by Roderick Conway Morris

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Reality and Imagination

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 18 May 2012
Private collection
'The Hotel Room' by John Singer Sargent, 1904-6



Henry James had youthful aspirations to become a painter and went with his brother William to William Morris Hunt's art school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1860. But he soon found his true vocation as a writer.

James captured the 19th-century American expatriate experience of Italy so masterfully that it is now almost impossible to see it other than through the author's eyes. No artist, not even John Singer Sargent, who was born in Florence, in 1856, and remained deeply attached to the city, ever came to provide a visual equivalent of the Florence immortalized in James's novels and Italian essays.

Scores of American painters were attracted to Florence during this period, and they are now the subject of 'Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists,' at Palazzo Strozzi, curated by Francesco Bardazzi and Carlo Sisi.

The exhibition opens with Sargent's 'Hotel Room,' a wonderful evocation of the pleasures of arrival in these sunny Mediterranean climes.

In the next room, featuring 'Americans in Florence,' we encounter Sargent's self-portrait, donated to the Uffizi in 1906, his no less famous portrait of his friend Henry James, and his likeness of the (English) writer Vernon Lee, a long-term resident of Florence and friend of both the painter and James.

Among other self-portraits and portraits of visitors who spent varying lengths of time in Florence and Italy are those of Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. Both Duveneck and Chase had studied in Munich in the 1870s. Duveneck spent periods in Florence when he brought his 'Duveneck boys' to the city. This group of American art students had its origins in Munich and Duveneck also took them on tours to France, Spain and England. Chase, too, brought groups of American students to Florence between 1907 and 1913.

Sargent was interested in contemporary Italian painting and keen, for example, to meet Telemaco Signorini, whose works he admired. This introduction was made through Vernon Lee, who played a lively part in the local cultural scene. But most of the visiting American artists in Florence, and even the longer-term expatriates among them, seem to have kept to their own community and had little contact with Italian artists and local artistic developments.

An exception was Elihu Vedder, who was born in New York in 1836 and died in Rome in 1923. Arriving in Florence in 1857, he fell in with the local Macchiaioli, a proto-Impressionist group of painters in Tuscany that included the Florentine Signorini and artists from other parts of Italy. Their excursions into the countryside produced some of the freshest and most original landscape painting of the era and Vedder came strongly under their influence, as evidenced here by five of his paintings, which along with Sargent's are among the most striking in the exhibition.

Another more integrated figure was Egisto Fabbri, who was born in New York in 1886 of an Italian father and American mother and to whom a section entitled 'The Circle of Egisto Fabbri: Scholars and Painters' is devoted. In 1885 he made Florence his home. An accomplished artist, as the examples of his work here demonstrate, he nevertheless gave up painting and devoted himself to collecting. The story of this pioneering purchaser of Cézanne was told in detail in a previous show at Palazzo Strozzi in 2007.

Fabbri was not the only painter who decided that collecting would be more rewarding than painting. Francis Alexander was a poor Connecticut farm boy turned artist, who saved enough to make the journey to Italy, where he met a Boston heiress whom he later married. After settling with her in Florence in 1853, he turned to collecting early Renaissance masters, observing: 'What's the use of painting, when I can buy a better picture for a dollar and a half than I can paint myself?'

The remaining rooms of the exhibition bring together a miscellany of portraits, domestic scenes, landscapes, views of Florence and Tuscany and still lifes, by various American and Italian artists, many little known today, which is unsurprising in view of the mediocrity of their works on display. If Henry James had stuck to painting, we are left wondering, would he have ended up no more than a member of this undistinguished, forgotten fraternity?

The essential problem with this exhibition is that, for all the diligent research by the curators and other contributors to the catalog, it fails to find a sufficiently strong narrative thread and its 'American Impressionists' subtitle is applicable to hardly any of the works on show.

The effect of Impressionism on America was relatively slight, despite exhibitions of Impressionists in the United States and the exposure of teachers and students to their works on visits to Paris. There are two pictures here by Mary Cassatt, portraits of her mother and her brother Alexander and his young son, both in Parisian settings. Cassatt was the only American Impressionist of international renown, and though she did visit Italy, she spent most of her life in France.

In parallel with the Strozzi's 'Americans in Florence,' the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, in the vaulted cellars of the Palazzo, surveys some of the latest works of 11 American artists in 'American Dreamers: Reality and Imagination in Contemporary American Art,' curated by Bartholomew Bland.

Adrien Broom is unusual in her biographical notes in recording time spent studying in Europe, in Florence and London in 2006. Her large photographs of female figures in billowing drapery floating ethereally in air and water in states of dream-like weightlessness bring to mind references as diverse as 'Ophelia' by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, Baroque sculpture and the fin-de-siècle Symbolists.

But she is not the only artist here to find inspiration in European art of the past. Will Cotton's hyperrealist paintings draw on the rococo extravagances of Boucher, Fragonard and Tiepolo and the 20th-century pin-up artist Alberto Varga. Cotton's luscious semi-nude starlets floating on clouds of pink and white cotton candy, are simultaneously parodies of commercialism and enticing invitations to buy the product (the artist's 'Cotton Candy Katy' here provided the image for the singer Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' album).

Nick Cave's 'Soundsuits,' costumes made from old fabrics, crotched mats, knitted blankets, buttons, tin toys and other discarded materials, that create diverse noises as the wearer moves about in them, revisit the outlandish stage costumes of the Italian Futurists and Picasso's designs for 'Parade,' staged by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Laborious hand-crafting and recycling of materials play a central role in the works of other artists here. Kirsten Hassenfeld makes complex hanging geometrical sculptures out of drinking straws and old gift-wrapping paper. Mandy Greer constructs fantastical forests from festoons of soft fabrics, encrusted with beads and buttons. Christy Rupp's 'Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans' are skeletons of dodos, Great Auks and moas composed of thousands of chicken and Turkey bones gathered from friends and fast-food joints.

Both Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacops use meticulous modeling skills to conjure up engrossing worlds in miniature. Doyle's world features traditional American clapboard houses imprisoned in glass spheres and domes, with weird apocalyptic things happening to them. And Jacobs's tiny dioramas offer viewers visions of minute parallel universes of mushroom clusters, a fairy grass ring and a Lilliputian urban apartment with views not of city streets but of an ideal, tranquil landscape of tall trees and a winding river.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023