Williad Metcalf Catalogue Raisonne, Biography, and Works
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Not only was Willard Metcalf a good painter who played a significant role in the development of the art of his time, but he touched upon the way people felt about the American landscape in all of its variety. Like his friend John Twachtman, Metcalf was a landscape painter from the start; he had a feeling for it. He became known as the quintessential painter of New England landscape in which he was born. The directness of his style and its absence of artificiality was not only appropriate to the subject but was prized by his peers. He was appreciated, in the words of the contemporary critic Royal Cortissoz, for the "sincerity and force with which he puts familiar motives before us."

Willard Metcalf and John Twacthman, ca. 1900.
Willard Metcalf and John Twachtman, ca. 1900. (Elizabeth de Veer)

Like many of his colleagues, Metcalf started his career as a wood engraver, and after a short apprenticeship with the noted landscapist, George Loring Brown, Metcalf attended the Boston Museum School, where he was one of its first scholarship students. Also, like many of his colleagues, he turned to illustration as a means of making money, an activity he engaged in from 1881 to about 1896. It was an activity that led him to the Southwest in 1881, where through his illustrations for Harper's and Century magazines, he became one of the first artists to document thoroughly the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona for a popular audience. (In fact, he was even made an honorary member of the Zuni tribe.)

In 1883, Metcalf went to France, where like most American artists of his time, he continued his studies in Paris. He studied at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre. While abroad, he absorbed the major stylistic tendencies of the day -- from the academic through Barbizon and Plein-air to Impressionism -- both in Paris and during summer sojourns at Pont Aven, Grez-sur-Loing and Giverny. Sunset at Grez (1884-85; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), The Ten Cent Breakfast (1887; the Denver Art Museum, Colorado), and Mid-Summer Twilight, (1888; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), are outstanding works of this period.

He returned to the Boston area in 1888, where he had a one-man show at the St. Botolph Club. By 1891, he was established in New York City supported by illustration assignments, teaching, and some portrait work. In 1896, he won the coveted Webb Prize at the Society of American Artists' Annual Exhibition with his painting, Gloucester Harbor (1895; Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts).

The following year he composed the statement of secession for The Ten American Painters who broke away from the Society to exhibit on their own, and who constituted a kind of academy of American Impressionism. In 1899, he painted two murals for the Appellate Court building in New York City, but a 1904 trip to Maine caused a decisive change for the better in Metcalf's style. His quiet and luminous depiction of the New England countryside was marked by a happy combination of native realism and French Impressionism. It was from this time of his self-proclaimed "Renaissance" that he began to be known as the premier painter of the New England countryside. Though he maintained a studio in New York City, he painted throughout New England. He painted at Old Lyme, where he was a prominent member of that Artists Colony; he painted in the Berkshires and in Cornish, New Hampshire, which was also a well-known artists colony; he worked at Chester and Springfield, Vermont; and in Maine, at Casco Bay and the Damariscotta peninsula. And throughout, his wiry brush-work and clean-cut color, a method and style analogous to the poetry of Robert Frost, was especially appropriate to the subject he chose and which he painted with such "sincerity and force."

Willard L. Metcalf died in New York City in 1925. His paintings are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Freer Collection, Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and many other public and private collections.

Dick Boyle

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