Artists found their way from America to Holland during the latter half of the 19th century. There they drew influence from contemporary Dutch artists of The Hague School and from their predecessors of the 17th century, namely Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer, the masters the Dutch Golden Age.
George Hitchcock reflects Holland’s obsession with the tulip. He paints rows upon rows of canary yellow and lavender petals stretching over the fields. In his work it is not only the Dutch master but also the French Impressionists showing through in his short brush strokes and the way light and shadow dance on the canvas. Hitchcock’s “Early Spring in Holland” (1890- 1905) is like a Monet garden. Hitchcock has the care of a Dutch gardener, brushing his obedient tulips into tidy rows, whereas Monet’s flowers actually dance.
Joseph Raphael also revels in the tulip. In Holland Tulip Fields (1913) Raphael captures the distinct blend of lavender gold light reflected on fields of warm orange and red flowers. This is the famous Netherlandish light, an almost unbelievable blend of high-key light on an overcast day.
Along with the beauty of the land, Americans were drawn to Dutch Protestant values. Gary Melchers meditates on working-class piety in The Sermon (1886). Nine women sit in profile, looking to a minister who is out of frame. Two male parishioners sit in a raised stall behind the women. The only two figures not looking ahead are in the center of the canvas.
An older woman stares disapprovingly at a young woman, head dropped, eyes closed, catching a light nap. The brilliance of this painting is in the rich color and strong highlights. The red on the old woman’s cap matches the red of the young woman’s high-back chair, drawing the eye in closer to these two women and emphasizing the older woman’s disdain. The thin line of light outlining the women's faces is as striking as the Dutch master of light; Vermeer.
Many American artists living in Holland brought with them the ideals of the American Progressive Movement (1890-1920) of which work, family and women's suffrage were pivotal. These values are reflected in paintings that depict the toils of Dutch labor, and quite often women at work. These women harvest flax, weed the pavement and make lace.
In Walter MacEwan's Returning From Work (c.1885) weary peasants trudge home from the fields. A woman falls back to adjust her sock. She turns away from the viewer, her white bonnet obscures her face and in a fleeting moment she locks eyes with a man up ahead on the beaten path. Is this the real Dutch countryside or is the artist painting his “Dutch Utopia,” sentimental and idealized? Most likely it is both real and imagined.
American artists retreated to remote Dutch villages in search of the Dutch Golden Age; the land of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals. While painting from life they also enhanced details to make the Dutch countryside more picturesque and they blended styles of clothing from different regions of Holland.
There's a touch of the romantic in these artists. The Dutch peasant tending the field is a nostalgic reminder of the American farmer. Far removed from the industrial revolution and its dehumanizing effects, these paintings reflect a detachment from contemporary life. It is as if they are drawing from French predecessor Francois Millet with his sentimental portrait of “The Sower” (1850). American painters in Holland romanticize the Dutch countryside while avoiding the crowded cities and social unrest: ugly truth of modern times.
At last, now we can reflect on a few paintings with a truly human poignancy. Robert Henri follows in the tradition of Frans Hals whose portraits of children captured their youthful expressions with great honesty. These children are not children posed in their Sunday best, starched dresses, high collars, ribbons and velveteen jackets. Henri's “Dutch Girl Laughing” (1907) holds nothing back. Her cheeks are plumb and rosy and she laughs innocently. Like Hals, Henri uses bold brush strokes fill out the face. Henri paints the child as she truly is, in a modern smock dress, rather than an elaborate Dutch costume of the past.
Wilhelmina Douglas Hawley paints a naturalistic portrait of mother and child in “The Cold Bath” (1897). As the mother reaches her hand into the bath the nude child draws back against her, reluctant to climb into the cold water. In a small gesture, a child leaning on the mother, the artist conveys their tender bond. It’s genre paintings like this, of simpler times, that American artists captured in Holland and sold on the international art market.
DUTCH UTOPIA: AMERICAN ARTISTS IN HOLLAND 1880-1914 continues at the Taft Museum through May 2. Find exhibition and gallery info here.