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ROBERT VONNOH 1858-1933       

In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow, 1890 (copyright date, 1914)

originally Coquelicots (Poppies)

Oil on canvas, 58 x 104" (147.32 x 264.16 cm.)

Signed, lower right

Museum purchase, 919-0-114

 

While the best known colony of American impressionist artists in France was established in Giverny, the home of Claude Monet, the aesthetic developed in other rural art centers as well, most notably in Grez-sur-Loing, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. There, the principal agent for the introduction of Impressionism was the Boston painter, Robert Vonnoh. Vonnoh attended the Acad6mie Julian in Paris in 1881 and returned to Boston in 1883, teaching at the newly formed Cowles School in 1884 and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1885. After his marriage in 1886 to Grace D. Farrell, he and his bride may have honeymooned briefly in Grez; the following year, he returned to France for further study at Julian's, but beginning in the fall of 1887, he spent much of the next three or four years in Grez, before returning to Boston in the spring of 1891.
Many of Vonnoh's figural canvases of the 1880s reflect his allegiance to strong, tonal Naturalism, but by 1888 he was beginning to work out-of-doors on bright, colorful landscapes and nature studies of flowers, which reflect his involvement in the Impressionist aesthetic. Indeed, Vonnoh's art of the late 1880s suggests an almost schizophrenic artistic persona; it is difficult to believe that the same painter created in the same year, 1888, both his dark, strongly modeled Companion of the Studio (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and his several depictions of flaming, brightly colored Poppies (Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago), shadowless and pushed up against the picture Plane, and executed with slashing brush and palette knife work. But, like a good number of American painters of the period, Vonnoh was reluctant to surrender in his figure paintings the academic precepts he had labored so dearly to master, while in his landscape work, for which academia training had offered little preparation, he felt freer to investigate newer, more modern strategies. Vonnoh's "conversion' to Impressionism has been attributed to the influence of the Irish painter, Roderic O'Conor, who had adopted the bright, unmixed hues and thick impasto of Impressionism by 1886, and may have been in Grez as early as that year. Vonnoh may also have been led to Impressionism through the example of Alfred Sisley, working nearby in Moret-sur-Loing.
The several renditions of Poppies were both finished nature studies in their own right, and preparatory for his 1890 masterwork, Coqtwlicots, the largest and most ambitious painting of his career. The subject of poppies was a common one in French and Impressionist painting. It had recently become especially associated with Claude Monet, two of whose Giverny poppy field paintings of 1885 had garnered tremendous attention when they were included in the first great American show of French Impressionist art held in New York City at the American Art Association in April of 1886. Poppies had been painted in Grez in 1885 also, by the Swedish painter, Karl Nordstr6m (Malmo Museum, Sweden) and the American, Theodore Robinson (formerly, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York City). And in 1886, a group of American painters, John Singer Sargent, Edwin Blashfield, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Frank Millet, were all painting poppy pictures in the art colony of Broadway in the West of England. At the same time that Vonnoh was completing Coquelicots, Childe Hassam was investigating the theme in the garden of the poet, Celia Thaxter, on the Island of Appledore off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine.
None of these paintings, however, were as ambitious as Vonnoh's Coquelicots. Though Coquelicots is undoubtedly a studio composition, Vonnoh maintains the free, unoutlined and unstructured character of his earlier small poppy pictures throughout the landscape elements, while the figures of the young woman picking flowers, the two children behind her, the distant farm wagon and horses, and the buildings on the horizon are more firmly rendered, each defining a distinct spatial plane and providing organization to the spatial recession of the vast canvas. Of his involvement with Impressionism, Vonnoh wrote: "I gradually came to realize the value of first impression and the necessity of correct value, pure color and higher key, resulting in my soon becoming a devoted disciple of the new movement in painting." Vonnoh's wife posed for the principal figure, and for a small oil study of the principal figure, formerly entitled Study for Picking Tulips and now called Picking Poppies, which was bequeathed to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. by Vonnoh's widow, his second wife, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, in 1955.
With its vast scale, Coquelicots was designed as an exhibition piece, meant to appeal to its many viewers. Despite the small farm wagon, the agricultural field here is a source of pleasure, not backbreaking labor. The attractive young woman in the foreground is linked in beauty with the brightly colored flowers, a bunch of which one of the children waves jubilantly in the air. The painting was exhibited at the (Old) Salon annual exhibition in Paris in 1891, and then at the International Exposition held in Munich in 1892. It was in Munich that Coquelicots achieved tremendous renown, the great art historian, Richard Muther, writing of the "gleaming and flaming picture of a field of poppies . . . less like an oil-painting than a relief in oils. The unmixed red had been directly pressed on to the canvas from the tube in broad masses, and stood flickering against the blue air; and the bluish-green leaves were placed beside them by the same direct method, white lights being attained by judiciously managed fragments of blank canvas. Never yet was war so boldly declared against the conventional usage's of the studio; never yet were such barbaric means employed to attain an astounding effect of light."
Coquelicots, now entitled A Poppy Field, was included in Vonnoh's one-artist show held in February, 1896, at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York City. On the one hand, the American critics admitted their astonishment at his advanced strategies: The New York Times noted that Vonnoh "has achieved capital results in the matter of vibrating color, light and astonishing brilliancy . and that "Broken color, touches of various pale tones of blues, yellows, reds, violets and other tints, never crude or spotty, rarely obtrusive, give a vibration, a realism quite remarkable." Yet, pictures such as Poppies were felt by that same critic to "utterly lack the sentiment and poetry with which the portraits are invested."
Coquelicots did not sell. Vonnoh went on to create only one more large-scale figural work set out-of-doors, The Ring (1898, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). After many years, Coquelicots resurfaced as Poppies in the December, 1914, winter exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and then appeared in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, where Vonnoh won a gold medal. By then, the original signature and date had been removed, and the picture had been resigned with a copyright date of 1914. Poppies then was shown early in 1916, first at the City Art Museum, St. Louis, and then at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, in a two-artist exhibition of Robert Vonnoh's paintings and Bessie Potter Vonnoh's small sculptures. By 1919, when the Butler Institute acquired the picture, the work had been retitled again. The sculptor, J. Massey Rhind, had suggested to Joseph G. Butler, Jr., the title Flanders- "Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow," a reference to the German invasion of Belgium during World War 1, and to the 1915 poem, "In Flanders Fields," by the Canadian surgeon, John McCrae. Though the joyous sentiments projected by the painting are antithetical to the tragic expression of McCrae's poem, Vonnoh did, in 1919, finally succeed in finding a proper repository for his masterwork in the Butler Institute collection.

WILLIAM H. GERDTS