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Tarbell, The Quiet Master

Edmund Tarbell, 1904 - A Girl Crocheting
A Girl Crocheting, 1904

Edmund Charles Tarbell was born on April 26, 1862 in northern Massachusetts. Tarbell studied in Boston and trained in Paris under Jules Joseph Lefebvre where he learned the Academic rigors of Classicism in the late 1800's, and while studying in the museums he was also inspired by the French painters of Impressionism. This new approach to color and light would have a profound influence on his work. Tarbell would synthesize this soft brushwork with his Classical training into his own distinctive aesthetic of mood, light and silence while capturing his American era. While most of his contemporaries painted both in plein air and interiors, Tarbell painted mostly quiet interiors with pensive women that is unique in that his brushwork is breathtaking.

In A Girl Crocheting above, Tarbell uses a dimly-lit window as his light source for a woman crocheting. Note the loose copy of Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X on the wall. Her chair seems to echo similar ornate details of the Pope's chair without the gilded texture. Tarbell's brushstrokes on the wall and window itself are scumbled thick in some areas yet his values and accurate hues are spot on. I love the way the top right corner darkens into warms and greens yet looks perfectly natural. And her reflection on the table contains warm, almost chalky strokes that cool into greens towards the rim of the table. Like DeCamp and his contemporaries, Tarbell sought to find meaning in the simple, quiet moments of modern life in sharp contrast to the grand drama of religious and historical painting. This kind of moody genre painting works because it is real, not affected...and celebrates peacefulness without the din of the outside world.

Edmund Tarbell, 1907 - Three Girls Reading 25x30
Three Girls Reading, 1907

Tarbell's use of sunlight, flooding these windows with golden, scumbled strokes would have made Sargent blush. This is a treasure of interior American Impressionism. By arranging the figures with two in the corner and one in the foreground Tarbell creates space and perspective, with the two women brightly lit while the foreground figure is in slight silhouette. The two women are leafing through a book while the foreground woman is reading something of her own. The way that Tarbell suggests fabric and textures with his brush is true mastery of tonality here. Painting whites under light and shadow is no easy task. The woman holding the book by the window glows in a deep yellow blouse and the way her face and hair are rim-lit is so delicate...Tarbell indicates the faintest, cool shadow of her head against the wall. Compare this with the strong tones of the floor. Tarbell's palette extends from muddy greens to oranges and even a muted magenta, with even more unusual greens underneath the table. Yet it all works in concert. Natural. Vibrant. Relaxing. And Beautiful.

Tarbell, Edmund Charles - Preparing for the Matinee - Google Art Project
Preparing for the Matinee, 1907

Tarbell's work is defined by moments that we usually blink right through and miss. This delicate young debutante adjusting her hat in the mirror is both innocent and sophisticated at the same time. By her young age it makes us wonder if she doesn't attend very much or if it is her first time to the matinee, or whether she is dressing for a young boy, or merely trying to appear more sophisticated like the older women. Her face is painted in a warm, very subtle shadow with a slight glow on her neck...her cheeks rosy from embarrassment, possibly. Contrast this with those creamy brushstrokes of her blouse. I love how Tarbell's palette here is also uniquely refined, with neutral colors and accents of black, that blue ribbon around her collar, and the patterned green chair she sits in. This is a unique angle in that we cannot see her reflection and becomes a study of her self-consciousness and eagerness to become a woman. See below a photograph of Tarbell painting a substitute model to get the folds of her blouse right:

Tarbell in his studio

Mrs John Lawrence
Mrs John Lawrence, 1912

Possibly the wife of US Congressman John Watson Lawrence from New York. This lovely portrait, in a very warm palette, captures the grace and poise of a young woman confident in her sensuality and social standing. I love the way her finger presses against her head, that direct gaze and perfectly coiffed hair...the cool greys of that cushion chair...this is a simple portrait with style and elegance. Regrettably this version is low-res, but in person this portrait would be wonderful to observe.

Edmund Charles Tarbell - Au verger
In the Orchard, 1891

This piece is generally accepted as having risen Tarbell's status to a recognized painter of his era. One of the few outdoor Impressionist works he painted, it has a charm and bright palette that is refreshing to watch. The woman to the far right gazing at us is Tarbell's wife. I admire how Tarbell's skin tones are always accurate. Tarbell's foliage here is painted in warm greens that must be a treat to observe in person. Look at the motley of colors in the woman's dress at far left, using blues and yellows to reflect the sunshine falling on her. I love the woman seated away from us, with her graceful neck and interesting blend of warm tones in her dress' shadows. Tarbell captures a sunny afternoon in a way that is relaxed yet visually rich with texture and light.

Love the gorgeous purple veil that moves across the canvass in this poetic oil study. I would be curious to know if Tarbell furthered this into a full painting.

Edmund Tarbell, 1899 - Across the room 25x30

My favourite of Tarbell's work, it has a strong Sargent influence but it has a grace and quiet strength in his bravado brushwork here. The floor itself is a lesson in Impressionism. Dry brushstrokes that seem to dance from side to side, and in the bright reflections his use of white in the greens from the window is so can even see tints of magenta there. I love how she is slumped on the sofa, looking blankly at us, half-hidden in a slight shadow. Her dress once again has a complex palette of green and yellow ochre tints. Tarbell suggests her left arm with one long stroke. This is an incredible study of light, mood, texture and quiet. Tarbell reminds us that painting need not be always painfully long studies in detail as his early Academic training instilled...that the brush has a language of its own, and by learning to really see and feel the moment, Art can become pure meditation. For the viewer and the artist.

Pinterest page with works by Tarbell


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