JOHN H. TWACHTMAN (1853-1902)
Edge of the Emerald Pool, Yellowstone, ca. 1895
Oil on canvas
25 x 30 inches
Signed lower right: J. H. Twachtman

Major William Wadsworth, Geneseo, New York, ca. 1895

[Knoedler Gallery, New York]

[Milch Galleries, New York, as of 1966]

private collection, 1967

to art market, New York

Cincinnati Art Museum, John Henry Twachtman: A Retrospective Exhibition, October 7-November 20, 1966, no. 78 (as Near the Emerald Pool, Yellowstone, lent by Milch Galleries, New York).

In September 1895, John Twachtman left his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and set out on his first and only trip to the American West. His destination, Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, was chosen by Major William A. Wadsworth, who had commissioned the artist to produce a number of paintings of the Park. The only commission Twachtman ever received, this endeavor resulted in a group of unique, varied, and vivid works that broke from previously established conventions for depicting the national landmark. Working outdoors, Twachtman applied his personalized brand of Impressionism to the Western spectacle creating images that have maintained their frank boldness and vivid freshness, evoking the artist's delighted response to his sites.

By the 1870s, the geologic wonders of the Yellowstone territory had become well known to Eastern audiences. They had been revealed in the reports from the well-publicized expeditions of Powell, Hayden, and Lander, discussed in magazine articles, and presented in drawings and paintings created by artists. While illustrators charted the scientific phenomena of Yellowstone, its geysers, canyons, and rugged craggy cliffs, the results of catastrophic volcanic eruptions occurring in the prehistoric past, painters expressed its sublime and majestic beauty. George Catlin, Sanford R. Gifford, and Albert Bierstadt were among the prominent artists who painted in Yellowstone, but it was Thomas Moran who created the best known depictions of the area. His scenes, painted on monumentally-scaled canvases and in sparkling watercolors, immersed the viewer in expansive panoramas filled with detail and incident. Expressing the enormity, drama, and wildness of the Yellowstone's extraordinary topography, Moran conveyed the expansionistic sentiments of the mid-century.

Twachtman undoubtedly knew of the works of Moran and others. Nonetheless the experience of Yellowstone took him by surprise. He wrote to Wadsworth on the 22nd of September 1895:

I am overwhelmed with things to do that a year would be a short stay. . . This trip is like the outing of a city boy to the country for the first time. I was too long in one place. This scenery too is fine enough to shock any mind. We have had several snow storms and the ground is white--the canyon looks more beautiful than ever. The pools are more refined in color but there is much romance in the falls and the canyon. I never felt so fine in my life and am busy from morning until night. One can work so much more in this place never tiring. . . . I want to go to Lower Falls, they are fine. There are many things one wants to do in this place.[1]

Twachtman was indeed able to do "many things" while in Yellowstone. His base was his hotel, the Grand Caņon, situated in the Canyon Village near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Of the hotel, Hiram Chittenden remarked in 1895: "It is half a mile beyond Cascade Creek, in an open park, a little way back from the brink of the Caņon. From its porch, the crest of Upper Fall can be seen, and roar of both [Upper and Lower] cataracts is distinctly audible."[2] From his hotel, Twachtman had easy access to the Upper and Lower Falls, the latter of which became the subject of several of his works including Waterfall, Yellowstone (Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming), Waterfall, Yellowstone (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), Lower Falls, Yellowstone (private collection), and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone (private collection). He also painted pure canyon views: Canyon in the Yellowstone (private collection), Yellowstone Park (30 x 28-1/2 inches, private collection), Yellowstone Park (20 x 25 inches, private collection), and Yellowstone View. At another locale in the park, he depicted The Rapids (Worcester Art Museum), a view of a torrent coursing through a valley. In another work, Yellowstone View (Yellowstone National Park), he painted a sketchy image of mountain scenery. During his stay in the park, the artist gave this painting Captain George Smith Anderson, who was the park superintendent at the time. This work still belongs to the park.

Another subject that Twachtman painted in Yellowstone were the park's geysers and pools. Five images of these subjects are known today, Emerald Pool (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Emerald Pool, Yellowstone (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut), Geyser Pool, Yellowstone (private collection), Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone (private collection), and Edge of the Emerald Pool. Twachtman would have had to travel quite a distance from his hotel to see these sites. The Emerald Pool is located in the Black Sand Basin, just to the west of Old Faithful. The Morning Glory Pool may be found in the Upper Geyser Basin, just to the north of Old Faithful. To reach these locales, Twachtman probably availed himself of the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company, which, in 1891, had begun a service of shuttling tourists by carriage to different areas of the Park. Indeed, until 1971, an old stagecoach and early automobile road came within a few feet of the Morning Glory Pool. Chittenden observed of the Upper Geyser Basin: "This locality is probably the most popular of any in the Park. . . . It is the home of the genus geyser, seen in its highest development. There are fifteen examples of the first magnitude and scores of less important ones. The quiescent pools and springs are also numerous and of great beauty." [3]

All of Twachtman's Yellowstone pool scenes are approximately the same size, measuring about 25 by 30 or 30 by 30 inches. In each, the pool dominates the canvas. While some of Yellowstone's mountainous countryside is present in Emerald Pool (Phillips Collection), the rocky surroundings play a minimal role in the other works, so that our attention is drawn to the colors and shapes formed by the ground and water rather than to details of the topography.

