In the years following the Civil War, American art underwent a fundamental shift. The traditional Romantic style of painting, which focused on portraying majestic scenes in stark, vivid lines and shapes, gave way to a new concern for light and atmosphere. It was the age of Impressionism. Impressionism was not indigenous to America. In fact, its origins lay in France, which had long been at the fore of artistic innovation. The French Impressionists threw off the shackles of traditional painting in favor of an airier, lighter style. The purpose of Impressionism was to convey the impression of an object by capturing the patterns of light and color on and surrounding it.
There were no sharp outlines or definite edges; everything was very ephemeral, almost illusory. But what factors were responsible for this movement? Why did it become popular in America so much more so than in any other country? Wherein lay the Impressionist appeal? These are important questions.
For some time during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American artists had scoffed at European art as too stuffy and urbane. The Americans drew inspiration from the beauty of their native landscape, turning to naturalist and romantic styles to portray the land they loved. The Literary World wrote, "What comparison is there between the garden landscapes of England or France and the noble scenery of the Hudson, or the wild witchery of some of our unpolluted lakes and streams? One is man's nature, the other, God's." However, after the horrific Civil War, this proud view of a "New Eden" was shattered. Soon Americans were turning elsewhere for inspiration.
It is interesting to note that while dozens of Americans were studying in Paris in the mid-1800's, thousands came there in the post-war years. It was in this time that the Impressionist...