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

For Immediate Release

January 10, 2008

The first exhibition to explore “painting softly,” a previously 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 the evidence of their hand. 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.

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 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 sought to remove themselves as intermediaries between the work and the viewer.”

As Whistler 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 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a striking example of how painting softly capitalizes on the power of suggestion over description.

Inness’s paintings, too, seemed as if “breathed upon the canvas in waves of color,” according to Elliot Daingerfield, a critic and fellow painter. Inness 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 (Art Institute of Chicago) were painted with a complex, often multi-layered technique that yields a richly suggestive softness.

While working in San Francisco from 1983 to 1994, Simpson first saw Dennis Miller Bunker’s Pines Beyond the Fence (Private collection) and was impressed by the technical prowess of Bunker yet perplexed by how such g definition could be achieved without obvious contour and obvious brushstrokes. Years later Simpson rediscovered the same sensibility in looking at some of Whistler’s nocturnes and questioned how and why the painter would use two significantly different approaches—one virtuosic and the other “soft”—in producing works done at the same time and showing virtually identical subject matter. Simpson’s research led him to works by a variety of painters that have individually been called Impressionist, Tonalist, or Symbolist but that, through their quiet surfaces and soft-contoured subjects, invite a quiet, contemplative approach to looking.

Whistler and Inness strove to achieve a kind of truth by removing the trace of their own hand. In doing so, Whistler’s nocturnes and portraits and Inness’s landscapes inspired a generation of artists to experiment with “painting softly.” 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.

While painting softly most readily manifests itself in landscape paintings, it is also transferred to portraits and figure paintings. Like Breath on Glass presents severalpaintings including William Merritt Chase’s The Young Orphan (At Her Ease) (National Academy Museum, New York), and John White Alexander’s Le Rayon du Soleil (Private collection) to illustrate the versatility of painting softly.

Like Breath on Glass is accompanied by a catalogue with 100 color illustrations published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press. The project is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art and by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Clark

Set amid 140 bucolic acres in the picturesque Berkshires, the Clark is one of the few major art museums in the United States that also serves as a leading international center for research and scholarship. In addition to its extraordinary collections, the Clark organizes groundbreaking special exhibitions that advance new scholarship and presents an array of public and educational programs. The Clark’s research and academic programs include an international fellowship program and regular conferences, symposia, and colloquia. Its programs draw university and museum professionals from around the world. The Clark, together with Williams College, sponsors one of the nation’s leading master’s programs in art history and encompasses one of the most comprehensive art history libraries in the world.

In June 2008, the Clark will open Stone Hill Center, the first phase of its expansion and campus enhancement project. Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Tadao Ando, the wood and glass 32,000-square-foot building will house new intimately scaled galleries, a meeting and studio art classroom, an outdoor café, and the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC).

The Berkshires, a region of rolling hills in western Massachusetts, has been a haven for cultural activity since the first half of the nineteenth century. The Berkshires are home to a wealth of cultural institutions that in addition to the Clark include: Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, MASS MoCA, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Williams College Museum of Art, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, among many others. For more information, visit or call 413-458-2303.


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