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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES

Art Colonies of New England

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Antiques Magazine, April, 1999 by Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Tracie Felker


The art colonies of New England played an important role in defining the region as venerable. Soothing visions of small coastal towns, soaring church spires, and covered bridges gained great currency as the country faced the challenges of life in the industrial age. Despite the similarity of subjects, however, the styles in which New England was portrayed varied greatly within a fairly short period of time. This study of the art colonies at Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Ogunquit, Maine, shows how the common goal of presenting and celebrating the past transcended artistic categories to create a seamless image of old New England.

During the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, Old Lyme, near the mouth of the Connecticut River, was a small but prosperous port trading with the West Indies, Holland, Ireland, and China, among other destinations. Wealthy merchants and ships' captains built handsome houses along the elm-lined streets. However, shipbuilding and commerce dwindled after mid-century, when the shallow harbor could no longer accommodate ever larger vessels, and the town grew little over the next half century.

In 1899 the American artist Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916) came to Old Lyme in search of picturesque scenery suitable for his Barbizon-inspired landscape paintings. He was delighted with what he found: "It looks like...the land of Millet. See the knarled oaks, the low rolling country. This land has been farmed and cultivated by men, and then allowed to revert back into the arms of mother nature. It is only waiting to be painted." (1)

Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1961), one of the first artists working in Old Lyme and one of its most famous teachers, concurred: "Lyme...possess[es] remarkable advantages in its great variety, which ranges from the low land of estuaries and salt-meadows to the rugged, romantic beauty of rolling glacial bills, here and there ground down to their naked granite structure. Jagged ledges, seams, bowlders, and shattered bits of rock break into the gentle rhythm of the uplands; patches of forest and groups of great oaks cling to their sides, and the gray stone fences still squirm about the barren meadows of a hundred years ago. The village is one of the oldest in New England, and is one of the few remaining places which still possesses the characteristics expressive of the quiet dignity of other days." (2)

Word spread quickly among Ranger's friends that Old Lyme offered many of the advantages of plein-air painting in Europe: a picturesque landscape, hospitable and inexpensive lodgings, and a quiet village rich in historical associations. Following Ranger's lead, several artists came to Old Lyme in the summer of 1900 to establish one of the first art colonies in the United States. With easy access to New York City by railroad and the collegial spirit of the group itself, the art colony in Old Lyme lasted for more than twenty-five years, although its heyday was considerably shorter.

The earliest art colonists in Old Lyme painted in the tonalist style, characterized by a somber, monochromatic palette, blurred contours, and the soft definition of forms. Inspired by such Barbizon painters as Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876), this aesthetic gave way to impressionism shortly after the arrival of Frederick Childe Hassam in Old Lyme in 1903. Like the tonalists, the impressionists painted poetic pastoral and woodland views, but they also turned their attention to the indigenous colonial architecture and overgrown flower gardens that lined the streets of the village. Everett Longley Warner's Guardian Elm (Pl. II), a portrait of the eighteenth-century Justin Smith house, typifies the impressionist approach to these scenes. In the painting, a white clapboard house nestles under a towering elm. The house is embraced by the gently arching limbs of the tree and is visually rooted to the landscape by its identification with the elm - a tree considered distinctively American and then highly valued for its longevity, strength, and grace. The scene, with its warm golden light, evokes nostalgia for the security and simplicity of bygone days whose remoteness from the present can be measured by the height and girth of the aged tree.

The colonial house, particularly the saltbox, was closely identified with the values and way of life of preindustrial New England. As early as 1886 the influential art critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934) declared that such buildings were "distinctively American, thoroughly original in effect," personifying the "neat, cheerful, pretty domesticity" of the old New England village where "poverty, squalor, and unthrift" were kept out.(3) Her characterization of the New England village as exempt from social ills reflected the contemporary sentiment that the values that had sustained the birth and early settlement of America had been lost in the crush of modern life. The unprecedented wave of immigration, industrial expansion, and economic depression of the last decades of the nineteenth century created an identity crisis in American culture. The revival of interest in all things colonial during this period can be seen as an attempt to provide alternative social and political models to those found at the time in contemporary urban culture and immigrant populations.

