Published: October 16, 2018
By Jessica Skwire Routhier
NANTUCKET, MASS. – For nearly 125 years, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), founded in 1894, has been a mainstay of cultural life on the sandy, windswept island off the coast of Cape Cod. Like the island itself, the association’s constituents and collections are a mix – from working-class year-round residents to well-heeled summer visitors, from vernacular arts and historic artifacts to academic paintings and modern art and design. The current exhibition, “Paintings from the Nantucket Art Colony,” focuses on the island’s identity as an art colony from around 1920 through World War II. Co-organized with the Artists Association of Nantucket (AAN), the modern-day successor of that early Twentieth Century art colony, the exhibition is on view at NHA through December.
The production and preservation of material culture on Nantucket has always run the gamut between high and low forms, and the NHA’s interests have long reflected that. Since its beginnings, the institution has enthusiastically embraced the ephemera of, for instance, the whaling industry, for which Nantucket is perhaps best known, alongside the work of the island’s professional artists. There are also in-between things, of course, in the functional objects – Nantucket baskets are a key example – that have become art forms in their own right and that go for startlingly high prices at antiques stores and auctions both on and off the island. There is also sailor’s art – scrimshaw and other ivory carvings, “woolies,” and sailor’s valentines – objects that, while vernacular in style and humble in technique, were nevertheless created as artistic expressions. But while these are essentially relics of the earlier Nineteenth Century (while Nantucket baskets continue to be made, there is no longer any pretense that they are meant to be anything but art objects), the island’s fine art tradition is primarily one of the Twentieth Century through today.
Painting existed on the island before the art colony, of course. (A digital exhibition, developed in conjunction with a related 2007 exhibition, also co-organized by the NHA and AAN, offers a thorough history of Nantucket painting with a vintage web vibe: https://nha.org/digitalexhibits/artistcolony. In the whaling era, there were resident and itinerant painters who made portraits of ships and people, in that order, and later there was, famously, Eastman Johnson, who summered on Nantucket regularly beginning in 1870. Some of Johnson’s finest mature paintings are of Nantucket, and his ability to capture the distinctive allure of the place encouraged other first-tier painters, notably George Inness, to visit as well, joining the island’s first generation of “summer people.”
But it was not until around 1920, when amateur painter and summer resident Florence Lang began converting old fish houses on the waterfront into artists’ studios and summer rentals, that a lasting artistic community began. “Her interest in forming an art colony came from trying to foster a healthy summer visitorship that would benefit the locals,” said Michael Harrison, the NHA’s director of research and collections and the curator of the present exhibition. Lang and her husband, who were people of means, also clearly intended to make money, but it seems clear that their intentions for Nantucket were both sincere and successful, as artists began to flock to the island and contributed significantly to a growing tourism economy. Lang also founded Easy Street Gallery on Steamboat Wharf – the commercial hub of the island – which provided a highly visible exhibition and sales venue for Nantucket’s artists of this era.
Coinciding with Lang’s efforts was the arrival of painter Frank Swift Chase. Chase was invited to the island by a cottage owner who wanted to take summer painting classes and offer them to her guests. Falling immediately under the island’s spell, Chase soon established his own summer art school and taught there every year save one for 35 years. Typical of art colony painters of the time – think of Monhegan, Maine, in the interwar period, or Old Lyme, Conn. – Chase embraced a painterly technique that bridged the gap between impressionism and modernism. Another constant was his plein air process, which took advantage of Nantucket’s scenery and summer weather as well as its growing community of summer visitors, evoked with bright splashes of pigment in his “Rainbow Fleet,” circa 1930. “I really like that engagement with place,” said Harrison of the work produced in East Coast art colonies. “You’re not going to Montauk or Provincetown to paint inside; you’re going to paint outside, and the place where you are is completely significant to what you’re doing.”
This holds true, unmistakably, for Nantucket as well. “A lot of people are interested in coming to Nantucket because of the island’s unique landscape,” says Harrison, describing it as “spare; lots of water and sea and horizon.” Of the art colony Artists, he says, “a lot…are attracted to that, but then they’re also attracted to the waterfront,” including the dockside shanties that were used for scallop fishing in the winter but were rented out as studios and cottages, many by Lang, in the summer. Again, Chase provides a defining example, with his “Nantucket Harbor,” circa 1925, painted in textured stripes of hazy white sky, deep green foliage, gray fishing shacks and blue water.
