JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 129 to 139)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 129 to 139)



ABSTRACT—The authors have studied many of the paintings and primary oral and written sources connected with the American impressionist and tonalist painters who worked in New England. This paper presents a summary of the findings to date about paint, paint additives, and the question of varnishing, with special emphasis on technical problems that are of concern to conservators. The research indicates that the techniques used by the two groups were more complex than has been generally thought and that the artists varied widely in their approach to important technical issues, in part because of the different studio practices they learned during their early training. Barbizon-influenced Henry Ward Ranger painted into and on top of mastic resin and advocated varnishing previously unvarnished paintings by other artists, including paintings by Monet. While some sources document John Twachtman's preference for matte surfaces on paintings of certain periods, a number of the impressionist painters may have added media to their paint to make it glossier, perhaps to avoid varnishing later. Of the impressionist painters studied, only Childe Hassam made it clear that he wanted some of his paintings varnished.


A collector of paintings in 1903 might have read in the newspapers about a sale in Paris where a painting by Constant Troyon (1810–65) brought the equivalent of $ 63,000. At the same sale, 11 paintings by Claude Monet (1840–1926) sold for much less—the most expensive one for the equivalent of $4,500 (New York Herald 1903). It is hard for us now to believe that in the early 20th century the works of the French Barbizon painters were much more highly valued than those of the French impressionists.

In the United States, the art world was divided into similar camps around the turn of the century: George Inness (1825–94) had died in 1894, but the tonalist tradition was being carried on by artists like Dwight Tryon (1849–1929) and Henry Ward Ranger (1858–1916), painters who had been strongly influenced by the French Barbizon style. Challenging these painters was a group of slightly younger artists who organized themselves in 1897 as “The Ten.” The Ten was a diverse group, including Childe Hassam (1859–1935), John Twachtman (1853–1902), Willard Metcalf (1858–1925), William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Frank Benson (1862–1951), and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938), artists who painted in a variety of styles but whose work all showed the strong influence of Monet and the other French impressionists. In the United States, the tonalist painters were popular and successful, while most of the impressionists were not. A little more than a year before Twachtman died, he complained that he could not show his paintings because he could not afford any frames (cited in Hiesinger 1991) When Ranger, a leading tonalist, died in 1916, his estate was valued at $400,000 (MacAdam 1982).

One battle in this war of styles between tonalists and impressionists was fought in Old Lyme, Connecticut, a small town on Long Island Sound. In 1899 Henry Ward Ranger visited the area and wrote : “It looks like Barbizon, the land of Millet. … It is only waiting to be painted” (quoted in Andersen 1982, 6). Ranger brought other painters from New York and began an art colony centered around the boarding house of Florence Griswold. In 1903 Childe Hassam arrived; Hassam was one of the leading American impressionists, and he was soon followed by Willard Metcalf and others. The stylistic tension between the two camps is evident in a series of panels the artists painted and mounted on the walls of the dining room of the Florence Griswold House (fig. 1). The upper row of paintings, which was painted first, is much darker and more strongly influenced by the Barbizon style, while the lighter paintings in the lower row were painted after the colony had come under the influence of impressionism.

Fig. 1. Florence Griswold in the dining room of her home, which was decorated by many of the tonalist and impressionist painters who worked in Old Lyme, Conn. Courtesy of Lyme Historical Society/Florence Griswold Museum.

A few years earlier, John Twachtman had left New York and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was often joined by Theodore Robinson (1852–96), Willard Metcalf, and J. Alden Weir (1852–1919). Because of these New England connections—New York artists visiting New England in the summer to paint and in many cases deciding to live there permanently—this study of painting techniques has taken on a strong regional bias. Even though the study is focused on artists who worked in one region, the topic is complicated. In fact, one of the most important points that can be made is that the painters who are now identified as tonalists or impressionists were not members of strict schools that practiced a uniform style and technique.

It seems important to investigate the techniques of these painters now, because there are still direct connections with the art of that time. William Chadwick (1879–1962) was a member of the artists' colony in Old Lyme, and his studio with many of his painting supplies still exists. Henry C. White (1861–1952) was a painter and great friend and biographer of the tonalist painter Dwight Tryon. His studio also still exists and was used by his son, Nelson C. White, and is still used by his grandson, Nelson H. White. We interviewed Nelson H. White, who carries on the tonalist tradition, and also Roger Dennis, who as a young man painted with many of the older generation of impressionists. Roger Dennis is a retired conservator; at the age of 90 he is still an active painter and one of the last American impressionists.

