In the January 2013 issue of PleinAir, art historian Laurene Buckley, Ph.D., introduces readers to the artist once called the “discoverer of Monet.” Ohio-born Theodore Wendel (1859-1932) abandoned the “Munich palette of muted browns and gray-greens” and championed the “blue-green of Monet’s Impressionism” when he created plein air landscapes.
The following is the complete text of Dr. Buckley’s article, including the endnotes that were omitted from the January 2013 issue of PleinAir. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reproduce all of Wendel’s paintings mentioned in the text, but they are reproduced in the print and digital editions of PleinAir.
The story of the plein air painter Theodore Wendel follows the trail of one of the first 19th-century Americans to convert to Impressionism through direct access to Claude Monet in France. After three decades of relative obscurity, Wendel’s art and life deserve renewed attention.1
Field of Daisies, ca. 1896, oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Private collection; photograph courtesy Vose Galleries, Boston
As a boy, the artist loved outdoor sports and, according to family legend, even joined the circus as a teenager. He was also passionate about art and was fortunate to live near Cincinnati, home to the McMicken School of Art and Design of the University of Cincinnati, where he enrolled in 1878. After a year of demanding courses in design and drawing from antique casts, Wendel was ready for something new. An older Cincinnati artist, Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), had returned from his training in Munich with a new style, one of spontaneous brushwork and thick, dark coloration. Wendel followed him back to Munich and enrolled in the city’s prestigious Royal Academy, which offered an even more rigorous course of studies. He stayed long enough to receive a bronze medal in the annual student exhibition.
The summer, however, was spent at the nearby village of Polling, mostly because the charismatic Duveneck was teaching an international school there, and the “Duveneck Boys,” Wendel among them, could live and work cheaply in the town’s abandoned Holy Cross Monastery. By November of 1879, Duveneck had moved the group to Florence, and eventually to Venice, where Wendel shared a room with another Ohio artist, Joseph DeCamp, “on the Fundamento [sic] San Biagio, with the island of San Giorgio just opposite and the famous palace of the Doges in full view.”2 Here they worked alongside James McNeill Whistler, who taught them to seek out the less “touristy” sectors of the city for their subjects. Byways of Venice, a slice of one of the city’s more obscure canals, reveals Wendel’s first mature style in its buttery application of paint, dark shadows, and earth tones. The severe verticality also shows Wendel’s lifelong experimentation with design.
A brief return to Cincinnati in 1883, a three-month stay in Boston, and a longer sojourn in Newport, Rhode Island, where Wendel taught an outdoor class for women, led to further training of his own in Paris, to study at the Académie Julian. During the summers of 1886 and 1887, Wendel joined the first American colony to paint in Giverny, France, where Claude Monet had settled.3 “There is still a very great charm in the uncommon character of light and color here for me,” he wrote.4 “This iridescent shimmer in the land provokes experiment and tends to run up large color bills.”5 It was during this time in Giverny that Wendel’s work evolved from a Munich palette of muted browns and gray-greens, as in The Brook, Giverny, a view along a branch of the River Epte, to full blown Impressionism, as seen in Turkeys on the Wall, a brilliantly lit scene of a mother and child tending their turkeys. Lavender, ochre, and lime greens now prevail in the wheat fields and the ever-present grain stacks of agrarian life.
The Bridge, Ipswich, Massachusetts, ca. 1908, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. Private collection
Back in Boston in late 1888, Wendel invited friends and the press to a borrowed studio on Boylston Street for an exhibition of his Giverny “landscape pictures and sketches.”6 In the next few years, he would be ranked among those artists who had been stricken by “the blue-green of Monet’s Impressionism and ‘got it bad,'” according to one critic.7 Around 1890 Wendel’s French subjects began to be replaced by domestic ones, particularly those of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he was painting and sometimes teaching. The exquisite Field of Daisies, features a Monet-like mass of wind-blown blooms along a serpentine path leading to the sea. The broad areas of the canvas are layered with rich applications of paint, but for the spritely daisies, he used a palette knife to quickly daub their yellow and white petals — the effect, a scintillating picture of nature’s energy.
Two prestigious teaching positions came Wendel’s way in 1892: a two-year stint as instructor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and a five-year assignment at Cowles Art School of Boston, where his future wife, Philena Stone, was a student. Following a year’s stay in Venice, the couple settled into a house still owned and occupied by Philena’s mother at 28 County Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The artist lost no time, however, in securing a studio in Boston, submitting his recent work to national venues, and re-connecting with former colleagues. The summers of 1900 and 1903, in fact, were spent in Gloucester with Duveneck, DeCamp, and others from the Munich and Venice years. Painted Sails, Gloucester shows Wendel’s “faculty of making constantly new combinations of picturesque design,” as one critic noted.”8 Its close-up study of the shoreline boulder and toy boat, echoed by the “real” sailboats in the distance, demonstrates the artist’s interest in compositional innovation but also his Impressionist palette — a visual tapestry of blue-greens, muted browns, and pale pinks. Like his Hudson River School predecessors, Wendel includes a tiny figure as surrogate to this inspired view.
