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. Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England will chronicle the development of impressionist Connecticut and modernist Maine and features 73 works drawn from the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut. Call of the Coast is on view through October 12, 2009, at the Portland Museum of Art
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. Old Lyme, Cos Cob, Ogunquit, and Monhegan were settled at different times by artists and illustrated life in each community.
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. Summer classes taught by Twachtman and Weir during the 1890s under the auspices of the Art Students League brought artists such as Charles Ebert, Mary Roberts Ebert, Daniel Putnam, and the Japanese artist Genjiro Yeto to the school and encouraged experimentation. 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 including Lewis Cohen, Louis Paul Dessar, William Henry Howe, Henry Rankin Poore, and Clark Voorhees to join him; 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, for which it is best known. In 1936 the artists incorporated into the Florence Griswold Association and after her death, purchased her home and opened a house museum in 1947.
In search of cooler temperatures, Old Lyme painters often made trips to Ogunquit and Monhegan, 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. Woodbury established a course of instruction that literally put Ogunquit on the map as an art colony with a reputation as a haven for single women from proper Boston families including Gertrude Fiske. Field established his own school 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 when the Barn Gallery and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art were formed. In 1979, the Barn Gallery Associates gave the Portland Museum of Art the gift of 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.
The remoteness and rugged landscape of Monhegan Island, Maine, attracted artists in the 1890s including Samuel Peter Rolt Triscott and Eric Hudson. Old Lyme artists including Charles and Mary Ebert, Ernest Albert, William Chadwick, William Robinson, Edward Rook, Henry Selden, and Wilson Irvine 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. Jay Hall Connaway, Andrew Winter, and Abraham Bogdanove also painted on the island, and Connaway started a school in 1939. James Fitzgerald visited the island in the early 1950s and in 1958 acquired Rockwell Kent’s cottage. 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.