We have treated a large number of American tonalist and impressionist paintings and have found that they are interesting and often complex in technique. Since little has been published about the technical side of American paintings of this period, we decided to investigate a number of primary sources, including archives of dealers who sold the paintings and letters and books written by the artists themselves. This is an ongoing study, and this article presents a summary of our findings to date about the topics of paint, paint additives, and the question of varnishing.


It might have been expected that the American tonalists mixed varnish or other media into their paint or interlayered paint with varnish or oil, since they were the heirs to the French Barbizon painters and to American painters like Inness, who are documented to have done all of these things (Inness 1917). Henry Rankin Poore's (1859–1940) overmantel painting, The Fox Chase (1901–1905), in the Florence Griswold House, which includes caricatures of many of the Old Lyme artists at work, has the words “School of Lyme” flanked by depictions of the two liquids that fueled the painters: mastic resin and rye whiskey. The bottle of mastic is a comment on Henry Ward Ranger, the founder of the art colony who was a strong advocate of mastic varnish, which he used as an ingredient in glazes and in a yellow-toned underlayer into which he painted (Bell 1914). Others talked about Ranger's “golden or russet” tone (Isham 1927, 447); Childe Hassam called it the “baked apple school” (quoted in Andersen 1980, 125).

Ranger's use of varnish mixed in his paint and in a layer below his paint has created different kinds of problems in his paintings. Autumn Woodlands (1902, Florence Griswold Museum) has large amounts of resin mixed into the upper layers of paint that have resulted in solubility problems and possibly contributed to the development of a wide network of traction crackle. In another painting (Connecticut Landscape, 1901, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), Ranger painted his sky over a yellow resinous underlayer; he said he liked to paint into a such an underlayer because yellow is the tone of sunshine (Bell 1914, 108), although in this case the resin appears to have become increasingly yellow over time.

The Wood Chopper (1906, Florence Griswold Museum), by the American tonalist Louis Paul Dessar (1867–1952), has resin mixed with and interlayered with the paint, so that the paint is extremely soluble. It had been spot-cleaned in the past; only the lighter areas were cleaned, damaging some of the artist's glazes. Fear of damage during cleaning, when glazes are removed and the tonal balance disturbed, made some of the tonalist painters develop a deep dislike of restorers (discussed below).

The media that tonalist painters added to their paint obviously varied. Period photographs of the artists at work often show, clipped to the edge of the palette, a double palette cup or “dipper.” Traditionally, one of the cups would hold diluent and one would hold a medium; determining what was in those cups has been one of our pursuits.

There is strong oral tradition that Gifford Beal (1879–1956) used a new, experimental medium when he painted a door panel at the Florence Griswold House. His paint took so long to dry that the other artists made a joke of testing it with their thumbnails when they went in and out the door, with results that are still visible.

Henry C. White and Nelson C. White were known to use Mussini medium, which Dwight Tryon also used (White 1930). Roger Dennis told us that Mussini medium was dark and fluid and made the paint flow well but grew darker with time. Nelson H. White is also aware that it turned dark. While no bottle of Mussini medium survives in the White family studio, there are tubes of paint and jars of medium that date from the first years of this century, including a bottle of Schmincke Medium No. 3, the label of which instructs the artist to apply it to sunken-in spots and then paint into it while it was still wet.

The selection of colors that a painter put on his or her palette became an important issue when impressionism first arrived in the United States in the 1880s. Henry Rankin Poore wrote of his colleagues: “Plunging beneath the tide, they came up with the rainbow tints snapping in their eyes and cleansed of every vestige of bitumen and Van Dyke brown” and “bought no more brown or umber” (Poore 1914, 161–62).

The studio of the impressionist painter William Chadwick has not been used for many years, but Chadwick's easel and other studio equipment, unused panels and canvases, frames, and shipping crates survive, as well as brushes, painting boxes, tubes of paint (including Winsor and Newton, Rembrandt, and Hi-test brands), and a number of palettes. We examined the remains of paint on Chadwick's surviving palettes and did not find any black or brown paint.

An unfinished painting by Guy Wiggins (1883–1962) (Connecticut River Landscape, n.d. Saint Joseph College) shows how Wiggins began with a very free chalk drawing, directly on a bare wooden support, followed by a rough blocking in with flat areas of color. Close examination of a completed painting on the other side of the panel shows that there are still traces of the first sketchy design, which were not covered by the more detailed reworking. An impressionist sketch by William Merritt Chase (Shinnecock Hills, 1891, Wadsworth Atheneum) is inscribed by the artist: “sketch made to illustrate one way to begin a study.” It shows how Chase worked up the design using quick, bold strokes that left a great deal of white ground exposed and achieved the effects of light and texture with an economy of means.

