Lovers of the Impressionists (Is there anyone that doesn't love the Impressionists?) are in for a treat with the Tacoma Art Museum's latest show, “Coast to Cascades: C.C. McKim's Impressionist Vision.” The show consists of more than 40 paintings that span the career of Charles “C.C.” Mckim (1862-1939), a Northwest painter who was based in Portland from the early 1900s through the Depression era.
Under the spell of the Impressionists, McKim utilized the techniques of those painters of light and atmospheric effects to produce a body of work documenting the features of our own part of the world. Venturing out from Portland, McKim painted the rugged features of the Oregon coast as well as the forests, fields, lakes and streams that characterize the Pacific Northwest. He captured the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge and the majesty of the volcanic peak of Mt. Hood.
Not only did McKim turn his impressions of the Northwest landscape into works of art, he also popularized impressionism in the region, forming several artist groups and writing about art in local publications.
When we think of impressionism, we are most apt to visualize the work of French painters like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir or Camille Pissarro, painters of the long-settled, gently rolling French countryside. With McKim, however, we have a Northwest artist who employs the impressionistic ideal of capturing light, atmosphere and sensations of place, and uses it to depict the monumental features of the untamed Northwestern landscape.
The exhibit shows the development of McKim's power as an artist, tracing the arch of his career from early watercolor sketches and paintings done in earth tones to an increased use of bright color and thick brush strokes applied over the whole canvas. Then come the full blown masterpieces in which McKim plays with texture and color to create impressions of great distance by contrasting gauzy backgrounds with darker, thicker foreground scenes. In his big, blockbuster images of the Columbia gorge, for example, McKim achieves an impression of a great distance across the river to the vast, rocky walls – punctuated by waterfalls – on the far side of the gorge.
McKim's coastal scenes capture not only the fascinating formations and shapes of the giant rocks, but also the effect of light and shadow and the myriad hues of the water that surges and swells around those stony features.
A favorite method of the impressionists was to paint the same subject under a varying range of light and weather effects. Monet's famous series of paintings of haystacks are the prime example of the idea. One cannot help but think that McKim's series of paintings of Haystack Rock, at Oregon's Cannon Beach, was done as a punning homage to Monet's well known set of paintings.
Part of McKim's mastery is in his subtlety – in being able to tone things down. In one of his paintings of Mt. Hood, the titular mountain is so ephemeral that it seems barely there at all.
While the big, manifesto paintings are indeed stunning, there are any number of smaller, more intimate paintings that draw the viewer in with a beguiling charm. There are alluring snow scenes, simple configurations of forest trees or rows of little houses seen at sunset. The mid-sized, mid-career paintings in which McKim used thick brush strokes all over the canvas, bring to mind the work of Vincent Van Gogh.
The Tacoma Art Museum really shines through with this show. Here the institution fulfills something of its mission of introducing its home audience to an important Northwest painter that most of us (myself included) probably have not heard of. It is a good, full examination of the work of an artist that is locally relevant and has the power to help us view our immediate location with a new level of appreciation and inspiration. “Coast to Cascades” runs through March 26, 2017. For further information visit www.TacomaArtMuseum.org.
“Coast to Cascades: C.C. McKim's Impressionist Vision”
TAM invites the community to hear from curators Margaret Bullock and Mark Humpal during a Curator Conversation Dec. 11, 2 p.m. The conversation will be followed by a catalogue signing.
Tacoma Art Museum
1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, WA 98402