We are grateful to Laurene Buckley, author of Edmund C. Tarbell Poet of Domesticity, (Hudson Hills Press, Inc., New York, 2001) for preparing the following essay.
Edmund C. Tarbell was considered one of the leading painters of his day. He was the head of the Boston School of artists, dubbed the "Tarbellites," by contemporary critics.[i] He was an Associate (1904) and Academician (1906) of the National Academy of Design, a founder of the Ten (a group of New York and Boston artists who were primarily Impressionists; 1898-1918), and a founder and first president of the Guild of Boston Artists (1914). Tarbell was also a dedicated teacher. As head of the paintings department of the School of Drawing and Painting of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Museum School) for twenty-three years (1889-1912), he influenced scores of students in the sound painting principles to which he adhered. He ended his teaching career as principal of the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. (1918-1926).
Born and raised in West Groton, Massachusetts, Tarbell showed an early and intense interest in art. He took evening classes at both the nearby Massachusetts Normal Art School and the Museum School before apprenticing with the W.H. Forbes Lithographic Company in Boston for three years. In 1879 he was formally enrolled at the Museum School, where he was quickly recruited as a pupil-teacher for the beginning students. Paris beckoned, however, as the best place for further training, and by October 1884 he was enrolled at the Académie Julian in that city under the tutelage of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Gustave-Rodolphe Boulanger, and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. In between his studies at the academy and private lessons with the American expatriate William Turner Dannat, Tarbell traveled around Europe—to London, Antwerp, Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Koblenz, Munich, and Venice—visiting museums but also absorbing the avant-garde styles of the period.
The artist's first works after his return to America in 1885 were depictions of family members—his wife Emeline, whom he married in 1888, her sister Lydia, his grandmother, and others—in full-figured or seated portraits that were often compared by reviewers to works by James McNeill Whistler or John Singer Sargent. Tarbell's attachment to the figure rather than landscape painting per se established the signature subject for his peers of the Boston School and for future generations, given his many years of teaching.
In the early 1890s, Tarbell began a series of plein air works that would position him firmly within the Impressionist camp. Three Sisters—A Study of June Sunlight of 1890 (Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Montgomery Sears) and In the Orchard (Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.141) are two of his first major paintings in this style, and both received rave reviews. When In the Orchard was shown at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the noted Boston critic, William Howe Downes, called it "one of the most remarkable paintings that American art can boast of."[ii]
Encouraged by such praise, Tarbell continued to pose family members in these outdoor scenes, especially as his children were born. His daughter Josephine (b. 1890) is the infant on her mother's lap in Three Sisters, the squirming baby in the 1892 Mother and Child in a Boat (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Bequest of David P. Kimball in memory of his wife Clara Bertram Kimball), the toddler in Mother and Child in Pine Woods of 1893 (private collection), the six-year-old in the unlocated Josephine and Her Mother of 1896, and the oldest child in My Family; My Family at Cotuit (ca. 1899; private collection), an 1899 outdoor portrayal of Emeline with baby Edmund and daughters Mercie, Mary, and Josephine.[iii] It was during this summer at Cotuit, a village along the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that Josephine posed for Child with Boat.[iv]
Here the figure of the girl is the centerpiece of the composition, the skirt of her white pin-striped dress swirling around her against a backdrop of shimmering sea. Her bare legs form an anchor in the water as she stretches out one arm to set the toy boat in motion. The top of the canvas reveals several "adult" sailboats at the horizon line moving off into the distance.