We found that many of the impressionist painters added media to their paint, as the tonalists did. One of William Chadwick's palette cups has dried residues of an oily medium in it. Roger Dennis himself adds a little linseed oil when he paints, and he says that both Childe Hassam and Guy Wiggins added a little oil to their paint to get more gloss; he believes that Willard Metcalf added mastic to his paint. Dennis painted frequently with Charles Ebert (1873–1959) and Frank Bicknell (1866–1943), and he said Ebert was unusual because he did not add any medium, but used paint straight from the tube, while Bicknell used Canada balsam and turpentine. Dennis felt that many of the artists he worked with added medium as they worked because they wanted to avoid applying a varnish later but did not want their paintings to be completely matte. Like painters of all periods, American impressionist painters must have also added medium to their paint to give it the handling properties that they preferred.

A fellow painter wrote that John Twachtman liked to add mastic varnish and turpentine to his paint to help him make the kind of dragging brushstrokes that Twachtman liked (Curran 1910). A painting by Twachtman of his house in Connecticut (My House, 1886–87, Yale University Art Gallery) supports the idea that the artist sometimes added resin to his paint. In several areas, most noticeably in the roof of the portico, he repainted the design using paint with considerable added resinous medium; the reworked areas were more soluble and also may have become somewhat darker. After removal of an old varnish, those areas were noticeably glossier than the surrounding paint. A painting by Frank Benson, in a private collection, also had medium added to certain areas of paint. Some of the upper layers of yellow paint were very easily soluble and appeared to contain large amounts of a soft resin. This paint was difficult to distinguish from a discolored varnish, and in a previous cleaning someone had left old varnish in some areas, while cleaning other areas more thoroughly, giving the painting an uneven, patchy look.

In a painting by Edmund Graecen (Beach Scene at Watch Hill, 1914, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), distinct brushstrokes now look like disfiguring dark stains on the subtle, light-colored design. These areas fluoresce like a natural resin under ultraviolet light. They appear to consist of paint that has discolored, probably because Graecen dipped his brush into a resinous medium when he applied the strokes.


Artists at the turn of the century had access to large amounts of information about how painting materials aged, but the ways they interpreted this information seemed to depend upon whether they were more in the tonalist or impressionist camp. In 1910, the tonalist painter Dwight Tryon told a collector that “the big Ogunquit picture [by Tryon] owned by Freer would get better tone of color in a year or two more” (Bryant n.d.).

The three generations of the White family have a tradition of accepting the effects of time, on their own paintings and on the paintings that the family has collected by other artists, perhaps out of fear that the interference of a conservator will affect the tone of a picture (White 1992). In 1935 Henry C. White sent a picture to a conservator with the underlined instructions: “Nothing to be done to the face or front of the picture at all” (White 1935). Nelson C. White wrote a biography of Abbott H. Thayer that included Thayer's essay, “Restoration: The Doom of Works of Art.” Thayer wrote: “The restorer's whole legitimate business with a picture is with its back. … One touch that attempts the minutest restoration or modification of their appearance is necessarily worse than insentient time and the elements can possibly inflict” (White 1951, 245). Henry Ward Ranger went one step further, threatening that if any conservator used a solvent on one of his pictures and damaged a glaze, “I shall be awaiting Mr. Restorer on the other shore, mighty close to the landing” (Bell 1914, 125).

These tonalist views of the effects of time on paintings are in strong contrast to the views of a painter like James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). At the famous 1878 libel trial of Whistler v. Ruskin, Whistler was asked whether he put his paintings outdoors to mellow. He said, “I certainly do put the canvases into the garden that they may dry in the open air while I am painting, but I should be sorry to see them ‘mellowed’” (Whistler 1890, 6).

Childe Hassam seems to have understood how impressionist pictures, with their emphasis on pure color, could be injured by the changes that can occur over time. Hassam wrote in tribute to his fellow artist Gari Melchers (1860–1932) that his “work was so sound and sane and clear that if we could come back and look at these pictures three hundred years from now … we would see them as they are today” (Hassam 1933). Hassam's account of the beginnings of impressionism credited English watercolor artists as being “the first to work out of doors with a clear palette—the very medium called for clarity with its white paper, and no oil or varnish to turn dark brown” (Hassam 1933).


