"Piscataqua River from the Tarbell House" is Edmund C. Tarbells most monumental and important landscape painting. It portrays the shore of the Piscataqua River as seen from Tarbells' home in New Castle, New Hampshire, with the coast of Maine at the top of the picture. Although Tarbell did not often paint landscapes, those he did paint seem to have served him as a personal and private form of expression, in contrast to his publicly exhibited portraits and interior scenes.
"Piscataqua River" has a spontaneity of execution that, in its immediacy of observation, reminds the viewer of the later landscapes of Monet. The surface of the painting shimmers with broken brushwork and color, suggestive not only of the moment of light across water and foliage, but also of the movement of air within the scene. The screen of trees (some of which are still standing today) is cropped by the picture frame in imitation not only of the informal snapshot compositions of the French Impressionists, but equally of the rhythmic linear designs of Japanese screens of the Edo Period. Tarbell, who collected such screens and often used them as backdrops in his interior scenes, clearly intended an implied relationship between the elegance and refinement of the Japanese example and that of his own. Tarbells Impressionist technique and Orientalizing design combine to create an effect of quiet contemplation in which the movement of time and the particulars of place have been set aside.
The story told in the Frick family of the painting's acquisition is also, in its way, instructive of Tarbells attachment to his landscape paintings. In 1909, Tarbell was commissioned by Henry Clay Frick to paint both a portrait of Frick and another of Frick with his daughter, Helen.
On one of Frick and his daughter's visits to Tarbell's studio for a sitting, Helen apparently expressed a warm and articulate regard for a landscape that the artist had just completed, that is, for "Piscataqua River". Ordinarily Tarbell would not have been interested in selling a painting of such special importance to him, but her attraction to the landscape did not go unnoticed by the artist. Either at the time or shortly thereafter, Tarbell rewarded Helen Frick's observant choice by presenting her with the painting as a gift.
Susan Stricker has written of the painting: "Pure landscape without figures was relatively rare in Tarbell's work. By far Tarbell's most impressive pure landscape is "Piscataqua River from the Tarbell House". . . which in its size alone . . . signifies the ambition and importance that the artist must have attached to it. . . . . Tarbell's composition thrives on the lively rhythms of the spindly tree trunks and bushy limbs as well as the play of negative and positive elements against the expanse of the river. It is a canvas unusual in Tarbell's oeuvre for its high level of abstraction."
("A Life That is Art: Edmund C. Trabell in New Castle," essay in Impressionism Transformed: The Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell [Manchester, Vermont: The Currier Gallery of Art, 2001], pp. 146, 146).