Ipswich in the Snow, ca. 1908, oil on canvas, 25 x 28 in. Private collection
If Gloucester offered broad and close-up views of beach and sea, Ipswich gave the artist year-round scenes of a typical New England village of winding roads, stone fences, a town green, and vintage houses suspended in time.9 The Bridge, Ipswich, is one of Wendel’s major works, a depiction of the town’s County Street Bridge, with its double-arched stone foundations that allow passage over the Ipswich River at one of its narrowest points. Design is once again uppermost; with so little of the sky visible, Wendel “flattens” the image with a mirror image of the bridge and arch as they are reflected in the gushing waterway.
Ipswich in the Snow captures just a glimpse of the town’s church steeple and surrounding houses, warmed by the last gleams of winter’s sunshine. The painting not only proves that Wendel painted outdoors year-round but demonstrates his special love of the winter season. Tangled webs of barren trees, their last dry leaves grasping the snow-laden branches, are here beautifully realized. Long blue shadows follow the curves of the town’s popular sledding hill and offer clues as to the time of day.
Ipswich eventually became the dominant theme of Wendel’s art as he spent more and more time there, first on the “Lower Farm,” inherited from Philena’s parents and located at the outskirts of Ipswich on Argilla Road. The 60 acres of farmland, primarily hayfields and cattle pasturage, included a large 17th-century half-timbered house. From here Wendel could take in extensive views of the glacial peninsula, including landmark drumlin islands and beaches. In one direction, he had a spectacular view of the marshes and water. In another sweep, he could paint the “upland” rolling hills and farms.
One such “upland” scene is Field of Flowers, Ipswich. When shown in 1913, the work was seen as an example of Wendel’s propensity to sit “down anywhere and [do] the most pleasing thing in sight — in this case some patches of autumn flowers on a hillside with a New England farmhouse up against the sky. The purples and yellows are strong without being crude, and the sky has a pale green cast that is characteristic of this region.”10
Autumn in New England, ca. 1918, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in. Private collection; Photograph courtesy Vose Galleries, Boston
When the Lower Farm was sold in 1915, the Wendels had already purchased another parcel of land, dubbed the “Upper Farm,” closer to the village of Ipswich, at what is now 89 Argilla Road.”11 Wendel was by now a full-fledged “gentleman” farmer, devoting much of his time to running the farm but always finding time to record the scenes of agrarian life before his eyes. A panoramic view under an immense sky is the subject of Haying on the Upper Farm of circa 1912. Rows of piled hay lead diagonally into the main scene, anchored by a horse-drawn wagon being loaded by farmhands. In the background, the golden fields of wheat are flooded by burst of mid-day sunshine.
Autumn in New England of circa 1918 is an excellent example of Wendel’s last style, one of intense color and continued experiments with composition. Here uniform patches of wild grasses, painted in quick, even strokes of ochres and greens, stretch across the horizon line. A chevron-shaped line of water lilies zigzags its way between the grasses, where two tiny figures appear to be fishing off their rowboat. But the New England autumn is most evident in the variety of trees forming the backdrop to the scene. Red maples, willows, and pines, each individualized and energized with staccato dots of color, confirm the artist’s astute observation of nature, especially in this glorious season of vibrant hues.
In summary, no major study of this artist’s work has been done since a small retrospective exhibition and catalogue was produced by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1976.12 Once called the “discoverer of Monet,” and ranked as one of the country’s “foremost American landscape painters in 1894, Theodore Wendel’s story truly deserves a reevaluation and renewed appreciation.13
- A full monograph on Wendel’s life and art, along with a traveling exhibition curated by this author, is in progress.
- Joseph DeCamp to Hiram DeCamp, April 25, 1880. Collection of Dorothy Olson. For more on DeCamp, see Laurene Buckley, Joseph DeCamp: Master Painter of the Boston School (Munich and New York: Prestel, 1995).
- Other artists included the American John Leslie Breck, Theodore Butler, Philip Leslie Hale, Willard Metcalf, Louis Ritter, and Theodore Robinson; the Canadian Blair Bruce; and the Englishman Dawson Dawson-Watson.
- Letter from Wendel in Giverny to Anna Falconnet Hunter [one of his Newport students who kept diaries of her lessons], September 16, 1888. Anna Falconnet Hunter Papers, Newport Historical Society, Rhode Island, Box 98.
- “The Fine Arts,” Boston Sunday Herald, March 24, 1889, p.13; and “The Fine Arts,” Boston Evening Transcript, March 21,1889, p.4.
- Greta, “Boston Art and Artists,” Art Amateur, 17 (October 1887); 93.
- “The Fine Arts,” Boston Evening Transcript, December 29, 1903, p.10.
- William M. Varrell, Images of America: Ipswich (Chaleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), p.7.
- “Pictures by Americans,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 24, 1913, p. 16.
- Thomas Franklin Waters, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. II: A History of the Town from 1700 to 1917 (Ipswich, Mass: Ipswich Historical Society, 1917), p. 731.
- John I.H. Baur, Theodore Wendel: An American Impressionist, exh. cat (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1976).
- H[elen] M. K[nowlton], “The Discoverer of Monet,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 9, 1893, p.4; and “The Fine Arts,” Boston Herald, April 1, 1894, p.13.