Robert William Vonnoh (American, 1858-1933)

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  • With no horizon line or path for the eye to follow, the composition pitches forward to emphasize the flat surface of the canvas. Even the shadows offer little sense of depth. The vigorously painted red and gold blossoms seem to float over their green stems.
  • This painting captures a moment when Vonnoh experimented with pure Impressionism in the style of Monet—painting quickly and outdoors with broken brushwork and intense contrasting colors. It dates from the summer that he learned Impressionism at the artists’ colony of Grez, France, making this one of the earliest American Impressionist paintings.
  • Like many Americans, Vonnoh later tempered his technique to a more moderate approach to brushwork and color.
An Early Example of American Impressionism

Robert Vonnoh may not be one of America’s best-known Impressionist painters, but he was the first American artist to bring Impressionism to this country. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1858, Vonnoh moved to Boston in his youth. He taught William Glackens, Robert Henri, and John Sloan, who became part of the group known as the Ashcan School. Vonnoh made numerous trips to France, first to study at the Académie Julian and later to settle in the area of Grèz-sur-Loing, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Numerous paintings created in France were displayed at the Paris Salon. He also had a one-man show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and he was principal instructor in portrait and landscape painting at the Academy from 1891 to 1894. During his career, Vonnoh was considered one of the foremost landscape and portrait painters in America. For twenty-five years, he was part of the artists’ colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut.

During his second stay in France, Vonnoh painted Poppies, which is related to a large canvas of poppy fields in Flanders from the same year. Because of their intense hues, poppies were a favorite subject of the French Impressionists. Vonnoh’s depiction of a poppy field in France gives the effect of having been painted quickly and directly before the subject. With no horizon or path for the eye to follow out of the foreground, Vonnoh’s landscape seems to pitch forward, emphasizing the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. At a distance, the choppy strokes and daubs of pigment resolve into a luminous picture that incorporates the Impressionist techniques of broken brushwork and complementary colors. Poppies is one of the earliest paintings by an American Impressionist to rival the work of the French Impressionists.

Vonnoh, Robert and Mary Brawley Hill. Grez Days: Robert Vonnoh in France., New York: Berry Hill Galleries, 1987.

Mrs. McMorris (mother of the artist Daniel McMorris, close friend of Robert Vonnoh); private collection Kansas City, Missouri; (Berry-Hill Galeries), New York, New York; purchased by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1971.

Object Information

Robert William Vonnoh (American, 1858-1933)
creation date
oil on canvas
13 x 18 in.
20-7/8 x 26-1/16 in. (framed)
accession number
credit line
James E. Roberts Fund
Public Domain
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

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