Willard Leroy Metcalf is celebrated for his ability to capture the spirit of the New England landscape in an Impressionist style that is distinctly American. His attention to light, staccato brushstrokes and pastel palette all recall the painter’s time in Giverny, France, while his attention to compositional design and his choice of subject matter firmly establish Metcalf's commitment to American Art. The catalogue for Metcalf’s retrospective exhibition at the Corcoran Museum proclaimed, “He is the poet Laureate of these homely hills, and he sings their virtue and their grace with a loyalty which has not been misapplied.” (“Foreword,” Paintings by Willard L. Metcalf, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1925, n.p.)
Among the New England locations that Metcalf relied upon in creating his uniquely American paintings, Maine was particularly influential. During the year spanning 1903 to 1904, the painter returned to live with his parents at Clark’s Cove on the Damariscotta River near Boothbay, Maine. It was at this time that he developed his celebrated style, often while painting alone. “During his year of isolation in Maine, Metcalf had developed his ability to synthesize what his eye saw with his own inner images of an absolute natural beauty. He unfailingly excluded the drab, the sordid, the unpredictable, as well as any aspect of anger, discord, or fear. The familiar and the secure he attained in solitude.” (Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf, New York, 1987, p. 77)
The following year Metcalf exhibited a group of Maine works at Fishel, Adler and Schwartz Gallery in New York and received critical acclaim: “...his Maine studies reflect a sympathy more alert and more penetrating than he was wont to disclose some time ago, and the exhibition to which I refer was remarkable for nothing more than for its truth to the very soul of the American landscape…” (Cortissoz, “Willard L. Metcalf: An American Landscape Painter,” Appleton’s Magazine, vol 6, 1905, p. 511) This period proved to be among the most critically successful for not only Metcalf, but also for his fellow members of The Ten, the group of New England Impressionist painters that included Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman and Frank Weston Benson.
Perhaps the single most important painting in launching Metcalf into the national spotlight was the nocturne May Night (1906, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Painted in 1906, the work received a Gold Medal prize at the Corcoran Gallery’s annual exhibition in 1907, before it was later purchased by that institution for $3,000 and became a critical sensation. As a result, Metcalf immediately experienced significant demand for moonlit subjects and began painting them in earnest, before abandoning them about a decade later.
During the summer of 1907, Metcalf returned once again to Maine and visited the Damariscotta Peninsula, Penobscot Bay and Boothbay Harbor before spending time at the home of Frank Benson on North Haven. The Young Moon was inspired during these travels, and not long after it was featured in an exhibition at Montross Gallery in 1909, where it received praise: "Willard L. Metcalf is exhibiting fourteen of his oils that speak eloquently of studies on shore and by the sea. He plays with sunlight amid the leaves in the trees like a magician...in 'The Young Moon,' the artist, with the simple objects of sky, moon sailing overhead and masses of trees of varied kinds in the middle distance, has contrived a singularly attractive picture...The exhibition is a fresh revelation of Mr. Metcalf's ability as a landscapist of both power and delicacy." ("In the Art Galleries; Individual Artists' Exhibitions Are Multiplying in the New Year--A Pratt Teacher's Fine Showing," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 7, 1909, p. 15) It was in this painting, and with the body of work Metcalf was then executing, that the painter firmly established himself and his own unique style, prompting another critic, James Huneker, to write, "'The Young Moon' is very Metcalfian..." (New York Sun, January 6, 1909)
Ultimately, Metcalf himself recognized his moonlight pictures as amongst his most successful endeavors, writing to renowned industrialist and collector Charles Freer in July 1918: “I beg you to pardon me if I draw attention to one phase of my work which is important enough to mention to completely represent me…and that is a moonlight…” (Sunlight and Shadow, p. 241) By 1908 Metcalf’s parents were forced to leave Maine due to poor health, selling their home and moving to Massachusetts. Metcalf went on to paint throughout New England and firmly establish himself as one of the region's greatest Impressionist painters.