Connecticut is the home of American Impressionism. At the turn of the 20th century, colonies sprouted up in Old Lyme, Cos Cob, Farmington, Kent and other places. Many of the artists who gathered at these colonies got their training in France, the birthplace of Impressionism, and then brought their skills back to the United States.
Two exhibits up now in the state focus on prominent impressionists, one who trained his eye on the lush green landscape of France, and one who trained her eye on the lush green landscape of Connecticut.
Matilda Browne was a respected member of the Lyme Art Colony that gathered at Florence Griswold's house in Old Lyme. She also helped to found the Greenwich Society of Artists. Nonetheless, during her lifetime (1869-1947), she often struggled for recognition because she was a woman. "She was acclaimed, but women's work was not taken seriously," said Amy Kurtz Lansing of the Florence Griswold Museum. Even the Old Lyme painters who esteemed her at times teased her. When Browne showed off her cow paintings, the men would joke "come see Tillie's calves."
Only two museums, the Florence Griswold and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, have purchased her works. The fight for recognition continued long after her death. The exhibit on the walls now at the Griswold, hung 70 years after her death, is Browne's first solo museum show.
Susan Larkin of Greenwich, the show's guest curator, said Browne was an anomaly in that she pursued a career aggressively and exhibited ambitiously. "The majority of students in art students leagues were women. But as professional artists, not that many survived and succeeded," Larkin said. "A lot of them married their ambition. They married artists.
"Her skill was multivaried. ... You see influences of Barbizon, tonalism, impressionism. Late in life, she took up sculpture."
Her parents were supportive and throughout Browne's youth they hired good painters to train their daughter. She exhibited for the first time at age 14 and didn't stop working until 10 years before her death, when her eyesight began to fail. She was praised by many during her career, but that praise often was tinged with sexism. Influential novelist Theodore Dreiser raved about Browne's "vigorous, masculine way of seeing nature" but made sure to point out that she was an attractive, refined woman.
Browne had two specialties: floral works, which were considered women's art, and depictions of cows. The animal genre was considered men's work, despite the success and acclaim of French artist Rosa Bonheur, who was famous for her animal pictures.
Browne's cow paintings were admired for their realism. "She didn't anthropomorphize or sentimentalize them. She could render their anatomy beautifully," Larkin said.
Her florals were depicted in indoor still lifes and outdoor garden scenes, almost all of which included portions of the homes where the gardens were. "The goal was to integrate home and garden and foster some of that harmony," Larkin said. "She didn't always show the grand front entrance, but often the smaller, more intimate back door or side door."
The Browne exhibit is accompanied by a companion exhibit "Beasts and Best Friends: Animals at the Lyme Art Colony," a charming array of artworks of cows, horses, sheep and pets by Browne's contemporaries William Henry Howe, Henry Rankin Poore, Carleton Wiggins and others.
When Alfred Sisley cast his eye on a scenic view in his native France, he didn't just paint it once. He would paint it, then come back later, maybe at a different time of day or in a different weather pattern, set himself up again, perhaps a few feet away from his original position, and paint it again. Often he would come back a third time, set himself up at another angle, and do it again. The paintings, seen side-by-side, offer the feel of a panoramic view of a well-loved landscape.
An exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, curated by MaryAnne Stevens, showcases about 50 paintings by Sisley (1839-1899) organized by the various geographic locations Sisley lived throughout his career and painted en plein air.
Unlike impressionists who gathered in Paris, Sisley isn't known for his ocean or urban scenes, the city's hustle and bustle and well-dressed crowds. He was increasingly poor throughout his life and couldn't afford to live in such an expensive place. Instead, he made simple villages and lonely country lanes his own: waving grass, snow covered fields, isolated cottages, still and rushing rivers, populated by few or no people, and scenes painted over and over from different angles and in all seasons of the year, always with an eye to how light, with its shifting intensities and angles, changed everything it touched.
Sisley's series on The Church at Moret, from 1893 and 1894, is his most extensive. Three paintings show the majestic chapel from the same angle, one in sunshine, one in rain, one with skies overcast. The dramatic difference in the color of the sky is reflected by an equally dramatic variation on the color and shadows of the church's facade: golden in the sunshine, dirty-white under cloudy skies, grayish in the rain. A fourth depiction of that church shows the towering edifice from an alternate angle, children playing in front.
The Bridge at Moret series, from 1888-1891, places that church in the far background, instead prioritizing that city's long arch bridge, as seen from a variety of aspects. A sunny morning scene, in which a still river is filled with colored leaves, offers the span in its entirety. A second depiction, painted from the other side of the river, shows a grander view of the town. Another grand view de-emphasizes the bridge, showing it as just a small element in a busy village.
One of Sisley's favorite "subjects" was the Seine as it passed through the town of Bougival. In winter and spring, under sunny or overcast skies, busy with boat traffic or clear as glass, the river that cuts through northern France was an endless source of fascination.
MATILDA BROWNE: IDYLLS OF FARM AND GARDEN is at Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until May 28. flogris.org.
ALFRED SISLEY: IMPRESSIONIST MASTER is at Bruce Museum, One Museum Drive in Greenwich, until May 21. brucemuseum.org.