Edmund Tarbell


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Painter. A leading Boston artist, in the 1890s he spearheaded the impressionist movement there. Later he specialized in softly finished, elegant, and pearly interiors inhabited by women of cultivated leisure. They characteristically pursue quiet activities, such as reading or sewing, amid tastefully selected decorative objects suggesting antiquarian and orientalist interests. Tarbell also painted portraits and still lifes. A popular and influential teacher, he served on the faculty of Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1889 until 1913. Born in West Groton, northwest of Boston, Edmund Charles Tarbell spent most of his youth in Dorchester (now part of Boston). He worked at a lithographic company and took drawing classes before entering the Museum school in 1879. In the fall of 1884 he left for Europe, where he remained for nearly two years, broken only by a visit home in 1885. In addition to visiting other European art centers, in Paris he absorbed the academic tradition at the Académie Julian and studied also with New York-born expatriate figure and portrait painter William Turner Dannat (1853–1929). Around 1890 Tarbell abandoned the rather dark and academic style he had mastered in Paris in favor of a colorful, feathery, impressionist treatment of mostly outdoor scenes. However, the figures, predominately women, who inhabit these works continue the solid draftsmanship of his French training. The paintings secured his national reputation, and in 1898 he numbered among the founding exhibitors in The Ten. As the 1890s drew to a close, he turned more frequently to light-filled indoor scenes that suggest his appreciation for Degas's innovative compositions and for Japanese prints. Early in the 1900s, he closely studied the work of seventeenth-century Delft painter Jan Vermeer, whose international reputation had been enthusiastically rehabilitated in recent decades. Tarbell's exquisitely crafted signature style draws on the Dutch painter's taste for the abstract beauty of serene domesticity, but also continues to acknowledge impressionism's interests in light and informal structure. Although technically conservative and retrospective in tone, his work in this mode generated such popularity among local painters that he is often identified as the leader of a Boston School. Remaining in great demand nationally as a portraitist, his commissions included likenesses of three presidents, as well as international figures and leading businessmen. In 1918 Tarbell became head of the Corcoran School of Art (now Corcoran College of Art and Design) in Washington, D.C., but continued to spend much of his time in Boston, where he retained a studio until the end of his life. When he left this position in 1926, he retired to his New Hampshire vacation home in the village of New Castle, on an island just east of Portsmouth. He died there, forty-five years after his first summer visit.

Subjects: Art.

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