Returning home he spent several years as a portraitist and illustrator and taught many seasons at the Cooper Institute in New York. During these years he led a fitful personal life, with broken marriages and a record of alcoholism. In 1904 he withdrew from society and spent a year in the Maine woods, thinking, painting, and 'drying out'. The effect was revelatory and gave fresh direction and motivation to his efforts. He called it his "Impressionist Renaissance," and he became dedicated to painting the New England landscape with more vibrant, expressive brushwork and a more colorful palette.
Now one of the Ten American Painters, he joined Childe Hassam at Old Lyme, Connecticut, for several years, moving the participants in that community from a tonalist to a more impressionist style. Several seasons were spent with the Cornish, New Hampshire, colony but generally he roamed throughout the New England countryside painting its splendors winter and summer. The "poet laureate" of the New England hills became his popular cognomen. Working often within an unconventional square format, he painted broad, light-filled, delicately colored views of the hills and villages of New England.
He was particularly close to John Twachtman, whose work was stylistically close and who responded sympathetically to Metcalf's recurrent personal dilemmas. After the demise of the Ten, Metcalf remained active as a painter, but his creative periods were interrupted by ill health and a renewed drinking problem.