When John Henry Twachtman finished the painting of his home in Greenwich, Conn. (below), he was inspiring other American painters to adopt fresh, original elements of the French Impressionist style of painting.
He did much of his painting at the Cos Cob Art Colony, credited with helping to launch American Impressionism. Though Twachtman was a respected and influential leader at Cos Cob, he didn’t enjoy much commercial success during his career. He had to teach to eke out a slender existence.
Susan Larkin, in her book The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, wrote Twachtman’s obscurity freed him to experiment with new styles of painting:
Ironically, his lack of commercial success contributed to his artistic independence, freeing him from the temptation of producing salable pictures according to a proven formula. His art, conversation, and teaching fueled the creative fires of his friends and students in Cos Cob.
Cos Cob was to American Impressionism in the 1890s what Argenteuil was to French Impressionism in the 1870s, wrote Larkin.
John Henry Twachtman
John Henry Twachtman was born Aug. 4, 1853, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and studied painting with Frank Duveneck. Duveneck belonged to the city’s German-American community, and had studied art in Europe. His pupil followed his example.
In Paris, John Henry Twachtman adopted the soft, light-filled style of the French Impressionists. It was a departure from the realistic, detailed work of the Hudson River School that then predominated. But the art-buying public didn’t immediately embrace the brighter, more personal approach of the new generation of painters.
Twachtman moved to a farm in Greenwich, Conn., in 1886. He began to win medals, but he needed a day job to support his painting habit. So Twachtman and his good friend J. Alden Weir taught summer classes for the Art Students League at the Bush-Holley House, a boardinghouse overlooking the harbor in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich.
By 1890, the artistic community that gathered at the Bush-Holley House included Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson and Theodore Robinson. There they tried new painting techniques and media.
John Henry Twachtman and his friends also explored a theme familiar to their French counterparts: the incursion of industrialization on the rural landscape. Greenwich was then evolving from a farming and fishing community to a wealthy New York suburb.
Soon they got fed up with the conservatism of the era’s dominant art organizations. Twachtman, Weir and Hassam recruited Boston and New York artists who shared their mindset and formed The Ten American Painters in 1898. They asked Winslow Homer, who declined.
They originally called themselves The Eleven, as Abbott Handerson Thayer had joined, but he quickly dropped out.
The Ten, as they were nicknamed, held popular exhibitions every year in New York, then branched out to Boston and Philadelphia. They started out as ‘extremists,’ according to one critic, because of their impressionistic style.
But by the time of their last exhibit in the winter of 1917-18, the public considered them mainstream.
Twachtman had died by then. While painting in Gloucester, Mass., he suddenly suffered a brain aneurysm. He died on Aug. 8, 1902, only 49 years old. His friends deeply mourned his passing.
Today his works belong to the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art.
This story was updated in 2021.