One of the initial goals of this study was to try to make sense of the views of American tonalist and impressionist painters on varnishing. We found that varnishing practices at this period appear to vary from one artist to another and from period to period within some artists' careers. Similar variations on the part of French impressionist painters were described in a recent study by Michael Swicklik (1993).

It seems clear that many American tonalist paintings were intended to be varnished, especially the darker, more Barbizon-influenced ones. This is the case with the 33 paintings in the dining room of the Florence Griswold House. According to oral tradition, the artists themselves “went over” the paintings with varnish at intervals, and in fact when we treated the paintings we found that many of them had complicated varnish histories.

Henry Ward Ranger, the leader of the tonalists, was a strong advocate of varnishing paintings. For varnishing he recommended mastic resin, applied in two thin layers rather than one thick one (Bell 1914). In 1914, he derided the fashion of 30 years earlier for matte paintings by painters who imitated Monet. In fact he made efforts to get owners to varnish previously unvarnished paintings, including paintings by Monet, because in Ranger's view the paintings would look better and be better protected from grime and fading. To support his position, he argued that the dealers Durand-Ruel had begun some years previously to varnish their Monets, and he wrote that “these pictures have also gained by the treatment” Bell 1914, 75).

In 1916 Dwight Tryon wrote in a letter that Autumn Night (1916, Freer Gallery of Art) was so dense with oil glazes that he had to wait several weeks before he could apply a final varnish (Merrill 1990). But there are other paintings by Tryon that were not varnished, perhaps by chance or perhaps because the paint was already fairly glossy because the paintings had been oiled out or were painted with a medium-rich paint. Henry C. White (1930) explains how Tryon could have ambivalent opinions about gloss: while Tryon liked the matte effect of paint which was applied directly to wood, he said its brilliance could be restored later by varnishing.

A study of the large collection of pictures by the three generations of the White painters still owned by the family shows that some are varnished, while others have never been varnished. Nelson H. White thinks that his grandfather had no fixed policy on varnishing. He remembers looking at paintings with his father and discussing each one separately, asking whether it would benefit from varnishing or not. Nelson H. White still uses this process to judge whether to varnish his own paintings; he feels that some types of paintings may need varnish more or less than others—a foggy, midtoned scene, for instance, may look better with less gloss.

Such case-by-case decision making about varnishing might be closer to the way that choices were made 100 years ago than many conservators suspect. Those who consult written references only might reach inaccurate conclusions about a painter's varnishing practices.

With the American impressionists the question of varnishing is even more interesting. Did many of them intentionally avoid varnishing in order to achieve “that dead, dull, lackluster, nontransparent look to the surface so much prized by some modern painters, who take special pains to bring it about” (Abendschein 1909, 63), or did they wish to avoid the distortion that a discolored varnish would give to their colors?

Looking at the paintings themselves, a conservator is faced with interesting and sometimes conflicting evidence. In the collections of some museums, usually smaller museums where many of the paintings were donated by the artists, descendants of the artists, or first owners, we have found many unvarnished paintings. On the opposite extreme, in a survey of a corporate collection in which most of the pictures were purchased recently from major dealers, we found that there was a much higher percentage of varnished paintings. We have also noticed that paintings by lesser-known artists are more likely to be unvarnished than works by better-known artists, perhaps because the less well known works have rested quietly in storage for many years.

It is interesting that Roger Dennis feels strongly that the American impressionists he knew did not varnish their pictures and that varnish on an American impressionist painting reflects a decision by a dealer rather than the choice of the artist. But paintings by several artists contradict this observation. For example, we have seen a number of paintings by William Chadwick that have been varnished and then were retouched by the artist over the varnish. In these cases it is absolutely certain, based on the evidence of the paintings themselves, that the artist intended to have these paintings varnished.

A search for written evidence of varnishing on the part of the American impressionists uncovered very few references, except for the case of Childe Hassam, who wrote to his dealer in 1919 about his flag paintings: “I will not let them go anywhere until I have varnished them all this fall or early winter” (Hassam [1919]).

Other artists are silent about the varnish question, and their silence tends to reinforce Roger Dennis's recollection that the artists he knew rarely talked about varnishing. But Dennis believes that artists often added medium to their paint so that they would not have to apply varnish. They wanted to avoid varnishing first of all because they were afraid of the yellowing of the varnish, but they were also conscious of the fact that varnishing, by saturating the colors slightly differently, could change the subtle color and value relationships they saw on their easels.

