachtman's ability to represent his subjects as he experienced them directly could have had Path in the Hills, Branchville, Connecticut in mind:
Mr. Twachtmann's method is that of shorthand; yet with the slightest means he has given such perfect impressions of certain phases of nature that possibly any addition to them in the way of the "finish" for which the public clamors would seem like impertinence. Here is no imitation of any foreign school; and here no mannerisms are to be seen. Mr. Twachtmann's inspiration lies wholly between nature and himself.1
Another critic discussing the show commented on the subtle appeal of Twachtman's pastel scenes:
Emphatically these delicate trifles are objects to live with in peace and constantly fresh satisfaction. They should be looked at slowly or their shy charm will not be realized. The eye gradually plunges into their light tones and discovers new planes in the landscape, fresh points of interest to seize. 2
This statement could readily apply to Path in the Hills, Branchville, Connecticut, a work that draws us gradually into its gentle experience of the earth awakening with the arrival of spring and invites us to wander along the curving path that wends through its midst.
© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery.
Copyright ©2000 Spanierman Gallery.