Sunday, January 1, 2017

C.C. McKim’s Impressionist Vision at Tacoma Art Museum

Photo: “Patton Creek,” oil on canvas by C.C. McKim, collection of Jeff and Esther Clark, photo by Mark Humpal

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 29, 2016
Untitled (Across the Columbia with St. Peter's Dome, oil on canvas by C.C. McKim, collection of Mark Humpal and Diane Zuhl, photo by Mark Humpal, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
Considered one of the Pacific Northwest’s greatest impressionist painters, C.C. McKim was an East Coast transplant who moved to Portland from the East Coast around 1910, and turned out a large body of glowing, Oregon landscape paintings from then until the early 1930s.
American Impressionism was more realistic, more precisely detailed, than the French Impressionism of the mid-1800s that inspired it (Monet, Renoir, Sisley). During roughly the same period there was a grandiose period of American landscape painting exemplified by the Hudson River School and the likes of Albert Bierstadt. McKim combined elements of all these. Shortly after moving to Portland, he began to lighten his palette and paint with a combination of heavy dabs of color and softly blended areas to create sparkling images reminiscent of Monet. Typically his paintings — especially the ones from 1920 and later — had soft, hazy, backgrounds with detailed foregrounds painted with thick dabs of color applied in short strokes.
I do not know if he acknowledged Monet’s influence, but it is clearly in evidence in the 43 landscapes now on display at Tacoma Art Museum. His paintings of Haystack Rock are reminiscent of Monet’s many paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and his untitled painting of the Portland waterfront seen from across the river with softly billowing smokestacks in the background are very much like Monet’s smoky paintings of the railway station at Saint-Lazare. My impression from looking at these paintings is that McKim was on the same path Monet had traveled half a century earlier, but he never went as far; he was never willing to let go of detailed realism.
"Patton Creek," oil on canvas by C.C. McKim, collection of Jeff and Esther Clark, photo by Mark Humpal, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
As you enter the gallery there is a group of woodland scenes to the left with dense foliage and lots of green from the first decade of the century. They’re like calendar art, beautiful but more about the scene than about the elements of painting, with just a hint of the more impressionistic painting to come. Adjacent to these are three snow scenes that are more about the art of color and design. “A Frozen Brook” depicts a vast field of snow with a single clump of trees and a triangular wedge of clear blue sky. It is almost minimalist-abstract in its simple and somewhat radical composition, and the colors are marvelous.
“Across the Columbia with St. Peter’s Dome” is typical of his later work with hazy backgrounds and detailed foregrounds, and as with many of his paintings, the colors are indescribably rich.
“Patton Creek” stands out as the most impressionistic painting in the show and the one with the most atypical colors. It pictures a creek bed lined with overhanging trees whose leaves are flat strokes of yellow.
These paintings celebrate the beauty and grandeur of the Pacific Northwest landscape as depicted by an artist with great sensitivity to color and composition. Despite being admired by many as an outstanding regional artist, he is not well known by the general public. Confession: I had never heard of him, but this exhibition convinces me that his place in art history is well earned. He is an artist whose work should be seen.

Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through March 26, $15, third Thursday free 10 a.m.-8 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

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