New England Impressionist Artists Paint the Coastal Landscape

Richard Friswell
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coast hopper monhe

Edward Hopper, Monhegan Houses, Maine, 1916 (Portland Museum of Art)*

June 25- October 12, 2009

Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT

October 24- January 31, 2010

 The Portland Museum of Art chronicles the development of impressionist Connecticut and early modernist Maine with 73 features works drawn from the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut. The Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England, is on exhibit through October 12, 2009 and subsequently can be seen at the Florence Griswold Art Museum, in Old Lyme, CT, from October 24-January 31, 2010.

For the new-comer, it is clear that Portland, Maine is a city by the sea.  Dozens of squalling seagulls perform acrobatics overhead, announcing the arrival of tourists by the droves.  Busy Commercial Street divides the harbor from the retail district– restaurants and souvenir shops by the dozens—which weave their way up the narrow, cobbled streets through the historic neighborhoods on the city’s ocean-facing hillside.  A warm sea breeze, redolent with the aroma of the fish processing plants on nearby Casco Bay, hangs on every street corner, reminding the visitor of the region’s sea-borne legacy and the city’s time-honored maritime traditions. This city-by-the-sea seems a fitting location for an exhibition of works by some of New England’s greatest painters of the early 20th century, assembled, for a show celebrating their contribution to the region’s legendary scenery and people.

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Ernest Lawson, Connecticut Landscape, 1902, o/c, Portland Mueaum of Art, H.E. Field Art Found. Collection, gift of Barn Gallery Assoc., Ogunquit, ME, 1979.13.31

The art colonies of New England played a key role in the creation of an American national identity in the early 20th century. Art colonies in Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut and Ogunquit and Monhegan, Maine were inspiration for nationally recognized artists including Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, and George Bellows, among others.

childe hassam, old lyme, ct

Childe Hassam, The Ledges, October in Old Lyme, CT, 1907, Florence Griswold Museum, gift of Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Ins. Co. 2002.1.69

The coast of New England has long attracted tourists and artists drawn to the primal drama of the ocean. The 19th century brought changes as coastal communities shifted from being an industrialized economic resource to a therapeutic shelter where the middle class enjoyed leisure time. Artists banded together for purposes of camaraderie, creativity, and commerce, and founded coastal art colonies from Connecticut to Maine.  Beginning in the early 1870s, the village of Cos Cob attracted artists from New York and became one of Connecticut’s major art colonies. These artists included impressionist J. Alden Weir, his father, painter Robert W. Weir, and John Henry Twachtman who all summered at the Holley House, the center of the community. Accomplished painters such as impressionist Theodore Robinson and Childe Hassam also painted in Cos Cob.

Henry Ward Ranger arrived in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1899, attracted by the tidal marches and ever-changing light conditions. While Twachtman saw the Connecticut coast as a place of isolation, Ranger viewed himself as the leader of a new school of American landscape painting. Ranger stayed in the boarding house of Florence Griswold and invited his artist friends to join him.  From this, an art colony was born. Miss Griswold’s home became the epicenter of the Old Lyme art colony. The arrival in 1903 of the dynamic Childe Hassam inspired Old Lyme painters to experiment with high-key color and greater impasto. Just as Ranger presided over the colony in its early years, Hassam set the tone for its later phase and in 1947, the location became a museum.

c. chatterton, ogunquit, me

The Traditionalists: Clarence Chatterton, "Boating with Oliver, Ogunquit," 1929, o/c, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Purchase with support from Roger and Katherine Woodman, 1996.28.

Yasuo kuniyoshi, ogunquit, ME

The Modernists: Yasuo Kuniyoshi, After the Bath, 1923, o/c, Portland Museum of Art, gift of Ellen Williams, 2000.43

In search of cooler temperatures, Old Lyme painters often made trips to Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, Maine. Ogunquit, a picturesque fishing village in southern Maine, played host to an ideological contrast between two artistic cultures in the early 20th century: the regionalist image of “old” New England by Boston painter Charles H. Woodbury and the modernist worldview of charismatic New York modernist Hamilton Easter Field. Field established an art school there in 1911; and in 1929 the Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation was created by five former students. The differences between Field’s modernists and Woodbury’s more traditional set were manifest. The creative tension between artists remained in place until the mid-20th century. In 1979, the Portland Museum of Art was gifted the Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection of more than 50 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that document the rise of American modernism in the early 20th century.

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Charles Ebert, "Monhegan Headlands," 1909, o/c, Florence Griswold Museum. Gift of Miss Elisabeth Ebert, 1977.18.1

The remoteness and rugged landscape of Monhegan Island, Maine, also attracted artists in the 1890s.  Many Old Lyme artists also summered on Monhegan. The most influential artist who worked on the island was Robert Henri. As a member of the Ash Can School and a teacher at the New York School of Art, Henri encouraged his fellow artists to visit Monhegan to escape the grittiness of the city. Henri and impressionist painter Edward Willis Redfield worked side by side laying the foundation for an art colony which included Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Randall Davey, George Bellows, and Leon Kroll. Much later, Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth, also took up residence on the island.

By the 1950s, Monhegan fell out of favor as communities in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Woodstock and Long Island, New York rose to prominence. Today, however, Monhegan continues to attract artists from around the country.

by Richard Friswell, Editor-in-Chief

A 128-page full-color catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays by Thomas Denenberg, chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art, Susan Danly, curator of graphics, photography, and contemporary art at the Portland Museum of Art, and Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator at the Florence Griswold Museum. The catalogue is available in the Museum Store for $29.95. Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England will be on view at the Florence Griswold Museum October 24, 2009 through January 31, 2010.

*Opening image: Edward Hopper, Monhegan Houses, Maine, 1916, Purchase with support from the Bernstein Acquisition Fund; Board designated Acquisition Funds; Directors and Curators Acquisition Fund; Friends of the Collection; Homburger Acquisition Fund, Osher Acquisition Fund and an anonymous gift in memory of the Bears, 2007.1

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