The Cascade, ca. late 1890s

Oil on canvas

30 x 30 inches

Signed lower left: J. H. Twachtman

John Henry Twachtman returned from a three-year sojourn in Europe in 1886.  Constrained by financial burdens, during the next three years he tried his hand at farming on Pelee Island, located north of his native Cincinnati in the middle of Lake Erie; worked on a cyclorama near Pittsburgh; spent some time sharing a small bohemian studio in New York City; and taught art for a summer in Newport.  He emerged from his monetary duress in February 1889, when he had a successful sale of his works at the Fifth Avenue Galleries in New York, during a show he shared with his friend, J. Alden Weir.  Having received an offer of a teaching position at the Art Students League, the following fall Twachtman finally had the means to settle in a place of his own.

As a number of accounts indicate, from his first glimpse of a plot of land on Round Hill Road, two miles north of the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, Twachtman knew that this piece of property was exactly what he had been seeking both to settle his family and to find an inspiring subject matter for his art.  Over the next few years, from 1889 to 1891, he acquired the house at the side of the road and seventeen acres of land surrounding it.  The Greenwich countryside was not dramatic or overwhelming.  It bore no relationship to the majestic mountainous wildernesses that had been painted by members of the Hudson River School.  Instead it consisted of undulating hills and gentle dips through which Horseneck Brook meandered.  It was a landscape of open meadows, marshy areas, overgrown grassy knolls, and clusters of wildflowers.  It was, indeed, the modest and intimate scale of the landscape that Twachtman enjoyed and that stimulated him to create many of his best known and finest works.  Although he would paint in a few other places in the years to come, traveling to Niagara Falls, Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and to Gloucester, Massachusetts, during his last three summers, he was most devoted to the subject matter of his Greenwich acreage and found in his home and land an infinite source of inspiration until his early death at age 49 in 1902.  

While in Greenwich, Twachtman returned over and over to the same subjects, painting his house from the back and front, his garden, Horseneck Brook, which curved through his property, a small pool surrounded by hemlock trees, and a waterfall that was located just behind his house and at the base of a steep hill.  Familiar motifs never ceased to surprise Twachtman, and he depicted them in each instance with freshness and spontaneity.

The waterfall on Twachtman’s property is the subject of The Cascade. This painting was probably executed around 1900, when the artist had begun to abandon the laborious layering methods he had used during the mid-1890s, and was returning to the direct alla prima method he had adopted during the 1870s in Munich.  However, in contrast to the works of his Munich period, which had been dark-toned and covered with heavy impastos, the paintings he rendered in Greenwich and Gloucester at the turn of the century reveal varied textural surfaces and a bright and varied palette with no muddying of tones. 

Depicting the waterfall in his backyard in a close-up vignette, in The Cascade, Twachtman captured the character of the subject through the way he painted it.  Omitting a sense of its scale or context, he focused attention on the changing rhythms of the falling water itself rather than on the symbolic associations evoked by the subject or on its scenic appeal.  By varying the force and energy of his strokes and the thickness of his paint, he distilled the subject to its essence; the water’s perpetual motion.

In The Cascade, Twachtman may have been observing the waterfall in the light of dusk.  The last remnants of the day’s sun illuminate the foamy surface of the cascading water, while the rocks are suffused in shadows.  Painting with gestural athletic strokes, Twachtman mixed his colors directly on canvas, and a rich array of color emerges gradually before us.

In many of his waterfall scenes, Twachtman experimented with different angles and points of view.  Among his images of the subject, however, a few stand out as his finest.  These are the works in which he refined his vision, featuring the falls broadly centered in the canvas and viewed from the side.  The Cascade belongs to this group along with Waterfall: Blue Brook (Cincinnati Art Museum), Waterfall (Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), and Falls in January (Wichita Art Museum, Kansas).

In The Cascade, Twachtman realized his goal as an artist, translating the life force of nature into art, and his fully engaged rendering captures the waterfall’s vitality, reminding us of nature’s self-generating energy.  It was exactly this phenomenon that compelled Twachtman most during his Greenwich years.

Dr. Lisa N. Peters

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