Impressionist John Leslie Breck, 'Lost In History,' Gets Charlotte Showcase
In the late 1800s, impressionism was one of the art world’s hottest topics. The style of painting in the moment, often in nature, with visible brush strokes, was both loved and hated. The French painter Claude Monet is seen as the style’s standard-bearer, but American art connoisseurs around that time would also have associated another name with impressionism: John Leslie Breck.
A showcase of the American painter’s work in 1890 was even heralded by the Boston Evening Transcript as the art sensation of the season. Breck grew up in Massachusetts but later moved to France, studying in Paris and eventually meeting Monet in Giverny, where his impressionist art flourished. That show in Boston in 1890, when he was visiting, is credited as helping introduce the style to the U.S.
“He continued to show every couple of years his impressionist paintings in Boston and got great reviews and really came to be seen as kind of the heir to Monet’s legacy in American art and one of the leaders recognized for bringing impressionism to America,” said John Stuhlman, senior curator of American art at Charlotte’s Mint Museum.
The rising star died just nine years later at age 38.
“His death is tragic,” Stuhlman said. “We wonder what he would have done beyond impressionism after the turn of the 20th century.”
Breck’s work was largely forgotten. Stuhlman says many paintings that weren’t sold while he was alive wound up with family members. Information on Breck’s life is harder to come by than other well-known impressionist peers, and only a handful of American museums own his art.
But starting this weekend, more than 70 of Breck’s paintings will be on display at the Mint Museum’s uptown location. According to the museum, it’s the first retrospective of Breck’s paintings since he died.
The Mint got its first Breck painting — the canvas “Suzanne Hoschede-Monet Sewing,” which depicts one of Monet’s stepdaughters — in 2016. Museum staff has been working on the exhibition for years. But Stuhlman says he’s been learning about Breck since the 1990s when he first saw the American impressionist’s work.
“I think it’s that kind of mystery of finding out more and trying to figure out, how do artists who, in their day, are very highly regarded and well-known kind of get lost in our history,” Stuhlman said. “Then it takes someone to kind of rediscover and help to bring them back out to light.”
So Stuhlman and others have done that. In addition to curating the exhibition, he’s one of several Breck researchers who contributed writing to a catalog about the artist and his work that will be available at the Mint.
Many of the paintings on display haven’t been seen by the public in more than 100 years. Some of the pieces come from Breck’s family members, other private collections and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Stuhlman said Breck’s descendants were more than willing to loan his art for the exhibition.
“They were certainly aware that there had never been a big retrospective of his work since his death in 1899, and I think that they were certainly pleased that he was getting his due, so to speak,” Stuhlman said.”
Stuhlman says Breck’s paintings are unique though distinctly impressionistic. For example, one of Monet’s more famous series included paintings of haystacks depicted during different times of the year. Breck did a similar series but focused instead on how haystacks looked at different times of the day. Twelve of those are on display at the Mint, as are paintings that depict coastal Massachusetts landscapes, apple trees and other natural scenery.
One of Stuhlman’s favorites on display is a painting called “Silence.”
“It’s just a beautiful scene looking out across a little tributary to the Charles River,” Stuhlman said. “It’s this twilight time of day, and it’s just a gorgeous painting with beautiful greens and blues and purples and a touch of orange in the sky.”
The majority of Breck’s work focused on landscapes rather than portraits — something that set him apart from many contemporaries.
“If you love the natural world,” Stuhlman said of the exhibition,” it’s a great, great place to come get lost in.”
“John Leslie Breck: American Impressionist” opens Saturday at Mint Museum Uptown. Admission is free all weekend. There will be live music at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by a discussion on Breck’s work and a catalog signing with Stuhlman. Stuhlman and art historian Royal Leith will hold a discussion on Sunday at 2 p.m. followed by another catalog signing.