Arts and Leisure

J. Alden Weir, America’s Most Beloved Impressionist

This lovely drypoint etching, Christmas Greens, was created by J. Alden Weir, a Connecticut artist beloved in his time. His generosity toward younger and less fortunate artists won him many admirers, and his poetic images earned him many followers.

Christmas Greens, by J. Alden Weir. Library of Congress.

Christmas Greens, by J. Alden Weir. Library of Congress.

Alden Weir completed Christmas Greens during the American Etching Revival of the 1870s and 1880s. James McNeill Whistler inspired the revival at a time when the growing middle class wanted to buy art, but art it could afford.

J. Alden Weir

Weir was born in 1852, the 14th of 16 children. He was raised in West Point, N.Y., where his father Robert Walker Weir taught drawing at the Military Academy at West Point. His father actually taught Whistler, who was later  kicked out by then-Superintendent Robert E. Lee (yes, that Robert E. Lee) for misbehavior.

Alden Weir studied under his father and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He encountered the new school of painting known as Impressionism. It didn’t impress him. “I never in my life saw more horrible things,” he wrote to his parents in 1877. “They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.”

Weir would then go on to found American Impressionism. Shortly after writing that letter that he began to soften about European Impressionism. In 1880 and 1881, Weir bought two paintings by Edouard Manet for a New York art collector, Erwin Davis.

Weir Farm

According to one story, Davis badly wanted a small landscape owned by Weir, and offered him $10 and a farm in Branchville, Conn., in exchange. Weir agreed and in 1883 moved to what would become Weir Farm, a creative refuge for friends, family and artists. (The farm is now a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service.)

According to other versions of the story, Weir Farm was owned by the family of his wife, Anna Baker. While there he strengthened his friendship with several other painters, Emil CarlsonAlbert Pinkham Ryder, Childe Hassam, and John Henry Twachtman.

Anna and Caroline Weir

Anna and Caroline Weir

He would remain friends with Whistler, whom he met by chance in Europe. One day, the story goes, Weir was copying a painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London. He “became conscious of a man walking up and down, up and down past his easel, looking at his work. Finally he was heard to murmur, “Not bad – not bad at all!”

Were it not for Whistler, Weir might not have turned to etching. He might not have created Christmas Greens, which shows his wife Anna making a Christmas wreath with his daughter Caroline’s help.

Another Farm

Anna died in 1892, and Weir married her sister Ella the same year. The marriage brought him another farm in Windham, Conn. He generously helped people who suffered misfortune, raising money through painting exhibitions for people who lost their jobs in the Panic of 1893.

J. Alden Weir

J. Alden Weir

His daughter Dorothy Weir Young then continued his legacy at Weir Farm. Dorothy, a painter, married sculptor Mahonri Young, Brigham Young’s grandson. Upon Young’s death, artists Sperry and Doris Andrews lived and worked at Weir Farm.

Julian Alden Weir died in 1919. “America has lost its most beloved artists,” wrote Hamilton Easter Field, founder of the Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit, Maine.

Factory Village by J. Alden Weir, 1897. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Weir’s paintings are on display in major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Wadsworth Athenaeum. The 60-acre grounds of Weir Farm open every day of the year to visitors.

This story was updated in 2022.

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