American Impressionist painter Wilson Henry Irvine was born just outside of Byron, Illinois in 1869. Though raised in the Midwest, Irvine was captivated by the scenic coast and landscape of New England and spent most of his adult life there. Painting in the American Barbizon tradition, modeled after the nineteenth century French Barbizon School, Irvine sketched and painted directly from nature preferring to work en plein air. His impressionistic style and choice of subjects are often compared to painters of the American Barbizon School, particularly Irvine’s contemporary, Childe Hassam. Irvine stands out from other American Impressionists of his time, for his willingness to push the traditional techniques of impressionism with his aquaprints and prismatic paintings of the late 1920s.
Shortly after graduating from Rockford’s Central High School, Irvine moved from the suburbs to Chicago in order to attend business school. He worked at the Chicago Portrait Company starting in 1893, and began evening classes at The Art Institute of Chicago two years later. Irvine continued taking courses at the Art Institute for eight years. His classes included life drawing and illustration with a heavy focus on human anatomy. In 1895, Irvine founded the Palette and Chisel Club of Chicago with his classmates, and served as both treasurer and president. It was with this group that he began exploring landscape painting, and soon he began showing his landscapes at group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Initially Irvine’s work is reminiscent of early impressionism, with the artist’s use of lively, visible brush strokes and his emphasis on the contrasts of color and texture to create a sense of depth in his paintings. Though he spent a brief amount of time sketching in Brown County with Indiana based “Hoosier” school impressionists Louis O. Griffith and Harry L. Engle, Irvine’s fondness for the east coast especially the New England landscape, ultimately drew him away fro the Midwest. He began taking painting trips to New England in the early 1900s, including spending a portion of one summer painting on Mohegan Island off of the coast of Maine–a favorite spot for many artists. Ultimately, Irvine chose to establish a home in Brooksound, Connecticut near Old Lyme. He began exhibiting alongside Old Lyme artists in 1914 and became an active member of the Lyme Art Association.
Despite settling permanently in New England by 1918, Irvine received vast exposure and was heavily active in the Midwest art scene, exhibiting his work in both regions of the US. As a successful artist living off of the sale of his oil paintings, Irvine was able to travel frequently, scouting new locations in which to paint landscapes en plein air. During the early 1900s, he traveled and painted in Montana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1908, he sailed to France to visit Paris and paint in Brittany at various sites including Pont-Aven, Trémalo, Concarneau, and St. Malo. After settling permanently in New England, in the company of his wife, he again departed for Europe to explore and paint the coasts of England, Northern Wales, Scotland, and to revisit Brittany, France. Irvine exhibited the results of his European travels in two major shows–a two man show alongside Old Lyme painter Guy Wiggins at Carper Galleries in Detroit, Michigan, and a solo show at Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company galleries in Chicago. In the spring of 1926, he was again represented by Carson, Pirie, Scott in an exhibition in Illinois alongside George Bellows and Winslow Homer.
In the late 1920s, Irvine continued to travel extensively. It was during this period that he began to experiment with etchings and also created an abstract series of what he called “aquaprints” types of monoprints derived from the ancient Japanese method of making marbleized paper. The production of these works was brief and largely overshadowed by Irvine’s more traditional works. Irvine also began experimenting with a method of prismatic painting, in which he would paint from a subject through the refracted lighting of a prism. Irvine showed twenty-two of these paintings in 1930 at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Though the vibrant studies in color and light received harsh reviews from conservative critics, the paintings were generally well received when they were first shown. The prismatic paintings, though not characteristic of traditional impressionism, remain illustrative of a significant moment in the artist’s later career.
In the 1930s, Irvine continued to produce work and exhibit with the Lyme Art Association until his health began to decline and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his home in Lyme, Connecticut. Despite the looming shadow of modernism, and the art market’s shifting tastes, Irvine remained relevant as an impressionist painter until the end of his life.
Written by Lauren A. Zelaya