Willard Leroy Metcalf was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of Greenleaf Willard Metcalf, a violinist for the Boston Orchestra, and Margaret Jan Gallop Metcalf. Believers in the occult who regularly attended séances, his parents claimed to have received a communication telling them that their son would be a great artist and thus encouraged him in this direction. At age seventeen Willard began a year's study under George Loring Brown (1814‑1889) of South Boston, followed by life classes at the Lowell Institute and then further studies at the Boston Museum School and the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston. Pursuing a career in illustration, Metcalf spent the years 1882 to 1884 drawing the Zuni Indians in the Southwest.
After his return to the East he had a successful showing at the Chase Gallery in New York, which enabled him to travel to Europe. He visited England and then Paris, where he studied with Gustave Boulanger (1824‑1888) and Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836‑1912). He arrived in Paris at the same time that fellow Bostonians Edmund Tarbell (1862‑1934) and Frank Weston Benson (1862‑1934) were studying at the Academie Julian. In 1885 Metcalf traveled to Grez and Giverny, where he visited the home of Claude Monet (1840‑1926); the next year he went to Tunis and Morocco. Upon his return from Europe, Metcalf held an exhibition of his European paintings at the St. Botolph Club in Boston that was instrumental in establishing his reputation.
Metcalf taught at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and at the Art Students' League and in the antique and life classes of the Cooper Union in New York. He married twice, the first time to his model Marguerite Beaufort Haile and the second time to Henriette A. McCrea of Chicago, with whom he had two children. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Deriving much of his livelihood from illustration, Metcalf became dissatisfied with his career and reached a point at which he felt his work needed new inspiration. From 1895 on he began to spend summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he painted plein‑air landscapes with John Twachtman (1853‑1902) with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. In 1903 he moved to Boothbay, Maine, on the Damariscotta River, changing his palette to the natural earth tones of the Maine countryside and loosening his brushwork to an impressionist style. In 1904, Metcalf, announcing his "Renaissance," exhibited his paintings at the Fishel, Adler, and Schwartz Gallery in New York. Metcalf continued to paint in this new impressionist style all over New England, but is best known for his landscapes of Old Lyme, Connecticut, and his winter scenes of Cornish Colony, New Hampshire. He was active until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1925.
Metcalf was a member of many important organizations, including the American Water Color Society, the Ten American Painters, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, all in New York, but never would join the National Academy of Design because he disagreed with their policies for hanging pictures. He exhibited widely, including at the Paris Salon (1888), the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1907, 1911‑12), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1907, 1923) in Washington, D.C. A retrospective on Metcalf was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts in February 1976, and an important monograph entitled Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987) was written by Elizabeth de Veer and Richard J. Boyle. Among the numerous collections that own works by Metcalf are the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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