Emil Carlsen (American, born Denmark, 1853–1932), 'Barnacled Rocks,' about 1900–30. Oil on canvas, 15 by 18 inches. Gift of Charles H. Drummond

Emil Carlsen (American, born Denmark, 1853–1932)

Barnacled Rocks, about 1900–1930
Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 in.
Gift of Charles H. Drummond

Barnacled Rocks is a fine example of early-twentieth-century Connecticut impressionism as realized by the Danish American artist Emil Carlsen. Beginning in the late 1880s, Connecticut’s rural charms and rugged seacoast attracted New York artists, who established colonies in Old Lyme and in the Cos Cob neighborhood of Greenwich. They appreciated the proximity of those communities to Manhattan, site of their urban studios. The art historian Susan Larkin has compared the Cos Cob artists to their French counterparts who had summered in Argenteuil a few decades earlier.(1) Impressionists in both these semirural places were seeking more contemplative subjects in nature and the camaraderie of likeminded artists. Carlsen joined Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, John Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and others who supported a culture of artistic innovation inspired by the Connecticut countryside.

Carlsen was born in Copenhagen, where he studied architecture, painting, and sculpture at the Royal Academy. He immigrated to America in 1872 and settled in Chicago, working as an assistant first to an architect and then to the Danish painter Lauritz B. Holst. He took a teaching position at the then recently founded Chicago Academy of Design (now the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). In 1875, Carlsen spent several productive months in Paris, where he briefly attended classes at the Académie Julian. He returned to the United States later that year and took a studio in New York. Back in Paris from 1884 to 1886, he concentrated on still-life painting before moving to San Francisco, where for two years he directed the school of the San Francisco Art Association and, subsequently, had a studio and taught. In 1891 the peripatetic artist accepted an invitation to teach at the National Academy of Design in New York; he remained an instructor there until 1918.

Carlsen married in 1896 and purchased property in Falls River, Connecticut, in 1905. His distinctive talents and growing friendships with artists such as Twachtman and Weir helped him establish a secure place among Connecticut impressionists.

Barnacled Rocks vividly demonstrates the nature of Carlsen’s impressionism. To capture the churning waves dashing against rocks, he relied on aggressive brushwork, while creating the tranquil blue of the distant sea and sky with a more controlled application of paint. In addition, the composition reflects Carlsen’s appreciation for Japanese aesthetics, a penchant he shared with many American and French impressionists. Claude Monet and John Twachtman, for example, treasured their Japanese woodblock prints. Later, modernists would admire the flat zones of unmodeled color, asymmetrical designs, and compositional foreshortening characteristic of this genre. In the Ulrich Museum’s canvas, a few simple zones of near monochrome comprise the image. The viewer’s heightened vantage point, elevated from the rocky shoreline in the foreground, disrupts recession and contributes to a two-dimensional effect. The asymmetry of the view Carlsen selected energizes the composition and illustrates the artist’s embrace of japonisme. The combined impact of these formal characteristics demonstrates the strong modernism of this painting.

-- Patricia McDonnell

1. Susan G. Larkin, The Cos Cob Art Colony: The Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 1.