Treasures from the Vault: Willard Leroy Metcalf

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, it is no surprise that Willard Leroy (L.) Metcalf would come to be recognized for his paintings of snow. An aspect of winter weather that we here in northern Indiana are no stranger to, Metcalf’s landscapes reflect a serenity not found in his personal life.

Willard Leroy Metcalf, American, 1858-1925. Snow Scene. Oil on board, 1920. Gift of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Alliance, 1997.09. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Educated formally at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Académie Julien in Paris, Metcalf’s career started as a figure painter and illustrator. His fitful personal life, likely due to his alcoholism, spurred his change in trajectory to landscapes. In 1904, he would withdraw to the Maine woods to think, paint, and “dry out”; a move which he termed his “Impressionist Renaissance”, it provided him with a fresh direction and motivation towards a career in art that had begun to stagnate and propelled him towards the impressionist style he is recognized for today.

His first work was actually undertaken in the Southwestern United States, where he partnered with Frank Cushing of the Smithsonian Institution in Santa Fe, New Mexico to create illustrations of the Pueblo and Zuni Native Americans for Cushing’s ethnological studies. The money from this work financed Metcalf’s travels abroad, where his Realism would be introduced to Impressionism. Despite being the first American to paint in Giverny, Monet’s hotspot, during his time abroad (1883-1888), this now legendary place had no immediate effect on Metcalf’s artworks.

He began painting in 1874, and in the winter of 1884 he met John Twachtman in Paris, a member of the celebrated American artist group The Ten, painting alongside him at Grez-sur-Loing with Theodore Robinson. Metcalf’s landscapes were still traditional renditions. Upon his return to America, his works from the late-1890’s, the few he produced, were received with little fanfare. Living a lavish social life with his first wife that included heavy drinking, Metcalf’s first exhibitions with the East Coast painting group The Ten were lackluster. It wasn’t until 1902 that his work exhibited a new freshness of execution and a lighter palette, driving his friend and fellow member of The Ten, Childe Hassam, to invite Metcalf to join him at the Old Lyme artist colony in Connecticut. It was there that his expertly-handled view of the Northeastern landscape was born.

Metcalf continued to return to Old Lyme throughout his career, as well as the Maine woods and the Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire. While most artists summered in these places, Metcalf took a different approach; waiting for the colonies to clear out, he then settled down in early winter. In 1907, his painting, May Night, won top prize at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and became the first contemporary American painting bought by the institution (it now resides in the National Gallery of Art). Dubbed the “poet laureate of the Northeastern hills”, his paintings were compared to the poetry of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman.

Intimate compositions depicting changing seasons and landscapes near where he lived, Snow Scene is typical in its capture of a winter morning. The early morning sky is tinged with pink, reflected in the snow on the ground. Snow is not truly white, instead it reflects the colors around it: the pink of the sky and the green of the trees, with wisps of yellow thrown in to suggest a soon-to-be rising sun. Landscapes like Snow Scene were often employed by artists to work through painting problems they encountered, such as exploring white as a color through a snowy scene. A quiet, contemplative moment, Metcalf excludes both human and animal presence. While many of his compositions include country buildings, this one is notable for their absence. A small river burbles through the thin copse of trees, with a thicker forest beyond. No tracks mar the fresh powder, and the quick, thick brushstrokes are fully Impressionist. His exposure to the light-filled, loose strokes of The Ten (particularly Hassam, Twachtman, and Julien Alden Weir) had effectively pushed him from his former academic style into a fully-fledged Impressionist.

Depicting the Northeast in every season and weather condition, Metcalf’s sensitivity to the natural world was encompassed in his advice to young painters: “Paint what you see and forget your theories”. In 1906 a critic summarized Mecalf’s style as this: Metcalf “connives to translate into the paint the freshness and fragrance of fields, gardens, and evening air. It is nature, rather than the studio, of which he apprises us”. Today, the Florence Griswold Museum, what was once the boardinghouse run by Miss. Florence Griswold that housed many of the painters in Old Lyme, holds the most works by Metcalf.

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