First Exhibition to Explore “Painting Softly” Opens at the Clark June 22

For Immediate Release

June 04, 2008

The first exhibition to explore “painting softly,” a distinctive and unexamined approach to painting exemplified in works by James McNeill Whistler and George Inness, will be presented at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute from June 22 through October 19, 2008. Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly brings together forty paintings by leading American artists working around 1900, including Whistler, Inness, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, Eduard Steichen, and others, to examine this style of painting through which artists obscured their brush strokes. Generally thought of as an era of virtuosic brushwork—where touch and surface were nearly as important as the subject being painted—the exhibition will trace a quieter approach to painting that evolved during this period.

“The Clark is engaged in providing new ways to look at well-known artists,” said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. “This exhibition invites a re-examination of the work of America’s leading artists at the turn of the twentieth century in which the artists challenged the very nature of making art and by removing themselves as intermediaries between the work and the viewer.”

The larger-than-life Whistler hardly seems to be someone who would wield a soft brush. Infamous for his cantankerous behavior and his libel suit against art critic John Ruskin, in Whistler’s art one sees his softer side. He once stated, “Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” The result of this counsel is a body of contemplative and meditative paintings that, like the mist of breath’s condensation on a pane of glass, appear on the canvas without evidence of the artist’s hand. Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and SilverThe Lagoon, Venice (1879-1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a striking example of how painting softly capitalizes on the power of suggestion over description. Inspired by evening strolls along the Thames, damp with London fog, paintings like Nocturne in Blue and Silver (1872-1878, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut) seem to be made of mist themselves, the ghostlike river bank dissolving into the canvas.

Inness’s paintings, too, seemed as if “breathed upon the canvas in waves of color,” according to Elliot Daingerfield, a critic and fellow painter. For Inness painting was not a record of a physical vision, but the means to suggest a spiritual truth. He developed works of vaporous mood as depictions of a spiritual world parallel to the physical one. These evocative and metaphysical landscapes such as The Home of the Heron (1893, Art Institute of Chicago) were painted with a complex, often multi-layered technique that yields a richly suggestive softness. The spiritual power of this mood is articulated by Daingerfield’s description of Eventide, Tarpon Springs, Florida (1893, Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, Massachusetts), who wrote of the painting, “he who would know its profundities must sit with it, dream with it, and so he shall come to know that true art bears a message to the Soul of man.”

Whether responding to Whistler’s technical challenge or Inness’s spiritual aspirations, a generation of artists was inspired to experiment with “painting softly.” Through soft lines and blurred edges these artists worked to create a seemingly unmediated experience between the viewer and the subject. For some, including John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Dennis Miller Bunker, it was a brief exercise. Others, such as John White Alexander, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Eduard Steichen, and John Twachtman, sustained this sensibility in their work for many of their most important paintings.Dewing, for example, produced a series of highly decorative landscapes, occupied by elegant women in evening dress. Transforming the landscapes of Cornish, New Hampshire, into a rarefied space of flickering nature-infused beauty, these paintings were reserved for the few patrons sensitive enough to appreciate them.

While the mysterious, evocative mood of soft painting most readily manifests itself in landscape paintings, it also appears in portraits and figure paintings from the era. Like Breath on Glass presents several such paintings including William Merritt Chase’s The Young Orphan (At Her Ease) (1884, National Academy Museum, New York) and John White Alexander’s A Ray of Sunlight (The Cellist) (1898, private collection). Further illustrating the versatility of painting softly, Whistler himself applied his technique of thin washes of paint to a few full-length portraits. Examples in the exhibition include Arrangement in Yellow and Gray: Effie Deans (c. 1876-78, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (1884, Carnegie Museum of Art).

Like Breath on Glass is organized by the Clark and curated by Marc Simpson, curator of American art. The Clark will be the exclusive venue for this exhibition. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with 100 color illustrations published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press. The exhibition was organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and by a contribution from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci.

The exhibition will open with a community open house, and opening lecture, “Like Breath on Glass: The Hard Work of Painting Softly,” on June 22. Other lectures include “Night in the City: Whistler, Fireworks, and Dancing Girls” on August 10, “Higher Forms of Truth: The Late Works of George Inness” on August 24, and “In Praise of Shadows” on September 7. The “Vision of the Gilded Age: Film Adaptations of Henry James and Edith Wharton” film series will be held on selected Saturdays in July and August. “Listening to Mr. Whistler,” a special event co-hosted by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, will be held August 4.

The Clark is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown. The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm (daily in July and August). Admission June 1 through October 31 is $12.50 for adults, free for children 18 and younger, members, and students with valid ID. Admission is free November 1 through May 31. For more information, call 413-458-2303 or visit


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