Published: April 10, 2001
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY AND GREENWICH, CONN.in Cos Cob. As these show document, this lively but rather conventional group of painters, who congregated in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich between 1890 and 1920, created some of the most subtle, lyrical images in the history of American Impressionism.
The environment in which such stalwarts as Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, John H. Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir flourished is showcased in the exhibitions, along with splendid examples of the artwork the setting inspired. In their cozy enclave the artists exchanged ideas, tested styles and themes, were stimulated by the picturesque village and countryside, and enjoyed the encouragement of journalists and writers who clustered around the art colony. “Cos Cob in the 1890s,” says art historian Susan G. Larkin, “was as important to them as Argenteuil in the 1870s had been to Monet, Renoir, and Manet.” (See Antiques and The Arts Weekly, November 17, 2000.)
Dr Larkin, the world’s leading authority on the subject, is the guest curator of the major exhibition “: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore,” on view at the National Academy of Design Museum through May 13. Organized in conjunction with the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science and the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, the show travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 17 to September 16), and the Denver Art Museum (October 27 to January 20, 2002).
The some 70 oils, pastels, and other works on paper in the National Academy exhibition have been divided by curator Larkin into four favorite themes of a dozen Cos Cob artists: (1) marinescapes around the harbor; (2) nostalgic views of the community’s aging architecture; (3) depictions of women and children; and (4) renderings of the landscape surrounding the town. Each section contains fine, mainly bright Impressionist canvases by important painters.
Larkin also curated, with the assistance of museum curatorial assistant Cynthia Drayton, “Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum’s First Decade,” on view at the Bruce Museum through May 27. This exhibition reassembles some 27 paintings and 10 sculptures that were either shown at the new museum, 1912 to 1922, or are similar to them in subject matter and date. During this period, members of , who had organized as the Greenwich Society of Artists in 1912, showed their work in well-received exhibitions at the former Bruce mansion.
The third exhibition, ” at Bush-Holley Historic Site,” takes place in the favorite rendezvous of the artists, now owned by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich. Vintage photographs and examples of the paintings by those who gathered there will be on view through September 3 in rooms in the old Holley House that have been reinstalled and reinterpreted to capture the ambience of the colony’s turn-of-the-century heyday.
Art colonies that proliferated in the United States toward the end of the Nineteenth Century were often an outgrowth of similar communal experiences our artists had participated in while training in Europe. Finding that working in groups in the French countryside spurred creative output, when these painters returned to this country they continued to seek out one another for support and stimulating fellowship in paintable locations.
Art colonies with important painters that located in Connecticut around 1890-1920 included, in addition to Cos Cob, Greenwich, Old Lyme, Noank, and Mystic. Cos Cob took hold because it offered a still relatively unspoiled village setting, a convenient location a one hour train ride from New York City, and the Holley family’s boardinghouse as an affordable gathering place and de facto headquarters.
The Holley family had purchased the sprawling, 14-room salt box house, part of which dated to 1732, in the early 1880s and turned it into a nine-room guesthouse catering to summer visitors. With fine views from large porches of Cos Cob’s small but busy harbor, the Mianus River, and Long Island Sound, the place was advertised as offering “boating, bathing, and fishing.” The New York – New Haven train stopped a quarter of a mile away, a mere “three minutes’ walk,” proclaimed Holley House advertisements.
Much like Florence Griswold at her place in Old Lyme, the shabbily genteel Cos Cob structure became a special magnet for artists and writers because of the charm and cultivation of its owners, Edward and Josephine Holley and their daughter Constant. The Holleys filled the old place with flowers, adorned the walls with reproductions of Old Masters, and furnished it with early American pieces. The rooms were small, but the meals were bountiful. It was an ambience conducive to relaxed good fellowship.
As Larkin puts it, “For artists, Cos Cob offered congenial company, affordable accommodations, varied recreational opportunities, and, most important – inspiring subject matter. The harbor village retained an appealing rusticity long after other sections of Greenwich had become gentrified.”
Among the surroundings that stimulated paintings were a tide-powered mill, a row of waterfront warehouses, the small harbor and shipyard festooned with sailing vessels, colonial-era buildings, views to Long Island Sound, and an expansive vista from the house’s front porch. These and other sights were recorded by the Cos Cob artists.
