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Edmund C. Tarbell

Recognized as the leader of the Boston figure painters, Edmund C. Tarbell was born in West Groton, Massachusetts, in 1862. During his youth, he attended evening drawing classes at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, and at the age of fifteen, he entered the Forbes Lithography firm in Boston as an apprentice engraver.

In 1879, serious about pursuing an artistic career, he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he was taught by Frederick Crowninshield and the German expatriate painter, Otto Grundmann.

Tarbell traveled to France in 1879, joining his friend and fellow Bostonian, Frank Benson, at the Académie Julian in Paris. There, under the tutelage of Gustave Boulanger and J.J. Lefebvre, he continued to develop his growing skills in the depiction of the human figure. At the same time, he received his initial exposure to Impressionism. After making trip to Italy and Germany, he returned to Boston in 1886 and started to make his living as a portraitist.

In 1889, Tarbell began what would become a long and influential tenure as a painting instructor at the Museum School. Around the same time, he turned increasingly to Impressionism, specializing in colorful portrayals of genteel young women in outdoor sunlight. His reputation as an important American modernist was firmly established with "In the Orchard" (Private Collection), of 1891, in which he combined his enduring interest in sound draughtsmanship with a bright Impressionist palette, loose brushwork and Renoir-like composition.

By 1897, his influence within the Boston milieu was such that the New York critic, Sadakichi Hartmann, coined the term "Tarbellite" to describe the work of Benson, Philip Hale, Joseph DeCamp and others following the same aesthetic framework.

Tarbell exhibited his pictures at such prestigious Boston venues as the St. Botolphe Club and the Boston Guild of Artists. However, like most of the Boston School painters, he realized the importance of artistic and critical exposure in New York City. He subsequently exhibited at both the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design.

In 1898, he was invited to join The Ten American Painters, a group consisting primarily of Impressionist-inspired artists, such as J.H. Twachtman and J.A. Weir, which was formed in reaction against the large, stylistically-diverse exhibitions of the Society of American Artists. Tarbell quickly became one of the more prominent and highly-respected members of The Ten and exhibited with the group until its disbandment in 1918.

After the turn-of-the-century, Tarbell began to specialize in interior genre scenes, which many critics compared to 17th century Dutch painting, especially the art of Jan Vermeer. His transition from the freer, more experimental Impressionism of the 1890's to this more structured approach is best exemplified in his "Girl Crocheting of 1904" (Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery), in which a single figure is situated in a simple but elegant interior, suffused in a soft, but cool light. In addition to these classically serene genre pieces, Tarbell continued to paint portraits as well as the occasional landscape and still life. Throughout his long career, he continued to emphasize the importance of technique, especially drawing.

Tarbell continued his affiliation with the Museum School until 1913. In 1918 he moved to Washington, D.C. to assume the directorship of the Corcoran School of Art. While in the capitol, he painted many portraits, including likenesses of Presidents Hoover and Wilson. He retired to his summer home in new Castle, New Hampshire, in 1925, where he remained active as a painter until his death in 1938.

Examples of Tarbell's work can be found in major public and private collections throughout America, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

Biography with permission from

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