Painter and etcher. Primarily a landscape artist, he ranks among the finest American impressionists. However, in his most distinctive work, he abandoned the movement's analytical approach to color and light. Instead, he emphasized decorative color and form as keys to the inner meaning of nature. Much of his work suggests the meditative hush of tonalism. Preferring subtle color harmonies perceived under even illumination, he often painted winter scenes that capture delicate effects of light reflected on snow and ice. Indebted as were so many of his contemporaries to the example of Japanese art, he often devised flattened patterns that sometimes undermine representational veracity. In this, as in his interest in art's spiritual and psychological dimensions, he anticipated goals of the modernist generation that followed. A Cincinnati native, John Henry Twachtman began his training at the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati). There he encountered Frank Duveneck, who took his talented pupil with him when he returned to Munich in the summer of 1875. Twachtman studied at the Royal Academy and adopted the rich, painterly style associated with Munich's realist painters. In the spring of 1877 he traveled to Venice with Duveneck and William Merritt Chase for an extended stay. About a year later, he returned to Cincinnati but moved to New York that autumn. There he associated with other progressive artists, soon becoming a member of the Society of American Artists and the Tile Club. During another year in Cincinnati, in the winter of 1879 he made the first of some twenty etchings, indebted in their approach to the example of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's popular work. Except for a trip home in the spring of 1881, from the fall of 1880 until December of the following year, he traveled and worked in Europe, with extended periods in Italy and, with J. Alden Weir, in Holland. Following another Cincinnati sojourn, in 1883 he departed to study in Paris at the Académie Julian with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He also painted in rural locations during this European visit, which proved decisive to his artistic development. Extending an emphasis on drawing and simplified composition, which had begun in the months before his departure, he forged a personal synthesis from varied contemporary sources, including the work of Whistler and French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage as well as impressionism. He also began working extensively in pastel, a medium congenial for its synthesis of line and color.
Following an autumn in Venice with Robert Blum, he returned permanently to the United States in January 1886. In 1889 he settled in a Greenwich, Connecticut, farmhouse on about seventeen acres and began commuting to New York to teach at the Art Students League. He taught also during summers in Cos Cob. During the 1890s Twachtman occasionally traveled to paint at other scenic locations but mostly drew subjects from his rural acreage. As he returned repeatedly to motifs found there, his distinctive personal style came to fruition. Austere but intimate, sensuous yet ethereal, Icebound or Snowbound (Art Institute of Chicago, 1889) pictures the pond he called Hemlock Pool. The screenlike painting's grays and whites, enlivened by the orange-red of a few clinging leaves, surround the arabesque edge of dark, greenish water. Although it demonstrates the artist's commitment to the impressionist bedrock of visual sensation, the work deviates from the broken colors associated with the French movement, instead building the image from thickly applied layers of paint. In 1898 he exhibited as a founding member of The Ten. During the final three summers of his life he worked at Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he adopted a more spontaneous approach, incorporating brighter colors and more gestural brushwork. Brilliantly transcribing ephemeral effects, these included the last works he completed before his death there.