After a slow start, the Holley House blossomed as an artists’ haven around 1890, after Twachtman settled with his wife and family on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, about three miles away. Twachtman, Larkin emphasizes, “was a magnet attracting other artists to the area and the nucleus around which the nascent Cos Cob art colony formed.”
While Twachtman welcomed a steady stream of painter friends to his Greenwich farm, the Holley House offered a more spacious rendezvous for longer-term stays. “Together, the Holley House and Twachtman’s place were the art colony’s focal points, where artists gathered to paint and talk about painting. The Impressionists of Cos Cob, encouraging one another to try new approaches, generated a spirit of innovation that distinguished this art colony from many others,” observes Larkin.
The Cos Cob painters mingled somewhat uneasily with working class residents, setting up easels around town and greeting passers-by as they sketched from the expansive veranda of the Holley House. Regulars at the boardinghouse, while serious about their art, also organized lively entertainment within the house and leisure activities in the surrounding area. “Besides swimming, boating, fishing, and cycling,” says Larkin, “they played charades on the porch, sang songs around the piano, popped corn in the fireplaces, pulled taffy, and made fudge.”
While the somewhat off-beat life of the artists and their friends set them apart from other newcomers from the city who were transforming Greenwich from a town into a suburb, the art colonists soon recognized these prosperous residents were potential patrons. To cultivate that market, they formed the Greenwich Society of Artists and staged the exhibitions that are the subject of the current show at the Bruce Museum.
Among the diverse characters who frequented the Holley House and joined in the festive activities were writer Willa Cather, investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, and a number of then well-known literary figures. Steffens, the famed muckraker who made his reputation challenging the status quo, was a key member of the Holley House gang from 1901 to 1911. In his autobiography he recounted with relish the debates he and Twachtman initiated over dinner on a broad range of aesthetic and social issues.
As a result, Larkin notes, “The Holley House, redolent of tradition, became a bohemian enclave of avant-garde art, progressive politics, and a degree of sexual freedom.” The latter aspect led Hassam, who was familiar with both places, to call Miss Griswold’s more straitlaced guesthouse in Old Lyme the “Holy House” in irreverent contrast to the more free-spirited Holley House.
At the same time that was flourishing for several decades around the turn of the century, the area around it was undergoing a significant transition from an agricultural and maritime community to a well-to-do suburb of New York City. “The sense of change that permeated life in turn-of-the-century Greenwich overflowed to the process of art-making there, promoting an experimental spirit that made this art colony significant in the history of American art,” argues Larkin.
The establishment of the larger art colony in Old Lyme, some 75 miles from Cos Cob, was to some extent an outgrowth of the Cos Cob experience. Led at first by tonalist Henry Ward Ranger, beginning in the late 1890s, and soon thereafter by Impressionists led by Hassam, the Old Lyme painters congregated in Miss Griswold’s boardinghouse, making it one of the most important art colonies in the nation. The saga of the Old Lyme artists and the scenery that energized them is the subject of yet another complementary exhibition, on view through November 25, at the Old Lyme guesthouse, now the Florence Griswold Museum.
In the book accompanying the National Academy exhibition Larkin stresses the importance of personalities, especially the moody but inspirational Twachtman, in shaping the tone of the Cos Cob group. An enormously talented artist who excelled at capturing the nuances of nature’s changing face in poetic, subtle landscapes, Twachtman was highly regarded by his fellow painters, but was never a commercial success. The fact that his delicate evocations of the Connecticut countryside did not sell well “contributed to his artistic independence,” writes Larkin, “freeing him from the temptation of producing salable pictures according to a proven formula.” Twachtman’s “art, conversation, and teaching fueled the creative fires of his friends and students in Cos Cob,” says Larkin.
Twachtman (1849-1902) found special inspiration for many of his finest paintings in the waterfall, brook, pool, and forested hillsides of the property he acquired on nearby Round Hill Road in the late 1880s. Among the masterpieces in the National Academy show are “Snowbound” (1890s), a wintry glimpse of his land from the road, and an autumnal image of the pool below his house, “The Hemlock Pool” (circa 1900). There are several images of the graceful wooden bridge arching over a pond on his property, the best of which is the wonderfully colorful and evocative “The White Bridge” (circa 1900) from the collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Another notable, albeit rarely seen canvas, is “The Barnyard” (n.d.), recalling a lively family scene in the backyard of Twachtman’s house.
