An Unsung Impressionist
By Courtney S. Kopplin
For generations, Vose Galleries has welcomed the opportunity to shine a light on the work of ‘unsung artists’ throughout art history, and in the sphere of American Impressionism there is perhaps no artist more deserving of this attention than Theodore Wendel. As part of the first wave of Americans to visit Giverny in the summer of 1887, joining John Leslie Breck, Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson, Wendel became one of the earliest painters to apply impressionist principles to his plein air interpretations of the French countryside; sources later reported that the master himself, Claude Monet, who limited his interactions with the Americans, thought highly of Wendel’s work.
In March of 1889, shortly after settling in Boston, Wendel organized a three-day viewing of his pastoral landscapes at a studio on Boylston Street, coinciding with Metcalf’s exhibition of foreign paintings held nearby at the St. Botolph Club. Both artists garnered positive reviews from the local press, and over the next several years Wendel maintained an active exhibition schedule, including a two-person show with Theodore Robinson in 1892, featuring both oils and pastels; several solo and group shows with his fellow Boston artists at the St. Botolph Club; and a solo show at Chase Gallery in 1894 which inspired the following reaction from the Boston Evening Transcript:
“Mr. Wendel has been influenced by Monet and his ilk very much, but his work is the least mannered and the most conscientious of any of the so-called impressionists on this side of the ocean, and it appears to us to have more of nature in it than the majority of the ultra modern landscape painters.” (1)
Image, left: Blossoming Trees, Giverny, oil on canvas on wood panel, 16 1/4 x 20 1/2 inches, signed lower right: Theo Wendel
Wendel’s teaching post in Gloucester was not his first; he gave lessons to women artists in Newport, Rhode Island, in the mid-1880s, before going abroad to France, and from 1892 until 1897 he was an instructor at Boston’s Cowles Art School, where he met his future wife Philena Stone. The extra income teaching provided, combined with his steady roster of exhibitions, allowed Wendel to feel more financially secure in his profession and in 1897 he and Philena were married, with artist and lifelong friend Joseph DeCamp serving as best man.
Image, left: Newport, 1884, oil on canvas on Masonite, 16 5/8 x 20 1/2 inches, signed lower left: Theo Wendel 84
Following a year-long honeymoon spent exploring France and Italy, the Wendels relocated to Philena’s ancestral homestead in Ipswich, where the village and the family’s lower and upper farms on Argilla Road would serve as the artist’s personal version of Giverny for the latter part of his career.
Image: Theodore Wendel painting daughter Mary, Upper Farm, Ipswich, circa 1915.
Although firmly planted in Ipswich, Wendel remained involved with Boston’s exhibition circuit for the next two decades, soon adding the Guild of Boston Artists to his résumé in 1914, and earned the respect of the era’s foremost Impressionist artists. Edmund Tarbell applauded his abilities, commenting in 1909:
“I know of no landscape painter whose work represents so many of the effects of nature…or who can put down what he sees with greater truthfulness.” (2)
Wendel also sent work to venues outside of New England, including annual displays at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which awarded him the prestigious Jennie Sesnan Gold Prize for Winter at Ipswich in 1908 and acquired the painting for its permanent collection.
Image, left: Girl Seated under a Canopy of Trees, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 18 1/4 inches
After his death, his work was tucked away by the family until a 1976 collaboration between the artist’s son Daniel and John I. H. Baur, director emeritus of the Whitney Museum in New York, reintroduced Wendel to the art world in his first solo show in generations.
At the time, Vose Galleries was privileged to assist Daniel with the logistics of lending several paintings to the exhibition, including three featured in this catalogue: Haying in Front of Heartbreak Hill, Ipswich; The Lower River, Ipswich; and Pitching Hay, Upper Farm.
Our efforts would not have been possible without the dedication of Laurene Buckley, Ph.D., Museum Consultant and Art Historian. Her recently-published monograph on the artist, Theodore Wendel: True Notes of American Impressionism, is the culmination of years of research and an invaluable source for this introduction. Our gratitude is equally beyond measure. Available through the Artist Book Foundation, the 172-page volume offers an in-depth narrative of the painter’s life and legacy, from his Midwestern upbringing and early training under Frank Duveneck in Germany, to finding his calling in Giverny and his years faithfully interpreting the scenery of Gloucester and Ipswich. It has reaffirmed our belief that Wendel deserves to be better known, and we hope to do our part in bringing his brilliance to light.
(1.) “The Fine Arts,” Boston Evening Transcript, April 2, 1894, 6. (2.) “Honors and Praise for Mr. Wendel,” Boston Evening Transcript, January 30, 1909, 5. (3.) “New Associates of National Academy,” Boston Herald, June 7, 1908, 1. (4.) Letter dated December 25, 1932. Wendel Family Archives.