J. Alden Weir’s career spanned more than 50 years, from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I. In that time, the course of art in America had taken a path from the late portion of the Hudson River School into Modernism. A central figure in art circles, Weir was an active force in the professionalization of art in America, helping to found new institutions and joining with others to advance artists’ opportunities. As Weir’s art grew and matured, he shifted directions as new innovations in art appeared, but ultimately he held firm to a mature style against the grain of change toward abstraction. His work, a fusion of a decorative style of painting and modern subject matter, forms an important part of what is now thought of as “American Impressionism.”
Weir’s early training was under his father, Robert Walter Weir, a painter and drawing instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Accomplished in portraiture, history, genre, and landscape painting, Robert Weir had studied as a young man in Italy, and was one of four American artists honored in 1837 with a commission for a history painting in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Under his father’s tutelage, Weir painted mostly portraits and occasionally landscapes. He continued his studies at the National Academy of Design in New York, where both his father and his brother, John Ferguson Weir, had already been elected members.
Julian Weir left for Paris in 1873 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He entered the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme, from whom he assimilated the academic style, based heavily on correct drawing and the representation of the human figure. Also while in Paris, Weir fell into a group of artists centered around the popular realist, Bastien-Lepage, and he fell under the naturalist style of Bastie-Lepage and his followers. Weir returned to New York in 1877, and immediately thrust himself into the forefront of the contemporary art scene, working with other young artists to found of the upstart Society of American Artists, a group formed in opposition to the National Academy of Design over objections about the latter’s annual exhibitions. However he maintained some connection with the National Academy, as he exhibited there regularly and was made an associate member in 1885. Weir also joined a number of clubs and artist associations, including the Tile Club and the Society of Painters in Pastel, and he taught at the Cooper Union and the Art Students League.
Beginning in the early 1880s, Weir began to move away from the naturalist academicism of his early years to a style derived from Edouard Manet and the French Impressionists. His palette lightened and he focused increasingly on landscapes. In 1882, Weir purchased a plot of farmland in Branchville, Connecticut, and increasingly spent his time there painting. The comfortable retreat of The Weir Farm, as it is now known (the Weir Farm National Historic Site is now the only national park in the state of Connecticut), removed from the rigors of the New York City environment, provided Weir a place to nurture his contemplative side and study the natural beauty of the Connecticut landscape. Over many years at Branchville, Weir’s farm also played the role of a very small, quasi-art colony, as it hosted a number of Weir’s friends for extended stays, including especially Albert Pinkham Ryder and John Henry Twachtman.
By 1890, Weir’s adoption of Impressionism, and his own response and contribution to it, was essentially complete. Experimenting in pastel and watercolor, Weir exploited the spontaneity of these media to develop new strategies for his oils. Painting mostly out-of-doors, Weir joined the lighter, softer-toned, and more decorative palette of some of the Post-Impressionist painters with a daring use of cropping in his compositions derived from Manet. He remained a leading force in art, joining together with Twachtman, Childe Hassam, Robert Reid, Willard Metcalf, Thomas Dewing, Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, Joseph De Camp, and Edward Simmons in 1897 to form a small group of likeminded painters in opposition to the exhibition practices of the Society of American Artists—a group which Weir himself had helped to found twenty years earlier. (When Twachtman died in 1902, he was replaced by William Merritt Chase.) Eventually known as The Ten American Painters, or simply “The Ten,” these artists—mostly Impressionists, though it would be wrong to categorize the group as such—used the collective power of their fame and accomplishments to hold exhibitions of their work on their own terms. The concept was enormously successful, and the artists of The Ten exhibited together for twenty years, lasting well into the twentieth century and enjoying success even as the tide of Modernism was rising to its peak.