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Setting the Stage

Between 1870 and 1890, the country’s population increased from 40 million to 63 million people (nearly a third of these new residents were immigrants). The urban population grew much faster than the rural; by the year 1890, the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had populations exceeding one million. Railroads crisscrossed the continent, not only making a national economy and mass market possible, but also introducing residents in highly populated areas to the possibility of commuting to work. But what most people saw as progress also brought problems. With the Industrial Revolution came crowds, noise, foul air, and, in some people’s minds, questionable morality to the city.

Reacting to these issues, many city dwellers embraced a back-to-nature movement which gained great strength at the end of the 19th century. Middle-class Americans turned to the country club, the dude ranch, and the summer retreat to escape the problems and pressures of the city.¹

Julian Alden Weir was part of that movement. Born in 1852 in West Point, New York, where his father taught drawing at the United States Military Academy, Weir studied painting in Europe and became a major figure in popularizing the style that became known as American Impressionism. His farm in Branchville, Connecticut, served as his retreat from his winter home in New York City. As early as 1877, Weir had written to his parents from Europe exclaiming, "Nature seems more rich than ever and full of charm, which one can only appreciate by being away from it. The city life, where one is imprisoned amongst walls, makes one’s faculties more appreciative."² In 1882, after he had spent nearly five years in New York City, Weir traded 10 dollars and a painting for the deed to 153 acres in the Connecticut hills.

That farm became Weir’s primary summer studio and was home to his family for the next four decades. What drew Weir to the farm was the inspiration he derived from the landscape. He believed the opportunity to "experience nature" helped him to grow in both mind and spirit. Weir built a painting studio, twice enlarged his house, and continuously rearranged the landscape to suit his highly discerning eye. The farm also became, in a sense, an extensive palette; its buildings, stone walls, and gardens were all elements in the painter’s evolving composition. It provided subject matter for much of Weir’s work as well as that of his friends, many of whom were also leading figures in American art.

By 1890 Weir and his colleagues were increasingly painting outdoors, focusing on landscapes as subject matter. Unlike earlier generations who sought to make their subjects look real, they used a technique characterized by laying pure unmixed color on the canvas with dabs and broken brushwork to create a sense—or impression—of intense flickering light. Also, unlike American landscape painters of the previous generation (such as Moran or Bierstadt) who sought out the extraordinary, untamed and dramatic, the American Impressionists painted the familiar, cultivated landscapes located in their own backyards. Through their eyes, these ordinary domestic places in Connecticut and elsewhere in New England became part of everyone’s sense of what was beautiful in the American landscape.

¹Peter J. Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America, reprint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), x-xiii.
²Letter from J. Alden Weir to his mother and father, dated April 6, 1877, Barbizon, France. Reprinted in Dorothy Weir Young's
The life and Letters of J. Alden Weir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 122.

 

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