GREENWICH, CONN. — Lauded as one of the most influential events in the history of American art, the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913 — popularly known as the Armory Show — was the first large exhibition of modern art in the United States, and one that introduced Americans to European “avant-garde” artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. Much has been written about the show, yet no exhibition to date has explored the direct effect that the Armory Show had on artists and their artistic production. But the Greenwich Historical Society is about to change that.
The Greenwich Historical Society presents “The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After the Armory Show,” which for the first time shows the direct impact of the Armory Show on the Cos Cob art colony artists. The exhibition is on view through January 12.
A noteworthy complement to larger exhibitions in the metropolitan New York area inspired by the centennial of the Armory Show, this small yet critical exhibition highlights the extensive involvement of Cos Cob artists, such as Elmer MacRae and Henry Fitch Taylor, in producing the Armory Show, and brings to public attention several of the accomplished Cos Cob artists whose work has been rarely exhibited until now.
“This is the first exhibition to illustrate the Armory Show’s direct influence on a group of artists, specifically the Cos Cob art colony,” says Valerie Ann Leeds, curator of “The New Spirit.” “Viewers will be able to compare artists’ works from before and after the Armory Show and see to what degree they each embraced Modernism as the movement became assimilated into the mainstream of American art.”
The tightly focused exhibition comprises 40 works of art by 12 Cos Cob artists, including several works that were shown in the 1913 Armory Show, along with archival material and ephemera from the Greenwich Historical Society and private and museum collections. In addition to MacRae and Taylor, the show features artists D. Putnam Brinley, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, Carolyn C. Mase, Frank A. Nankivell, Allen Tucker, J. Alden Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir. It also includes influential pioneering Impressionist artists Theodore Robinson and John H. Twachtman, whose work was included in the Armory Show, but who had died years earlier.
One choice example of the Armory Show’s influence on Cos Cob artists can be seen in the evolving work of Henry Fitch Taylor. Taylor’s oil painting “An Old Pasture,” 1893, is typical of his landscapes of the time, which were inspired by the French Impressionism. Contrast this with two of Taylor’s post-Armory Show paintings on display in the exhibition, an untitled abstraction and “Figure with Guitar 1,” both from 1915, both of which embrace the Modernist spirit. “Clearly, it’s no longer about representation, but rather about an exploration of form, color, space and fragmentation,” says Leeds.
The Armory Show also profoundly affected Elmer MacRae’s style. Created before the show, MacRae’s “Old House, South End,” not dated, is Impressionistic in its treatment of the Bush-Holley House in midwinter. “Japanese Iris,” 1914, painted one year after the show, reveals how MacRae has turned to a much more stylized treatment of his subject matter. Viewers will be able to see how the flowers have been simplified and negative spaces activated with strong shapes, decorative patterning and bold color.
Susan G. Larkin, former chair of the Greenwich Historical Society and author of The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, says that MacRae was much more involved with the Armory Show than he has previously been given credit for. “He was a central figure in the story, but was very modest and didn’t trumpet himself. But others did and they wrote the history.” Larkin has contributed an essay about MacRae for the catalog of the coinciding Armory Show retrospective at the New-York Historical Society, on view through February 23.
“It is especially fitting for the Greenwich Historical Society to organize and mount this anniversary exhibition as it is a key repository for archival material from the Armory Show as well as a major holder of works by MacRae,” notes Larkin. MacRae was among the group of Cos Cob painters who gathered at the Historical Society’s Bush-Holley House from the early 1880s until the 1920s, when it was run as a boardinghouse for artists and writers. Josephine and Edward Holley passed the house on to their daughter, Emma Constant Holley, following her marriage to MacRae in 1900.
The original Armory Show included approximately 1,250 paintings, sculptures and decorative works by more than 300 European and American artists. Three works of art from the show are featured in the Greenwich exhibition. Elmer MacRae’s “Feeding the Ducks,” 1912, is a post-Impressionist oil of one of his twin daughters on the grounds of the Bush-Holley boardinghouse. Allen Tucker’s landscape “Mount Aberdeen,” 1912, depicts the glorious peaks of the imposing Australian mountain. The painting was featured on one of the Armory Show’s announcement postcards (a number of which are also included in the Greenwich exhibition). The third painting is J. Alden Twachtman’s “El Puente de Alcantara, Toledo (The Singing Bridge),” which was painted circa 1912.
The Bush-Holley Museum Gallery is at 39 Strickland Road. For further information, www.greenwichhistory.org or 203-869-6899.