Impressionism may bring to mind French artists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne, but American artists inspired by the movement developed their own version of the style that has endured for more than a century. A new exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art takes a closer look at the history of impressionism in the United States.

America’s Impressionism: Echoes of a Revolution, which opened Friday and runs through Sept. 5, traces impressionism’s arrival and evolution in the U.S. and highlights American artists who adapted the style.

Impressionism took off in Paris in the mid-1870s. But it was more than 10 years later, following a seminal exhibition of French works in New York, that it first really took hold on this side of the Atlantic. 

Boasting more than 60 works, gathered from both public and private collections, the SAMA exhibition offers a thorough consideration of impressionism’s westward movement and the ways in which American artists learned from French impressionists and, ultimately, put their own uniquely American stamp on the style.

To offer a comprehensive sense of this gradual evolution, the exhibit features works by Monet alongside American artists like Marie Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, and Willard Metcalf.

Visitors take in America’s Impressionism: Echoes of a Revolution on the opening day of the exhibition. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Yinshi Lerman-Tan, SAMA’s acting associate curator of American and European art, said that the exhibition reveals “an exciting independent movement” of impressionism in the U.S. and emphasizes the fact that “American artists were really innovating and making a style all their own.”

Housed in SAMA’s special exhibition space, Echoes of a Revolution takes the viewer on a journey that is at once chronological, geographical, and thematic. Moving through the exhibit, one encounters sections dedicated to direct French influence (“French Foundations”), earliest East Coast works (“East Coast Perspectives”), Texan and Californian iterations (“Impressionism Heads West”), the role of women as artists and subjects (“More Than a Muse”), and impressionism’s lingering influence in the U.S. (“20th Century Echoes”).

In a sense, as impressionism moved westward, the mode was increasingly reimagined and repurposed to fit regional aims, preoccupations, and aesthetic sensibilities. 

Lerman-Tan explained that the impressionism of the American northeast, for instance, evinced a sense of “Puritanical rigidity” and a keen “interest in childhood.” Meanwhile, the impressionism of the American West, represented by Texas and California works in the SAMA exhibition, was fascinated with “seeking out unique landscapes” that please, overwhelm, and intoxicate.

Lovers of Texas art will recognize works of Julian Onderdonk, perhaps best known for his iconic paintings depicting Hill Country bluebonnets. Lerman-Tan noted that Onderdonk is an important inclusion because the context of this exhibition “situates Onderdonk within [the] larger movement” of impressionism and reminds us that his importance in the milieu of American art extends far beyond that of mere regional curiosity. 

America’s Impressionism: Echoes of a Revolution features three paintings from Julian Onderdonk: from left, Near San Antonio, Bluebonnets in Texas, and Springtime. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While it is hard to say exactly why impressionism was and remains so wildly popular in the U.S., Lerman-Tan said that the “sentimentality” and “digestibility” of the style, which offers “a respite from grittier work,” are certainly contributing factors. 

Drawing distinctions, Lerman-Tan noted that American impressionism tends toward a tamer subject matter than its European predecessor, largely eschewing any commentary on social issues and instead seeking a kind of sheltering beauty. 

American audiences seem more interested in “a fairy tale kind of vision,” she said.

Emily Sano, SAMA’s interim director, said that she is excited about the exhibition because it simultaneously looks at a style that is familiar and beloved while also “giving a portrait of American art that people might not have thought about.” 

Sano also noted that this exhibition — which was a collaboration between SAMA, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis (where it showed first), and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania (where it will show next) — boasts several works from the Marie and Hugh Halff Collection, a private San Antonio collection.

She said that this fact makes this exhibition a fine opportunity for “celebrating what we have in our collections and in our city.”

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.