John Henry Twachtman was one of the most original and modern artists of the late nineteenth century. Trained in Munich and Paris, and a member of the most advanced American artist groups of his day, Twachtman was at the forefront of the American avant-garde throughout his career. The work of his Greenwich Period, for which he is best known, was influenced by Impressionism and Tonalism, yet Twachtman's stylistic synthesis was unique. Often compared with Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler, Twachtman developed an experimental technique and explored innovative compositional means to create subtle and poetic images that anticipated directions in twentieth-century abstract painting.
John Henry Twachtman was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Aug. 4, 1853. His parents were immigrants, and his father worked as a decorator of window shades, an occupation in which John joined him at the age of 14. John studied drawing in the evenings, but the most important influence on his artistic formation was Frank Duveneck, who had studied in Munich and settled in Cincinnati in 1873. When Duveneck returned to Munich, Twachtman went with him. He studied with Ludwig Loefftz, and one of his fellow students was William Merritt Chase.
In 1877 Duveneck, Chase, and Twachtman went to Venice, a trip which was a most important artistic event in their lives. Twachtman sent two of his Italian pictures to the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists in 1878 and returned to the United States that same year. But in 1880 he was back in Europe, teaching at Duveneck's famous school in Florence. That summer Twachtman went to Venice and probably met James McNeill Whistler, who may have influenced his etchings, as he did his whole generation. In 1881 he married, and during his wedding trip he painted and etched with J. Alden Weir.
Twachtman's early paintings are in the dark Munich manner, but he was by no means committed to the dark palette, which was passing out of favor. In 1883 he was again in Europe, this time studying in Paris at the Julian Atelier under Jules Joseph Lefebvre. He passed smoothly into impressionism. Back in New York, he exhibited with Weir and taught at the Art Students League with Chase. Twachtman was a decided success and in 1898 was a founding member of the group of painters known as "The Ten." He bought a place in Greenwich, Conn., not far from Weir's, and painted a great deal at Cos Cob, at Greenwich, and at Weir's farm. His palette became lighter and lighter, and in his favorite scenes of snow and ice he achieved a degree of whiteness that went well beyond Claude Monet's winter landscapes.
Twachtman was a particularly pure example of a landscape painter; his figures are few, and there are not many buildings in his pictures. His Connecticut scenes have a unique grace and delicacy; they never follow a formula and are never empty. His poetic pastorals, with their soft and pale gray-green trees and fields, his almost ornately frozen brooks and waterfalls, by no means mirror the man. He was a difficult and melancholy personality, and at the height of his career, alone, depressed, and estranged from his family, he died at Gloucester, Mass., on Aug. 8, 1902.