Images of churches also helped set the colonial scene. In Old Lyme the First Congregational Church stood at the head of the towns main thoroughfare, known simply as "the Sweet." Built in 1816-1817 in the style of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) in England, its tall, graceful spire dominated the surrounding countryside.(4) Hassam's paintings of this historic building are among the best known images of Old Lyme. In the painting shown in Plate IV Hassam depicts the church from an oblique angle, surrounded by a grove of elms. The facade is sharply lit by the afternoon sun, while the clapboards on the side of the church are softened by ambient reflections. The large white church provides a perfect foil for the golden autumn leaves shimmering in the background against a crisp blue sky. Hassam's paintings of the Old Lyme church are part of a series of New England churches he painted from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to southern Connecticut. On the surface these church portraits are faithful records of colonial landmarks, while on a deeper level they are icons of traditional American values and patriotic symbols of America's religious and political freedoms.

The artists in Old Lyme were devastated when fire destroyed the church in 1907. Hassam lamented: "Who is the divil who did it? I was very much disgusted with humanity when I heard of it. And I don't need to say that I always had a real and pagan delight in the many and beautiful aspects of the old church. They cannot rebuild it - never! And the fine and immemorial elms - Oh! It is a pity." (5)

Despite Hassam's prediction, the church was quickly rebuilt, partly with funds donated from that years summer art exhibition.(6) The decision to replicate the church may have been influenced by Old Lyme's need to preserve its pristine New England image, which was by then a marketable commodity and a major source of economic stability for the town.

Old Lyme's other temple was actually a domestic structure, the home of Florence Griswold (1850-1937), where many of the artists boarded and maintained studios. The house was designed and built in 1817 by Samuel Belcher (1779-1849), the architect of the First Congregational Church. It was one of the largest and most impressive houses in the town, with its broad portico, stately Ionic columns, and late Georgian details. However, by the early twentieth century, when Ranger, Hassam, and others occupied the upstairs guest bedrooms, the house had suffered years of neglect and was in disrepair. Visitors frequently commented on the worn furniture, dusty rooms, and unkempt gardens. Despite the lack of housekeeping, the Griswold house was affectionately called the Holy House by its residents, inspired by the Holley (now Bush-Holley) House, a boardinghouse in the nearby art colony of Cos Cob, Connecticut, and partly by the fact that it resembled a Greek temple.

For many members of the art colony, Florence Griswold herself embodied the very qualities they were seeking in this sleepy Yankee town. She was hardworking, had a strongly independent mind, a distinguished ancestry, and she was generous and loyal to a fault. An impressive collection of family portraits lining the central hall and her eclectic assortment of antique furniture reinforced this impression of her colonial roots.(7) Willard Leroy Metcalf's moonlit portrait of the Griswold house (Pl. I) captures the reverence in which Griswold and her house were held. The painting obscures the architectural details of the house, while the great columns loom out of the darkness, guiding the solitary figure of Florence Griswold toward a safe haven. Metcalf's romantic interpretation puts the house in an otherworldly realm and makes it the visual equivalent of its nickname, "Holy House."

One of the favorite motifs of Old Lyme artists was the Bow Bridge, a low wooden bridge that spanned the Lieutenant River. Unlike the iron railroad bridges that dotted the nearby countryside, the Bow Bridge is seen as a natural extension of the environment.(8) In Hassam's rendition (Pl. III) a country road leads the eye from the right foreground over the bridge and into the farmland beyond. Two figures stand on the bridge, one with a fishing rod and the other gazing at the water. A small rowboat is pulled up on the bank at the left. Despite the lively brushwork and sparkling summer light, the scene is remarkably still and the figures are frozen in time and space. Road and fiver intersect, offering two efficient ways to travel. Yet the only means of transportation offered are rowing or walking - archaic methods unchanged by modern life.