The pleasure Twachtman derived from both the fellowship and setting of the Holley House, where he stayed off and on over the years, is suggested by several views he painted of or from the place, such as the snowy “Country House in Winter, Cos Cob” (circa 1901), depicting the adjacent Brush House, and of the tranquil vista from the broad veranda, “Bridge in Winter” (circa 1901). While the porch remains intact, the view today is marred by a huge elevated bridge carrying I-95 traffic.
The National Academy show also features a recently recognized Twachtman masterwork, “Sailing in the Mist” (circa 1895), from the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Depicting a single youngster in a boat drifting on vaporous blue waters, it is likely an homage to two of the artist’s children who died in infancy in the 1890s.
For a decade Twachtman taught summer art classes at the Holley House – a much smaller operation than William Merritt Chase’s famed, concurrent summer school at Shinnecock on Long Island. Both men recruited students from the Art Students League in Manhattan, where both taught in the winter, leading to a friendly rivalry between the two painters. Outstanding among Twachtman’s students, whom he encouraged to develop a personal vision, were D. Putnam Brinley, Charles and Mary Roberts Ebert, Ernest Lawson, Allen Tucker, and Elmer MacRae, who married Constant Holley in 1900 and became the mainstay of the art colony.
Twachtman’s great friend, the gifted Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), had spent time with Impressionist titan Claude Monet in Giverny. By example of his own work and by communing with other painters, he helped translate French Impressionism to an American idiom. During a brief but productive stay at the Holley House in 1894, Robinson focused on lyrical depictions of the Cos Cob waterfront, as exemplified by “Boats at a Landing” (1894) and “The Anchorage, Cos Cob” (1894), depicting the Riverside Yacht Club basin. They are among the high points of the exhibition and reminders that this fine artist, who died too young, deserves greater recognition.
Weir (1852-1919), who in the early 1880s had acquired a farm in Branchville, Conn., now the Weir Farm National Historic Site (see Antiques and The Arts Weekly, September 15, 2000), was a frequent and supportive presence at the Holley House. An admired leader among artists, he offered knowledgeable encouragement to Cos Cob regulars, and benefited from stimulating contacts with his close friends Hassam, Robinson, and especially Twachtman.
Their influence and the contentment and inspiration his farm property and family provided is reflected in a number of serene, atmospheric Weir canvases in the National Academy show, highlighted by “The Grey Trellis” (1891), “In the Shade of a Tree” (1894), and “The Laundry, Branchville” (circa 1894). The charming “After the Ride” (circa 1903) shows Weir’s daughter Cora and a donkey standing next to the barn on the farm. A number of pastels, watercolors, and pen-and-ink images underscore Weir’s deft touch on paper.
The peripatetic, prolific, and charismatic Hassam (1859-1935), who visited Cos Cob intermittently for two decades starting in 1896, brought his usual cheerful touch to light-filled Impressionist views of the area. His skills as a pastellist are documented by several vigorous, evocative views of the Holley House that suggest how little the site has changed in nearly a century.
Hassam’s oils in the National Academy exhibition range from the strongly brushed “The Mill Pond, Cos Cob” (1902), which includes the railroad drawbridge built over the Mianus River, and “Oyster Sloop, Cos Cob” (1902), to more delicate interior scene of a kimono-clad woman, “Bowl of Goldfish” (1912).
Hassam’s 1915 etchings, such as “The Steps,” “The White Kimono,” and “The Writing Desk,” are fruits of the artist’s first sustained effort at printmaking.
Hopscotching around New England resort communities for many years, Hassam also painted in the Isles of Shoals, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and Provincetown, before finally settling in East Hampton on Long Island in 1919.
Works by two lesser-known members of the Cos Cob group stand out in the National Academy display. Leonard Ochtman (1854-1934), a Dutch-born, virtually self-taught painter, settled permanently in Cos Cob in 1891, with a studio on Valley Road. He exhibited widely and for two decades offered instruction in landscape painting. More of a Tonalist than an Impressionist, Ochtman’s “On the Mianus River” (1896), from the Bruce Museum collection, reflects his dictum to record “the effect of the day, hour or moment, the mood and not a transcript of the place.”
