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How French impressionism came to America

By Jerry Marterer

Paris may have the best-known museums of impressionism, but the United States holds the honor of being the country that holds the most and, some say, the best French impressionist works. There is a reason for this. During the impressionist era in Paris, the institutions of France and the rest of Europe were cool if not hostile toward impressionism. It was largely uncollected and vastly underappreciated. The first painting that led to the school was Monet’s view of the sunrise over the harbor of Le Havre. He called it “Impression Soleil Levant,” or Impression of a Sunrise.” Critics began referring to “Les Impressionnistes” in mockery calling the painting “nothing more than wallpaper.”

As the Impressionist School gained favor as “outsider art,” it became popular among Americans living in or visiting Paris. Gertrude Stein, who built a collection in the early 1900s, held court at her flat on the rue Fleurus advising visiting Americans on acquisitions. Mary Cassatt was the first American as well as the first female impressionist. She was raised in Pittsburgh, Penn. and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, then joined the impressionists in France. She counseled the folks back home to buy as many impressionists works as possible, one of the best insider tips of all time. American women in particular deserve our gratitude for their patronage of impressionism both as individuals and for their influence over their wealthy industrialist husbands who told them to “buy whatever you like” during their trips to Paris. Still, Americans abroad were seen by Parisians as crass, nouveau riche who let their money do the talking and liked to buy in bulk, bordering on compulsiveness. But only in America could so many sons of the working class rise to captains of industry and have the foresight to bring impressionist art back to their hometowns during an era when the old-money pedigreed families in the U.S. continued to collect old masters. Some of these impressionist collections have since been dispersed by estate sales, but several have transformed American museums into world class institutions.

Henry Havemeyer was a sugar refining baron whose wife, Louisine, traveled frequently to Paris and always returned with a load of paintings, heavily weighted toward Degas and Monet. In 1929, almost 2000 works from all genres in their collection were given to the Métropolitan Museum in New York, including Monet’s iconic “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies.” Years later, the National Gallery in Washington was given Manet’s “The Railway” from the collection. John G Johnson, the son of a blacksmith in Philadelphia, became one of the country’s greatest business lawyers. He and his wife, Ida, died childless and left their entire collection including “Monet’s Railway Bridge at Argenteuil” to what is now the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Alfred Pope, a partner in the Cleveland Malleable Iron Company and his wife, Ada, fell in love with impressionism when they first visited Paris in 1888. Their collection, more known for quality than quantity, included Manet’s “Guitar Player,” Degas’ “Woman Bathing,” Monet’s “View of Cap d’Antibes,” and one of his “Wheatstacks.” Pope retired to his home in Farmington, Conn. called Hill-Stead, which today houses the collection in the museum of the same name.

Potter Palmer, son of a New York farmer, built a retail empire that became Marshal Fields department store in Chicago and went on to build the luxurious Palmer House Hotel. The Palmer family lifted the Art Institute of Chicago to the first tier of impressionism in America with their bequest of 1922. Their collection comprised 11 Renoirs, several Degas, and 29 Monets, including six of his “Wheatstacks.” Monet painted 25 scenes of the same wheat field in different seasons, in different weather and at different times of day. The six Monet “Wheatstacksare the cornerstone of the collection. No other museum in the world has more than two of them. The Institute’s subsequent purchase of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande Jatte” in 1924 further reinforced its reputation.

Sterling Clark, grandson of and heir to Edward Clark, a founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and his wife Francine put together a collection from 1920 to 1950 which included works by Monet, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pissarro, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and both a ballerina painting and sculpture by Degas. They established the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. in 1955 where the collection is housed. A contemporary, Duncan Phillips, grandson of the founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh, was an educated art critic and collector who bought art with the intention of sharing it with the public. He directed the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. until his death in 1966. His taste ranged from El Greco to Milton Avery with the impressionists in between, but the big draw at the Phillips Collection is Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

Another Washington institution benefited from an American’s largesse. The National Gallery holds the extensive impressionist collection of Chester and Maud Dale. Chester began working on Wall Street as a messenger at the age of 17, and later founded his own brokerage house. He and Maud were late starters in the pursuit of impressionism, acquiring major works at Paris auctions in the 1920s. Maud, a trained artist, had the eye and ambition to guide their collecting. In 1962 they donated more than 300 works to the National Gallery, then still in its formative years, having only been established in 1941. The collection includes major works by Cassatt, Manet, Cézanne, Matisse, Monet and Renoir, most notably his “Girl with a Watering Can.”

In nearby Baltimore, two sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, heiresses to a family textile business, began travelling to Europe in the early 1900s. They became close friends with Gertrude Stein and built a collection of impressionist and modern art that included 500 works by Matisse, and others by Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso and Van Gogh. In 1949, this collection was given to the Baltimore Museum of Art and is housed in its own wing.

Up in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts benefited from the largesse of a more patrician crowd. Beacon Hill resident John Spaulding, heir to the Revere Sugar fortune, collected with the aim of filling gaps in the museum’s impressionist catalogue. His bequest included the first Cézanne to be shown in the collection. Denman Waldo Ross, a man of independent means and a Harvard professor, donated the first three Monets to the Boston Museum, including “Valley of the River Creuse.” The Juliana Cheney Edwards collection includes six Renoirs and 10 Monets.

Perhaps the strangest tale of American collectors is that of Albert Barnes. The son of a Philadelphia butcher, he worked himself through medical school then developed a drug that prevented infant blindness caused by venereal disease. By 1912, he was rich enough and still young enough to amass the largest collection of impressionist art in America. After an exhibit of his collection was ridiculed by the Philadelphia art establishment, then even more snobbish than their New York counterparts, Barnes thumbed his nose at local society and built his own educational institution in a Philadelphia suburb which opened in 1922. His collection comprised 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and other works by Degas, Monet, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Soutine, Seurat and Modigliani. That’s more Renoirs than in all the museums of Europe combined. The paintings appeared to be hung on the walls of his galleries haphazardly from floor to ceiling, but it was his way of grouping them by similar use of light, and perspective as a teaching tool. He was active in the school until his accidental death in 1956. But there is a recent twist.

Throughout time, the Philadelphia establishment came to realize the value and importance of what was just down the road and began to look for ways to break Barnes’ last will and testament which specified that the collection was to be left as is, right down to exactly how each painting was hung. The city’s stated purpose was to make the collection more accessible to the public by moving it downtown. When a series of court cases couldn’t dislodge it, a period of financial difficulty at the foundation allowed outsiders to intervene, ostensibly as rescuers, but ultimately shifting control to The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Barnes Foundation closed its doors in 2011 and reopened a year later in an impressive new building in downtown Philadelphia. The plots, subplots and alleged double dealings during the last years of the foundation are portrayed in the 2009 documentary, “The Art of the Steal.”

Connecting these institutions in the U.S. is obviously a different proposition from in Paris because of the distances, but several institutions in the Northeast are grouped close enough together to visit them by rail. The Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York-Boston Amtrak Acela train connects five of them European-style by rail without the hassle of airports or driving.

Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at


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