Bradbury's Mill, at the northern end of Old Lyme, was painted by several members of the art colony, but most often by Edward F. Rook, who made at least eight versions of this subject at all seasons over the course of twelve years.(9) The hint of greenish yellow in the branches of the trees in the version shown in Plate V suggests the beginning of spring. Although Rook was interested in accurately depicting season and atmosphere in his paintings of the mill, which was being used to scour wool, he ignored the less picturesque aspects of the scene.(10) He failed to render either the black waste water being discharged downstream or the large wagons that hauled the wool to and from the river. Instead, Rook emphasized the contrast between the angular limbs and trunks of the trees, which are thickly outlined with dark paint, and the turbulent blue-green water below the dam. While they are not completely truthful, Rook's paintings of the mill are among the very few images of a functional building by an Old Lyme artist. The steadfast refusal of the art colony to record the mills, taverns, warehouses, and crumbling wharves in the village is indicative of how concerned the artists were to identify Old Lyme with a preindustrial era.(11)

Edmund W. Greacen was a frequent visitor to Old Lyme, staying at the Griswold house several times each year. Like other artists, he was attracted by the flower gardens that graced many of the old houses in the village. In The Old Garden (Pl. X) Greacen used a high-key palette and broken brushwork to depict the lush perennial garden behind Griswold's house. Exuberant strokes of orange and blue render the daylilies and delphiniums that Griswold treasured as old-fashioned. According to garden writers of the time, native flowers and perennials such as these were considered more tasteful and appropriate to the domestic scene than the brightly colored summer annuals cultivated abroad and widely used for display during the Victorian era. Informal massings of flowers close to the house were preferred over nearly arranged carpet beds and ribbon borders. This type of garden, with naturalistic "rooms" created from groupings of flowers and hedges was considered distinctively American - an extension of the house, where beauty, leisure, and decorum combined to create a harmonious environment for family life.

Ogunquit, Maine, lies some two hundred miles from Old Lyme, and the creative vision of its artist colony seems equally distant, although a similar emphasis was placed on the preindustrial landscape. The picturesque fishing community became a haven for writers and painters in the late nineteenth century. It was the summer base for Hamilton Easter Field (Pl. IX) and a colorful band of early modernists in the opening decades of the twentieth century. While the history of modernism has tended to emphasize the urban nature of the movement, Field and his students were committed to capturing the essential qualifies of the rustic environment. in this way the Ogunquit modernists were as committed to the landscape of old New England as their impressionist colleagues in Old Lyme.

A travel guide of 1917 noted that in the 1890s Ogunquit "was a small, isolated fishing village reached only by stage"(12) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], but had since then evolved into a popular summer resort. It was quite unlike other coastal resorts that catered to the new leisure class, however, for among the modern tourist hotels were a series of weathered fish houses and modest Cape Cod style houses whose cheap rents attracted a bohemian crowd. According to the 1917 guide, "a list of artists who have found inspiration at Ogunquit would fill a page."(13)

Chief among these early artists at Ogunquit was the marine painter Charles H. Woodbury ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] and Pl. XII), who was trained as an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before enrolling in classes at the Boston Art Club. He traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian and established himself as one of Boston's leading art teachers. Woodbury discovered Ogunquit in 1888 while visiting the family of his fiancee, Marcia Oakes (1865-1913), also a painter. Eight years later he bought five acres of rugged land, built a house and studio, and in 1898 offered his first six-week summer art class - an institution that endured until his death in 1940.

The establishment of the art school officially defined Ogunquit as an art colony. Woodbury and his students could soon be found throughout the town. Young men and women in stylish summer clothes perched on the rocks to sketch the breakers and set up their easels in nearby pastures. The locals were bemused, and at times astonished, by the artists in their midst. One farmer is reported to have said of Woodbury: "I don't know how he could have got 150 dollars for a picture of my cow. I didn't give but 35 for her in the first place, and it don't look like her anyway."(14)

The summer course, which was academic in nature, was part of a broad middle-class movement toward art education. Sarah Burns, an art historian, contends that pleinair painting became an important component of the "strenuous life" of outdoor activities prescribed for healthy living at the turn of the century.(15) Thus, in its early days, the art colony at Ogunquit was as quiet and genteel as that at Old Lyme.