MacRae (1875-1953) had studied at the Art Students League before he arrived in the 1890s to take outdoor landscape classes with Twachtman. He soon married Constant Holley and lived the rest of his life in the Holley House. Successful exhibitions of his work on the premises attracted patrons from the broader Greenwich community.
A skilled pastellist as well as oil painter, MacRae has several interesting canvases in the National Academy show, including a powerful rendition of the harbor, “Schooner in the Ice” (1900), a warm, affectionate depiction of “The Upper Porch at Holley House” (1900), and a colorful, close-up floral work, “Hollyhocks” (1914), from the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
MacRae, a charter member of the Greenwich Society of Artists, was also a founder of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. In the latter group he played a key role in organizing the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced European modernism to America. Ten of his own works were exhibited in that groundbreaking show.
declined after 1919. Many of its original leaders, such as Robinson and Twachtman, were long dead; Hassam and Weir had settled elsewhere; Charles and Mary Ebert had relocated to Old Lyme; Ochtman was past his prime; and MacRae had begun devoting himself to woodcarving.
Moreover, the sense of the place that made the Cos Cob-Greenwich area so attractive to Impressionists had disappeared with the loss of farms and decline of the once-vibrant waterfront. In addition, as Larkin points out, “As early modernists turned toward abstraction, they no longer needed to leave their studios to seek compelling subject matter.”
The MacRaes continued to operate their boardinghouse for several more years, but the vital, inquisitive crowd of creative personalities had been replaced by more sedate guests. “By 1920,” says Larkin, “the heady years of artistic innovation by artists and writers at the Holley House were largely the stuff of memory.”
Bruce Museum Exhibition
“Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum’s First Decade” explores the manner in which the newly formed Greenwich Society of Artists (GSA) organized the first exhibition of their work at the Bruce Museum. Textile merchant Robert Bruce had left his home to the Town of Greenwich in 1909, but provided neither a collection nor funds to acquire one.
The GSA exhibition of 1912, which inaugurated the new museum, was followed by annual shows through 1914. They resumed in 1919 after a break during World War I. These well-publicized displays, which doubled as social events, offered means for the previously aloof artists to reach out to potential buyers among wealthy newcomers who were building large homes in the area.
A few non-resident artists, notably old friends like Hassam and Weir, participated with resident artists in the successful, largely conservative exhibitions. “[T]he organizers,” curators Larkin and Drayton note in a brochure accompanying the current Bruce Museum show, “catered to a taste for elegance and refinement.” Visitors enjoyed, in that context, a diverse selection of Impressionist and realist paintings and Beaux-Arts sculpture.
The fledgling Bruce Museum, undoubtedly influenced by Ochtman’s dual role as the museum’s art advisor and the GSA’s president, purchased eight paintings from the 1919 exhibition. These first works to enter the collection included Ochtman’s subtly atmospheric “October Morning” (1919).
The canvases on view in the current display reflect the artists’ interest in rural landscapes, venerable structures, waterfront scenes, still lifes, and images of chaste women. Standout landscapes include such sun-splashed views as Charles H. Davis’ “The Old Pasture” (n.d.), which appears to be set in the Connecticut countryside, and Henry Bill Selden’s “Landscape with Trees and Clouds” (1912). Davis (1856-1933), a European-trained New Englander who lived in Mystic from 1890 until his death, is said to have painted 900 landscapes of the area during his long career. He also taught art classes, founded the Mystic Art Association, and encouraged numerous younger artists.
Hassam, America’s most famous Impressionist, is represented by one of his many lyrical depictions of the rocky terrain of the Isles of Shoals and by an evocative canvas of a wonderful old home near his own cottage on Long Island, “Little Old Cottage, Egypt Lane, East Hampton” (1917). It is a beauty.
In a contrasting image, Pennsylvania Impressionist Robert Spencer (1879-1931), noted for his scenes of tenements and factory life, showed workers at quitting time in “Five O’Clock June” (1913).
Edward H. Potthast (1857-1917), the indefatigable chronicler of the New England coast, is represented in the Bruce Museum exhibition by the vigorously brushed “Harbor Scene” (n.d.). The standout still life “Peonies” (n.d.) is by Danish-born Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), a specialist in that genre. He also painted landscapes around his summer home in Falls Village in the northwest corner of Connecticut.
