Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

Willard Metcalf was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1858 and began his artistic pursuits at the age of 16 when he was apprenticed to a wood engraver while at the same time attending the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston.  Later, he became an apprentice to the Boston landscape painter George Loring Brown, and in 1876, Metcalf enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts where he studied under the tutelage of Otto Grundmann. By 1880, Metcalf opened a studio in Boston and found employment as an illustrator. After a few years of illustration work and through the sale of some of his paintings at the J. Eastman Chase Gallery in Boston, he saved up enough money to finance a trip to France in 1883. 

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Metcalf stayed abroad for five years, first studying at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1883-1884, and later traveled throughout the French countryside to paint in the artists’ colonies of Grez-sur-Loing and Giverny. He first arrived in Giverny about 1885 and is credited as one of the first Americans to establish it as an artists’ colony.  Around this time he met Claude Monet, who had been living in the small village for years prior to the arrival of Metcalf and his compatriots.  Metcalf continued his travels around Europe, but returned to the Giverny over the next three years having become a vital part of the community. Breaking from the traditions of academic teaching and beginning to go directly to nature for his subjects, Metcalf’s time in Giverny resulted in his experimentation with looser brushwork and a brighter palette. Upon his return to America in 1889, Metcalf exhibited a number of his French compositions in a solo show at the St. Botolph Club in Boston. 

In 1890, Metcalf moved to New York and began teaching at the Art Students League and at the Cooper Institute, all the while continuing with his illustration work. In the years following his return from Europe and up to the turn of the century, there were periods of professional struggle as he tried to work out a new direction in his painting. A landscape painter at heart, he eventually found his chosen subjects in his journeys throughout New England, arriving in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1895, heading up to Walpole, Maine, ca. 1903-1904, and down the New England coast again to Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1903 and from 1905-1907.  He also painted in Cornish, New Hampshire from 1909-1911. During his travels, Metcalf remained active in the New York art community and in 1897 was instrumental in founding the Ten American Painters, an exhibition group consisting of notable American Impressionist artists, including William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, and Boston painters Frank W. Benson and Edmund Tarbell, among others.  Metcalf exhibited his work annually with The Ten from its first showing in 1898 to the last in 1919, missing only one year in 1899.

Around 1905, Metcalf experienced a rebirth in the appreciation of his work and over the ensuing years achieved financial and critical success by adapting an impressionist’s technique and high-keyed palette to the depictions of his native country, but did so not by copying a master’s hand but rather by transforming it into a style all his own. Metcalf continued to participate in solo and group exhibitions up until his death in 1925. 

References: Barbara Weinberg, et al., American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, Exh. Cat., (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994); Richard Boyle et al, Willard Metcalf: Yankee Impressionist, Exh. Cat., (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2003); William H. Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony, (New York/London/Paris: Abbeville Press, 1993); Spanierman Gallery, Ten American Painters, essay by Richard J. Boyle, 1993); Willard Metcalf Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.   

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