Field's arrival changed everything. The scion of an old Quaker family, his comfortable circumstances allowed him the freedom to serve as an important catalyst for modern art in the United States.(16) In the course of his brief life he founded art schools in Ogunquit and in Brooklyn, New York. He opened Ardsley Studios, an important gallery in Brooklyn, wrote reviews for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and founded the influential journal the Arts. His most important role, however, was as paterfamilias to an important group of avant-garde painters and sculptors. He exhorted his students to "open your eyes wide, get the local tang. There's as much of it right here in Maine as there is in Monet's Normandy."(17)

One of his students was Yasuo Kuniyoshi, whose early life made him an unlikely interpreter of the modern American scene. Born in Okayama, Japan, in 1889, the impecunious young man came to the United States in 1906 hoping to learn enough English to become an interpreter when he returned to his native country. Kuniyoshi never went back. Instead, he enrolled in night classes at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, supporting himself by picking fruit in the summer and working as a hotel bellhop in the winter. After moving to New York City, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, the Independent School of Art, and the Art Students League. He attracted Field's attention when he exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Field then provided him with a monthly stipend that allowed him to live in a building Field owned in Brooklyn and have a studio in Ogunquit, where he spent ten summers. Kuniyoshi later wrote of Ogunquit: "That severe landscape and simple New England buildings were my God."(18) Paintings such as The Swimmer (cover and Pl. VII) demonstrate Kuniyoshi's debt to the examples of regional folk art - decoys, weather vanes, ship models, and scrimshaw - that Field collected and placed in the fishing shacks that served as studios. Field and his students believed that these objects embodied the innocent qualities of their makers and were a pure form of artistic expression superior to the academic art practiced by Woodbury and his students across Perkins Cove. Kuniyoshi's swimmer is equal parts scrimshaw mermaid and weather vane and looks at the viewer from the flattened perspective of a nineteenth-century folk portrait. Past and present meet in The Swimmer, and time briefly stands still off the coast of Maine.

Stefan Hirsch, born in Germany to American parents, met Field in New York City in 1919 and began summering at Ogunquit soon thereafter Rejecting the picturesque attractions of folk art and natural landscape that fascinated Kuniyoshi, Hirsch often painted scenes that capture the regions uneasy transition from rural to industrial life. His Factories, Portsmouth, New Hampshire of 1930 (Pl. VI) presages the work of such modernist luminaries as Charles Sheeler in 1948 (see Pl. VIII), but with important differences. Although Hirsch's depiction of the industrial section of the old colonial city of Portsmouth dearly portrays modernity as a failure, the warm tones and wisps of smoke are hopeful signs of life. The painting lacks Sheeler's icy ambivalence, which the art historian Brace Robertson has described as: "neither glorifying the technological future nor analyzing the past critically, it seems to embalm the scene."(19) Rook's romantic vision of industry in 1917 was tarnished by 1930 and had clearly died by 1948.

Ogunquit's modernists also worked in three dimensions. Field's successor as the leader of the art community was the sculptor Robert Laurent. The son of a fisherman and a weaver, Laurent was born in Concarneau, a well-known art colony in Brittany. Discovered by Field, who was visiting France, he accompanied the older artist to Rome, where he studied drawing and became an apprentice frame maker. When Laurent immigrated to the United States in 1902, he initially supported himself by making frames for such leading New York City painters as Hassam and Robert Henri (1865-1929). His training in wood carving - a skill required of flame makers - soon led him to sculpture.

The Wave [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], Laurent's masterpiece in alabaster, is a modernist's response to Victorian techniques of molded and cast sculpture, then out of favor. Carved directly from the stone, it harks back in style and execution to the folk art collected by Field and interpreted in two dimensions by painters such as Kuniyoshi. To be truly modern in Ogunquit one had to look to the past both technically and stylistically.

Laurent's sensuous vision of the female form gliding through the sea offers a stark contrast to Woodbury's more decorous vision in Ledges [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Woodbury's prim bather contemplates the vast Atlantic from the safety of a rock, while Laurent's swims with natural abandon. The Wave was so well received in New York City that it was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art shortly after it was first shown in 1926.

Laurent, Hirsch, Kuniyoshi, and the other Ogunquit modernists moved the image of old New England in an increasingly abstract direction. Figures were simplified and the picture plane flattened. Marsden Hartley, a native of Maine who spent the summer of 1917 at Ogunquit, pared the still life to its essentials in Lobster on a Black Background (Pl. XI). The lobster, devoid of shadow and modeling, appears as a fiat symbol of life on the coast.

The interpretations of the New England scene differed greatly in style and attitude in Old Lyme and Ogunquit, yet remained strikingly uniform in their mission. The past is invariably portrayed with respect and is always made useful to the present. Impressionists and modernists alike found much in common when summering in old New England.


