“American Painters in Italy: From Copley to Sargent” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an intimate exhibition of works from 18 American artists illustrating the influence of Italy on their art. Drawn from the museum's collection, it includes drawings and sketches as well as a number of watercolor paintings.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people interested in pursuing a career in art were encouraged to travel to Italy to study that country's long artistic history and culture. Of course, only a few had the means to make the arduous trip across the Atlantic from America. Still, beginning with Benjamin West in 1760, a number of American artists who would later achieve lasting fame made the journey.
For example, Thomas Cole traveled to Italy in 1825 during a sojourn that took him to England and several European capitals. In Italy, he enrolled in art classes in Florence and made copies of works by Italian Renaissance masters. He also ventured out and made sketches of the Italian landscape. When he returned to the United States, he incorporated what he had learned in his landscapes. Thus, Cole's time in Italy can be said to have influenced the Hudson River School and American landscape painting.
The exhibition contains a number of works done as part of such educational journeys. For example, there is a page of drawings by Thomas Sully of works by Michelangelo. There is also a watercolor copy by Julian Alden Weir of a painting by Botticelli.
Italy's influence on American artists is shown in other ways. For example, J. Carroll Beckwith's chalk drawing called “The Veronese Print.” is a portrait of a Victorian era woman.. The reference to the Italian Renaissance master Paolo Veronese in the picture's title is to a print on the wall behind the sitter.
Of course, American artists traveled to Italy for purposes other than studying. In 1879, James McNeil Whistler traveled to Venice to do a series of etchings for the Fine Art Society in London. While he was there, he did nearly 100 pastel drawings of the city. His “Note in Pink and Brown” is an intriguing drawing of a scene from one of Venice's canals. Whistler omits unnecessary detail to produce a vague, dream-like atmosphere.
The highlight of the exhibition is a series of watercolors by John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence, Italy to expatriate American parents, Sargent traveled often to Italy. Most of these watercolors are landscapes of Venice or studies of architectural features. His watercolors are freer than the commissioned portraits for which he is best known. Furthermore, the colors are more vivid in the watercolors, more like those of his friend Claude Monet.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.