Painted at the peak of Tarbell's mature Impressionist period, Child with Boat also stands out as one of his bolder experiments with abstraction. Contemporary reviewers immediately noted this emphasis on design. When shown in the artist's one-person exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in 1904, Child with Boat was called a "capital piece of audacious decorative art, in blue, white and green, absolutely original in line and movement, and happily combining the naturalism of a summer day by the sea with the finest of swirl patterns."[v]
The flattened perspective of the work owes much not only to the Japanese prints that Tarbell collected, but also to the work of Edgar Degas. The pose of the child recalls Degas' renderings of ballet dancers with their pirouette stances and spiraling tutus. We have Tarbell's own words to explain the effect of these dancers on him: "The finest picture in Chicago today," he told a reviewer at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, "is a painting of a rehearsal of ballet girls by Degas. Nothing else in the whole show can be compared to this wonderful masterpiece . . . . It is indescribably fine."[vi]
Other formal concerns noted by the critics looking at Child with Boat had to do with color, especially in the watery reflections of the boat and figure. When the painting was first exhibited at the St. Botolph Club in Boston in the fall of 1899, it was called "a fascinating outdoor effect, with a prismatic play of moving reflections in the shallow water near the beach."[vii] Shown in New York the following year, the Sun reviewer noted that the "spots of white are remarkably well placed . . . . The setting for the figure consists of a wide expanse of blue sea with white sails here and there, and these with the broken reflection of the figure in the shallow water on the beach are so disposed as to give admirable balance in the composition and agreeable decorative effect."[viii]
The image of a child enjoying the great outdoors invariably conjures up thoughts of innocence and freedom. Just as Winslow Homer had done with his iconic images of youngsters at play in Snap the Whip (1872, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Christian A. Zabriskie, 1950 [50.41]) and Breezing Up (A Fair Wind, 1873-76, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of the W.L. and Mary T. Mellon Foundation, 1943.13.1), which came to symbolize the country's new freedom after an exhaustive civil war, Tarbell's Child with Boat was seen as a personification of pure delight: "The whole composition is full of air and light, and the color is wholesome and strong," wrote one reviewer."[ix] Another noted that the painting gave "scope for the painter's largeness of feeling . . . The whole is joyous in feeling, suggestive of pure light and air and clever to the last degree."[x] That same critic, writing in Harper's Weekly, matched the feeling of freedom in the subject to that of the execution of the work itself: "The spirit of the drawing, the brilliance of color, vivid suggestion of light and breeze, are admirable; but still more the fine assurance of the broad, free strokes of the brush-work. The picture is brimful of cleverness that is not allowed to run away with itself, and yet never loses its spontaneity."[xi]
After his successful series of plein air pictures, Tarbell would go on to create what contemporary reviewers and art historians have dubbed his "second manner."Now he would portray mostly professional models in atmospheric, elegantly appointed interiors that were reminders of the work of the Dutch Little Masters. Although Tarbell is also remembered as a master of formal portraiture and sumptuous still-lifes, it is his special brand of Impressionism that collectors cherish. Child with Boat remains today one of the finest examples of that body of work.
[i] The expression was first used by Sadakichi Hartman in his critique, "The Tarbellites," Art News 1 (March 1897): 3-4.
[ii] William Howe Downes, "New England Art at the World's Fair," New England Magazine 8 (May 1893): 362.
[iii] Although Josephine married in 1917 (Robert White Ferrell, a naval officer), she continued to pose for her father as an adult. Her children were also portrayed in Tarbell's late canvases.
[iv] Tarbell was probably drawn to Cotuit for its golf course. An avid golfer, he was one of only two players to score a forty-seven on the course in the 1899 season. Unidentified clipping, Mary Josephine Cannon [Josephine's daughter] Papers, Archives of American Art, reel 4701, frames 852 and 937. That same year, he scored a 210-yard hole-in-one in a tournament at Wollaston, Massachusetts. The family's other sports included not only golfing and sailing, but billiards, baseball, tennis, and especially horse riding (and breeding), especially after settling in their permanent summer home at New Castle, New Hampshire, in 1905.
[v] "The Fine Arts," Boston Evening Transcript, February 17, 1904, p. 9
[vi] "A Boston Artist's Comments on the Art Galleries of the World's Fair," Boston Evening Transcript, May 26, 1893.
[vii] "The Fine Arts: Pictures by Several Boston Artists," Boston Evening Transcript, November 21, 1899, p. 9.
[viii] "Art Notes," Sun, March 20, 1900, p. 6.
[ix] "Art Notes," New York Mail and Express, March 21, 1900, p. 9.
[x] Charles H. Caffin, "Third Annual Exhibition of Ten American Painters," Artist 27 (March 1900): 27.
[xi]C[harles] H. Caffin, "Third Exhibition of the 'Ten American Painters,'" Harper's Weekly 44 (April 14, 1900): 338.
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