Willard Leroy Metcalf

Artist Biography

An American Impressionist best known for New England landscapes

By Alexandra A. Jopp

Willard Metcalf, a founding member of the “Ten American Painters,” worked in an Impressionist style tempered by atmospheric poetry.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Willard Metcalf, a contemporary of Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, and John Twachtman, was a well-regarded Impressionist artist, teacher and illustrator who became known as a classic painter of the landscapes of his native New England. One of the “Ten American Painters” (also known as “The Ten”), a group whose members resigned from the Society of American Artists to form their own (small) association, Metcalf influenced many painters while teaching at Cooper Union and the Art Students League in New York. He achieved great fame in his lifetime, winning a Webb Prize in 1896 for his painting Gloucester Harbor (1895), being elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and having his work exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Willard Leroy Metcalf, known to his friends as “Metty,” was born July 1, 1858, in Lowell, Mass., to Greenleaf Willard, a violinist with the Boston Orchestra and Margaret Jan Gallop. He spent much of his childhood in Maine before the family moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1871. His early artistic gifts were celebrated by his parents, and Metcalf started working in a Boston wood engraving shop while attending classes at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now the Massachusetts College of Art.) At age 16, he was apprenticed to the painter George Loring Brown, and two years later, he was admitted to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, where he received one of the school’s first scholarships and studied under William Rimmer.

In 1883, Metcalf went to Europe for the first time, and while there, he traveled broadly, painting in England, Italy, North Africa and several French locations. In 1885, near Fontainebleau, he completed Sunset at Grez (1885), a stunning success from his early art career. He studied in Paris at the prestigious Académie Julian and painted landscapes at Grez near Barbizon, Pont-Aven, Brittany and Giverny, in the company of some of the best painters of his generation. Drawn by French Impressionist Claude Monet’s reputation, he may have been the first American artist to arrive to Giverny in 1886 before the area became a veritable colony of American Impressionists. While Metcalf’s landscapes of the late 1880s reveal increasing skill in brushwork and the use of light, the artist remained partial to the atmospheric poetry of Tonalism and the Barbizon tradition of painting outdoors. He did not copy the technique of Monet, whose children he tutored in the study of flowers and birds. Rather than adopting a consistent style, in fact, Metcalf allowed his subjects to determine his technique.

In 1888, Metcalf returned to the Boston area, where he held a one-man exhibition at the St. Botolph Club. Two years later, in search of portrait commissions, he moved to New York City. His prolific year of 1895 was marked by bright, sun-lit outdoor scenes inspired by his summers in Gloucester, Mass.

Metcalf was a sociable man who enjoyed gathering with companions for long evenings of dining and drinking; however, he had unhappy and tawdry relationships with women, marrying twice and divorcing twice. His first wife, Marguerite Beaufort Hailé, was a stage performer from New Orleans who was 20 years his junior and served as his model for murals he painted for a New York courthouse. They began living together in 1899 and were married in 1903. The marriage was brief and ended when Marguerite ran away with painter Robert Nisbet, a former student of Metcalf’s.

In 1909, the artist, attracted by the area’s winter scenes, moved to Cornish, N.H. According to Deborah Van Buren, “there are probably more known paintings of the Cornish landscape by Metcalf than by any other colony members.”1 Writer Catherine Beach Ely said that “he gives us the mood of snow-filled air and the frost feeling of Winter among lonely hills and trees; [he] gives us also the first disintegrated breach of Spring on deep New England snows.”2

Spring came again to the artist’s life in 1911 when he married Henriette Alice McCrea, with whom he had two children. This marriage also failed, however.

Metcalf had a gift for drawing and a fortune for travel, and from 1920 to 1924, he painted all over New England. He continued to produce compelling scenes of nature in its seasonal phases almost until his death at his home in New York in 1925.

II. Chronology

1858 Born on July 1 in Lowell, Mass.
1876 Opened a studio in Boston and received a scholarship at the Boston Museum School
1882 Held an exhibition at the J. Eastman Chase Gallery in Boston, the sales from which financed his study trip abroad
1883 Went to Europe
1888 Returned to the Boston area
1890 Opened a studio in New York, where he worked for several years as a portrait painter, illustrator and teacher
1895 Painted in Gloucester, Mass., and stopped working as an illustrator
1902 Traveled to Cuba to make painted studies in preparation for a mural commissioned by a tobacco company
1903 Married to Marguerite Beaufort Hailé, a stage performer 20 years his junior; exhibited with “The Ten” and made the first of many trips to the colony at Old Lyme
1905 Summered in Old Lyme with his friend Childe Hassam
1907 May Night (1906) won the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s gold medal and was purchased for $3,000, becoming the first contemporary American painting to be bought by that foundation
1909 Attracted by its winter landscapes, Metcalf moved to Cornish, N.H
1911 A large one-man exhibition toured the country; married his second wife, Henriette Alice McCrea
1913 Spent nine months painting in France, Norway, England and Italy
1909 -1920 Worked around Cornish, N.H., primarily during the winter months
1923 Painting Benediction sold for $ 13,000, then a record sum to be paid to a living American artist
1925 Died from a heart attack in New York City on March 9

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
Akron Art Museum, Ohio
Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, IN
Bush-Holley Historic Museum, Greenwich, CT
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA
Cornish Colony Museum, Windsor, Vermont
Dallas Museum of Art
De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA
Denver Art Museum
Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT
Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH
LaSalle University Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi
Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY
Musée d'Art Américain Giverny
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts-Springfield, MA
Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM
Muskegon Museum of Art, MI
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art
North Carolina Museum of Art
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Rhode Island School of Design-Museum of Art
Rochester Art Center
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College
San Diego Museum of Art
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA
The Brooklyn Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art-Ohio
The Columbus Museum-Georgia
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, FL
The Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH
The Detroit Institute of Arts
The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY
The Huntington Library & Gallery
The Hyde Collection, Glen Falls, NY
The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
The University of Michigan Museum of Art
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, MD
The White House
University Of Kentucky Art Museum
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
Yale University Art Gallery

IV. Exhibitions

1879-89 Boston Art Club
1883, 1893-1919, 1924 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
1888 Paris Salon
1893 Columbian Expo, Chicago,
1896 Society of American Artists
1898-1919 Ten American Painters
1900 Paris Expo
1901 Pan-American Expo, Buffalo
1904 St. Louis Expo
1905 Fishel, Adler & Schwartz Gallery, New York
1906 St. Botolph Club, Boston
1910-11 Montross Gallery, New York
1907-23, 1925 Corcoran Gallery of Art
1910 Art Institute of Chicago
1910 Buenos Aires Expo
1912 Newport Art Association
1925 Milch Gallery, New York
1996 Spanierman Gallery, New York
1999 Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts & Letters
American Watercolor Society
Century Association
League of American Artists
National Institute of Arts & Letters
The Players
Ten American Painters (founding member)

VI. Notes

1: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 15.

2: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 15.

VII. Suggested Resources

Chambers, Bruce W., et al. May Night: Willard Metcalf in Old Lyme. Florence Griswold Museum, 2005.

De Veer, Elizabeth and Richard J. Boyle. Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf. Abbeville Press, 1987.

Hiesinger, Ulrich W. Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters. Prestel-Verlag, 1991.

Torchia, Robert Wilson, Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998.

Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington (rev. ed.), 1988.

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