Painter and illustrator. Remembered particularly for New England landscapes, he worked in an impressionist style tempered by the atmospheric poetry of tonalism. Generally he depicted the hilly scenery of the region in pleasant weather, but he also painted numerous winter views of the same terrain, as well as several unusual but widely praised nighttime images. He forged the personal combination of feathery brushwork and precise observation that secured his reputation after withdrawing late in 1903 for nearly a year of relative isolation in Maine, at his parents' farmhouse home near the Damariscotta River. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he spent much of his childhood in Maine before 1871 when the family moved to the Boston suburb of Cambridge. At sixteen he began working in a Boston wood engraving shop while also attending classes at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art). In 1875 he began a year's instruction with George Loring Brown, and in 1877 he entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. From the early 1880s he worked intermittently as a magazine illustrator until the mid-1890s. Notably, he depicted the Zuni peoples, observed during many months in the Southwest, before departing for Europe in September 1883. In Paris he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he studied with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. While abroad he traveled widely, working during vacation periods in England, Italy, North Africa, and several French locations, including Pont-Aven in Brittany. At Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, he completed Sunset at Grez (Hirshhorn Museum, 1885), a masterwork of his early period. Depicting a slender peasant girl carrying water from the river behind her, it suggests the artist's admiration for Jules Bastien-Lepage's popular synthesis of academic figure construction and atmospheric surroundings. Although Metcalf aspired to become figure painter, the sensitive rendition here of the setting's light and color point to interests that later chiefly absorbed his attention. In the year he completed this work, Metcalf made the first of several visits to Giverny. He may have been the first American artist to arrive there, anticipating the appearance of numerous Americans drawn by Monet's reputation. Although Metcalf's landscapes of the late 1880s demonstrate increasing skill in rendering effects of light with painterly brushwork, he remained partial to a Barbizon sensibility and did not at this time emulate Monet's impressionist technique.
Metcalf returned to the Boston area in December 1888 but before long moved on to Philadelphia and then to New York in search of portrait commissions. During the productive summer of 1895 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he mastered a bright approach to sun-filled outdoor scenes. In 1898 he joined with others to form The Ten. A 1902 visit to Cuba again produced vivid responses to an optically stimulating environment. After consolidating his progress during the 1903–4 interlude in Maine, Metcalf entered a decade of particularly productive and creative accomplishment. On one of his intermittent visits to Old Lyme, he painted May Night (Corcoran Gallery, 1906), a moonlit scene of a woman in flowing dress on the lawn of a porticoed house. Immediately acclaimed, more mysterious and moody than most of his work, it suggests appreciation for symbolist currents and for the example of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. From 1909 until 1920 he often worked around Cornish, New Hampshire, but primarily during the winter months, after the summer art crowd had departed. Among snow scenes painted there, White Veil (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1909) pictures whitened fields and bare trees during a storm. Its decorative arrangement of flattened forms, enhanced by the square format he came to favor, together with its delicate, grayed tonality create an idyll of solitude and aesthetic contemplation. He continued to produce compelling images of nature in its seasonal phases almost until his death at his New York home.