Roger Dennis believes that, unlike Monet, American painters did not want a dead-matte effect. And in fact when unvarnished paintings have been protected from the effects of light and air by glass or by a wide frame rabbet, the paint is often surprisingly glossy. This glossiness helps to confirm what Dennis described: that the look of the paintings when they were new may have been glossier than is now seen and that a proportion of the matteness of unvarnished paintings may come from an accumulation of grime and from deterioration of their surfaces.

It is well documented that the French neo-impressionists sometimes put their paintings behind glass instead of varnishing them (Herbert 1968), and we have found written evidence that Frank Benson, Bruce Crane (1857–1937), Carleton Wiggins (1848–1932), and Guy Wiggins all asked their dealers to have certain pictures framed behind glass at one time or another (Benson 1926; Crane 1920; C. Wiggins 1922; G. C. Wiggins 1922).

John Twachtman is the only painter we know to have been documented as wanting some of his paintings to look matte. One of Twachtman's students wrote that during the 1890s, when Twachtman was working in Connecticut, “he [Twachtman] deliberately avoided an unctuous, varnishlike effect and would frequently expose his pictures to sun and rain to relieve the pigment of superfluous oil and thus produce a uniform mat or dry surface” (Clark 1924, 58). Twachtman's preference for matteness is especially interesting because he began his studies with Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), who apparently liked very glossy varnishes. In 1879 one of Duveneck's students reported that Duveneck varnished his paintings with “coach varnish which made them shine like mirrors and was the despair of Doll [Duveneck's dealer] who could not get it off” (Duveneck 1970, 79).

John Douglass Hale reported that Twachtman's son confirmed the story about his father leaving paintings out in the sun and rain (Hale 1957). It is difficult for a conservator to believe that many of Twachtman's paintings would have survived if they became rain soaked, although, like Whistler, he may well have put his paintings outside in fair weather to speed the drying of the oil. It is also difficult to explain the contradiction between Twachtman's desire for a dry surface and his addition of mastic resin to his paint, which would have made it more glossy.

A number of Twachtman's Connecticut paintings have remained unvarnished, and they often have a matte appearance, but there are also a few that have been varnished for many years. My House, discussed earlier, had a very old overall varnish, as did The Cascade (ca. 1890s, Newark Museum of Art) (Spanierman 1987).

Horseneck Falls (ca. 1890s, private collection), one in a series of paintings of the waterfall on Twachtman's property in Greenwich, has a moderately matte surface and has never been varnished. It is painted over an ochre-colored imprimatura, which Twachtman often used during this period, that lies over a white ground, which in turn lies over another design. (Twachtman frequently painted over recent compositions [Hiesinger 1991)]. In a number of places the upper painting and second ground have flaked off, revealing portions of the first composition. The paint that was used in the first painting is glossy and has a solubility indicating that resin was mixed into it.

Many of Twachtman's paintings of this period are matte, but the exact degree of matteness intended by the artist is difficult to judge 100 years after they were painted. Apart from any possible intentional aging of the surfaces by Twachtman himself, the intervening years can make an unvarnished surface look more matte. The contradictions between the written evidence that describes Twachtman's preference for a matte final effect and his apparent addition of a resin to his paint also make it difficult to draw more specific conclusions about Twachtman's preferred final surfaces.


The written sources and the paintings of the American tonalists and impressionists present evidence that is complex and sometimes contradictory and confusing, perhaps because the tendency has been to see the paintings of this period as more straightforward in technique than they actually are. This complexity can be explained in part by the fact that neither American impressionism nor tonalism was a monolithic movement; many of the painters came to their mature styles late, after training in a variety of different styles. And many of the artists continued to evolve even after they developed a mature style; Childe Hassam flirted with tonalism when he first arrived at Old Lyme, and even Henry Ward Ranger's paintings became somewhat more impressionistic toward the end of his life.

Instead of contradictions and inconsistencies, conservators may be seeing in part the diversity of choices that were available to artists by the first part of the 20th century. The writer D. H. Lawrence, who traveled and painted in the United States during the period when many of these pictures were made, wrote about these choices: “the mediums to be used, the vice of linseed oil, the treachery of turps, the meanness of gums, the innocence or the unspeakable crime of varnish: on allowing your picture to be shiny, on insisting that it be shiny, or weeping over the merest suspicion of gloss and rubbing it with a raw potato” (Lawrence 1988, 78).


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LANCE MAYER and GAY MYERS are both graduates of the conservation training program at the Intermuseum Conservation Association Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio. From 1978 to 1981 they were conservators at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Since 1981 they have been in New London, Connecticut, where they spend the majority of their time working as independent conservators for many large and small museums as well as private collectors. Authors' address: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, Conn. 06320.

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Copyright 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works