Chase’s paintings, along with his tutelage and encouragement, laid the foundations for several other significant Nantucket painters. Students Sue Cory Guenther, Elizabeth Saltonstall and Isabelle Hollister Tuttle adopted aspects of his brushwork and palette, along with a knack for finding interesting and unusual compositions among Nantucket’s homes and harbors. And the paintings of Tony Sarg and Anne Ramsdell Congdon, as much defining Nantucket artists as Chase, show the same fascination with the docks and shanties. Works like these, Harrison says, “form a really interesting window on how summer visitors from the art colony are interacting with the people who are here and the working waterfront that is here.”
Nantucket, as a community, began collecting art in force at around the same time that the art colony began producing art in force. There often was no bright line between creator and collector – Lang, for instance, was a painter as well as a patron and gallerist. Occupying a similar position at the time were the Monaghan sisters, Hanna and Gertrude, who, the exhibition texts explain, “first came to Nantucket and rented studios from Lang at the suggestion of their friend, the muralist and illustrator Violet Oakley.” Gertrude was a trained painter, having studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and she showed at Easy Street Gallery and the later Candle House Studio. But she and her sister became best known as patrons and leaders of the island’s artistic milieu. Their home, a rehabilitated pig farm that they called Greater Light in reference to the sun (they also had an adjacent cottage called Lesser Light, for the moon), was transformed into an architecturally eclectic showplace that provided a place for artists’ residencies and included a spacious central “studio” that was a venue for musical and theatrical performances.
It could not be more fitting, then, that the Monaghans’ studio is the space in which the current exhibition is installed. For the rise of individual collectors on Nantucket also stimulated and fortified the island’s nascent collecting institutions. Among these were the NHA, which the Monaghans supported assiduously and to which they eventually bequeathed Greater Light (the NHA was also greatly expanded in 1930 by the major gift that established the Whaling Museum as one of its flagship branches). Unusually for an art association, the AAN, founded in 1945 by a core group of Chase students, including Saltonstall, established a permanent collection from the beginning, in the interest, as their website says, of “documenting Nantucket’s art colony history.”
That history has endured and evolved, as has the art. Such an evolution is hinted at in the current exhibition with the work of painters associated with the “45 Group,” artists whose sensibilities veered toward the modern (and who are well represented in the AAN’s collection). Among these were Inna Garsoaian, a refugee from the Russian Revolution whose “Washington Street,” circa 1940, is evocative of Edward Hopper’s Truro scenes. The 45 Group, led by Louise Late Emerson, also included several artists connected to the Baltimore/Washington area, among them Katharine W. Dunn Pagon, Charlotte Stuart Kimball and Margaretta Hinchman, whose portrait by Pagon is featured in the show.
It is possible to trace the vital and active artistic community on present-day Nantucket back to the defining era celebrated in this exhibition. In addition to the strong and seamless presence of the AAN from 1945 to today – it currently has some 240 artist members – there are also inheritors of Lang’s and the Monaghans’ legacies of patronage. Four years ago, this publication profiled the nationally renowned collector Max Berry, who has split his time between Washington, DC, and Nantucket since the late 1960s, and whose collection includes important Nantucket scenes by Eastman Johnson as well as Congdon and other art colony-era artists.
Berry’s spoils have frequently come from the auction block at Osona Auctions on the waterfront – owner/auctioneer Rafael Osona does not take internet bids, so there is an old-fashioned gamesmanship that accompanies his auctions – or from the annual Nantucket Antiques Show, which until recently was presented under the auspices of the NHA and remains a fundraiser for that institution. Art colony paintings have recently sold for high prices at both venues. This August, a Congdon Nantucket scene went for the hammer price of $72,000; local views by Richard Hayley Lever have sold for similar prices in recent years.
Harrison was diffident when asked about whether this suggests a growing market interest in the Nantucket art colony. “I can’t really speak to whether there is a renewed interest,” he says. “From my perspective, there certainly is a continuing interest…I’m not always so certain how many of the artists who were working here in the 1920s-30s had a national following…but they had a following here, and that continues to resonate here.”
The Nantucket Historical Association is at 15 Broad Street. For more information, www.nha.org or 508-228-1849.
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