We would like to thank William H. Truettner and Stephanie L. Taylor for their thoughtful comments about this article. We are also indebted for their ideas to Roger B. Stein and Bruce Robertson.

A related exhibition entitled Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory is on view until August 22 at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.



1 New Haven Morning Journal and Courier, July 5, 1907, quoted in Jeffrey W. Andersen, Old Lyme: The American Barbizon (Lyme Historical Society, Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1982), p. 6.

2 "The Lyme Summer School and Its Theory of Art," Lamp, vol. 27 (August 1903), p. 7.

3 "American Country Dwellings. I," Century Magazine, vol. 32 (May 1886), p. 5, quoted in Lisa N. Peters, Visions of Home: American Impressionist Images of Suburban Leisure and Country Comfort (Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1997), pp. 102, 104.

4 The massive timbers that supported the steeple were brought down the Connecticut River from Vermont (Landmarks of Old Lyme, Connecticut: Historic Buildings and Monuments, Together with a Short Record of the Town Since 1635 A.D. [Ladies Library Association of Old Lyme, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1952], pp. 3-4).

5 Letter from Hassam to Florence Griswold, July 30, 1907, quoted in Jeffrey W. Andersen, "The Art Colony at Old Lyme," in Connecticut and American Impressionism (William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1980), p. 132.

6 Beginning in 1902 the artists of Old Lyme held an exhibition of their work at the end of each summer season to benefit the local library. In addition to paintings, the first exhibition included a number of "Antiques and Curios" such as "Old Manuscripts, Silver, China, Laces, Jewelry, Miniatures, etc." loaned by the residents of Old Lyme (Connecticut and American Impressionism, p. 122). These artifacts were excluded thereafter as the number of paintings in the exhibition increased.

7 Among the Old Lyme artists who shared Griswold's passion for New England antiques were Clark Voorhees (1871-1933), who collected clocks, and George Brainerd Burr (1876-1939), who collected early American looking glasses (Jeffrey W. Andersen, "A Season in Lyme: Life Among the Artists," in En Plein Air: The Art Colonies at East Hampton and Old Lyme, 1880-1930 [Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Guild Hall Museum of East Hampton, East Hampton, New York, 1989], p. 29). Advertisement

8 Iron railroad bridges began to replace wooden ones in the 1830s. By the early twentieth century they were a common sight along the East Coast (see H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994], p. 83).

9 Diane Pietrucha Fischer, Edward F. Rook, 1870-1960: American Impressionist (Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1987). Henry Ward Ranger's painting of this site, Bradbury's Mill Pond, No. 2 of 1903 (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.), shows only the pond and a dimly lit forest.

10 Susan H. Ely and Elizabeth B. Plimpton, The Lieutenant River (Lyme Historical Society, Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1991), p. 52.

11 This is particularly evident when one compares works by impressionist artists in nearby Cos Cob, who painted several of the commercial buildings in that town. For a thorough discussion of the architectural paintings of Cos Cob, see Susan G. Larkin, '"A Regular Rendezvous for Impressionists': The Cos Cob Art Colony, 1882-1920" (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, New York, 1996), pp. 166-182.

12 Sargent's Handbook Series, A Handbook of New England (Porter E. Sargent, Boston, 1917), p. 706.

13 Ibid., p. 707.

14 Lewiston [Maine] Journal, August 7, 1937, quoted in Earth, Sea and Sky: Charles H. Woodbury, Artist and Teacher, 1864-1940, ed. Joan Loria and Warren A. Seamans (MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988), p. 34.

15 Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996), pp. 79-119.

16 For an excellent discussion of Field, see Doreen Bolger, "Hamilton Easter Field and His Contribution to American Modernism," American Art Journal, vol. 20, no. 2 (1988), pp. 79-107.

17 The Technique of Oil Paintings and Other Essays (Ardsley House, Brooklyn, New York, 1913), p. 58.

18 Quoted in Susan Lubowsky, "From Naivete to Maturity: 1906-1939," in Yasuo Kuniyoshi (Tokyo Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1989), p. 23.

19 "Yankee Modernism," Picturing Old New England (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999), p. 201. Advertisement


THOMAS ANDREW DENENBERG is the Richard Koopman Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

TRACIE FELKER is a development specialist at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.


COPYRIGHT 1999 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group



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