Interestingly, Twachtman did not portray any of Yellowstone's eruptive geysers, which Moran depicted often, preferring the quiet thermal pools. The Morning Glory pool is a deep, funnel-shaped pool with a dark blue center measuring 23 x 26.6 feet with a depth of 23 feet. It was given its name in the 1880s, due to its resemblance to the corolla and the color of a morning glory flower. Measuring 27 x 38 feet with a depth of 25 feet and named for its emerald green color, The Emerald Pool is produced by one of the most colorful springs in the Black Sand Basin. The color of the pool is the result of lower temperatures at the pool (154.6 F instead of the almost 200 F temperatures of other pools), which have allowed yellow bacteria and algae to grow on the lining of the pool. The clear water reflects the blues but absorbs the other hues of the color spectrum, and the combination of blue and yellow produce green. The exact subject in Geyser Pool, Yellowstone cannot be specifically identified.

Twachtman's three views of the Emerald Pool are each different. For the painting belonging to the Phillips Collection, Twachtman cropped his scene to include only a part of the end of the pool, and depicted some of the pool's surroundings, including the foothills of mountains in the left and right distance. His cropping of the scene is still extreme by comparison with Moran's scenes of the similar sites, and the composition may be read in almost fully abstract terms, with the water, sandy ground, and mountains conjoined like pieces in a puzzle. In the Wadsworth Atheneum's Emerald Pool, Twachtman took a different approach, encompassing the pool's entirety at the center of the canvas. Standing a short distance from the pool's edge, he took a vantage point above the pool, so that our attention is focused down into the pool's depths. Twachtman had taken a similar approach in his paintings of the pool surrounded by Hemlock trees on his property in Greenwich, showing a small pool opening at the center of the canvas. However, here his perspective is even more radical, with no aspects of the surrounding landscape included to provide context. The shifting of the emerald and turquoise tones in the pool was Twachtman's subject, and he boldly captured these in almost supernatural colors with vibrant green and blue pigments, unmodified by intermediary tones. With the pool's opening appearing to be flush with the picture plane, it almost seems that to view the painting properly, one would have to lay it flat and look down into it.

In Edge of the Emerald Pool, Twachtman chose a vantage point similar to that in the Wadsworth painting. He portrayed the pool from above and limited the surroundings to a thin rim of land. The foreshortened perspective draws us into the jewellike depths of the clear pool, where the energy is of a quiet sort, with varying tones of blue and green, ranging from a deep navy to a soft turquoise, to emerald green, appearing to shift slowly as if to hold us in the water's depths. The sandy peach-toned surroundings provide a contrast to the darker water, and the intensity of the contrast heightens the quietly mesmerizing effect of the image. By contrast with the Wadsworth painting, in Edge of the Emerald Pool, Twachtman did not depict the entire pool, with its circumference clearly demarcated. Instead, he cropped his view to feature only one end of the pool. He also showed its far edge obscured by mists. As a result, the work seems the most ethereal of the pool paintings, conveying the poetic evanescence of this natural wonder.

As in Twachtman's other Yellowstone Pool paintings, the composition in Edge of the Emerald Pool reflects a highly modern sensibility. The assymetrical arrangement, the unusual cropping, the high vantage point which emphasizes the surface, and the flattening of the pictorial scheme suggest the impact on Twachtman of the aesthetics of the Japanese prints that he greatly admired. The abstractness of the arrangement, the almost complete denial of the distinction between figure and ground, and the awareness of the emotive value of color, anticipate an approach to painting that would not come to the fore for decades. Indeed, no other artists of Twachtman's day were creating such radical works.

Rare in his oeuvre, the pool scenes that Twachtman created at Yellowstone are among his finest and most modern works. The five of these images known today are each special and striking, and the three paintings of the Emerald Pool create a wonderful study in the way that Twachtman challenged himself to see and capture a subject in a new way each time he portrayed it. A particularly pristine and sparkling example, Edge of the Emerald Pool recaptures the moment of Twachtman's discovery of "scenery fine enough to shock any mind" as well as his discovery of a new approach to painting.


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[1]  J.H. Twachtman, Grand Canyon Hotel, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 22 September 1895, to W[illiam] A. Wadsworth [Geneseo, New York], The Wadsworth Family Papers, College Libraries, State University of New York College of Arts and Sciences at Geneseo.

[2] Hiram M. Chittenden, The Yellowstone National Park (Cincinnati, Ohio: Robert Clarke Compnay, 1895; revised and enlarged sixth edition, 1911), p. 317.

[3]  Chittenden 1911, p. 294.

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