Among the images of genteel ladies is “Morning” (1919) by the under-appreciated Helen M. Turner (1858-1958), who lived for years in the art colony around Cragsmoor in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), an academically trained painter who was known for his sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans around his adopted home in Taos, New Mexico, weighs in with “Hunting Wild Turkeys” (1925) in the Bruce Museum show.
In part because sculptor Edward Clark Potter served as first President of the GSA, early Bruce Museum exhibitions were strong in three-dimensional work by the likes of Herbert Adams (1858-1945), Abastenia St L. Eberle, Daniel Chester French, Harriet Frishmuth (1880-1979), Evelyn Beatrice Longman, Hermon Atkins MacNeill, Edward McCartan, and Bessie Potter Vonnoh.
The most familiar piece, then and now, was French’s “Seated Lincoln” (1916), a bronze working model for the celebrated Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Sculptures that would have looked good in the formal gardens that had begun to proliferate around Greenwich included Adams’ contemplative “Nymph of Fynmere” (1915) and Frishmuth’s exuberant “Joy of the Waters” (1920).
After organizing all of the Bruce Museum art shows through 1926, in 1928 the GSA moved its base to a gallery in the new Greenwich Public Library. As Larkin and Drayton observe, and their exhibition illustrates, in the years around World War I, the GSA “enabled the Bruce Museum to showcase some of the finest art then being made in America.”
Bush-Holley Historic Site Exhibition
The third of the current exhibition group is appropriately set in the venerable and historic structure now known as the Bush-Holley House. The gathering place of the Cos Cob artists is today handsomely maintained and carefully interpreted by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, which purchased the place in 1957. The property includes the Holley Barn, where artists painted; a research archive housing papers, photographs, and memorabilia of the town’s history; and an old general store that is now a visitor center and exhibition area.
Recently reworked to reflect even more strongly the artists’ mecca in its glory days, the house features numerous fireplaces, an inviting double veranda, faux-grained paneling, Eighteenth Century Connecticut antique furnishings, and high ceilings. Original artwork and reproductions are scattered strategically around the house. MacRae’s second-floor studio, looking out on the waterfront, has been recreated from family photographs. This National Historic Landmark offers nostalgic glimpses into the life and times of .
The exhibition ” at Bush-Holley Historic Site” continues in the visitor center, where photographs, artwork, manuscripts, and memorabilia are on display.
As these three exhibitions document, that art colony played a belatedly appreciated role in the history of American art. Larkin deserves much credit for her years of research, writing, and curating that have secured for Cos Cob its rightful place in the annals of our art history. left an enduring legacy of beautiful work, and thanks to the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, the Bush-Holley House, where so much creativity was stimulated, retains a lasting ambience.
The book accompanying “” at the National Academy was written by Larkin. It offers the first comprehensive analysis of the artistic enclave. Placing the Cos Cob group in the context of art colonies in Europe and America, Larkin examines the appeal of the Greenwich area and the Holley House to artists, delves into the personalities and output of leading figures, and explains reasons for the art colony’s decline.
Published by Yale University Press, this well-written and richly illustrated volume (78 color and 67 black-and-white images) is a welcome addition to American art scholarship. It sells for $45 (hardcover) and $35 (softcover, available only at the National Academy Museum shop).
The Bruce Museum has scheduled a number of special activities relating to its exhibition and those at the other two sites. Larkin will lead a tour to the National Academy show on Thursday, April 26. There will be a joint family day at the museum and Bush-Holley Historic Site on Sunday, May 6.
The Bruce Museum and Bush-Holley Historic Site have organized a seminar, “Turn of the Century Tastes,” which will take place at the Bruce Museum on Sunday, April 22, from 2 to 5 pm. Introduced and moderated by curator Larkin, it will include presentations and discussion among three scholars on aspects of suburban life at the outset of the Twentieth Century. Kevin Murphy, associate professor, CUNY Graduate Program in Art History, will address “The Country Estate at the Turn of the Century”; Kathleen Johnson, curator at Historic Hudson Valley, will talk about “Turn of the Century Interiors”; and Eleanor Weller, garden historian, will examine “The Golden Age of American Gardens.” For reservations, 203-869-0376.
The National Academy of Design Museum is at 1083 Fifth Avenue in New York. For information, 212-369-4880. The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science is at 1 Museum Drive in Greenwich. For information, 203-869-0376. Bush-Holley Historic Site is at 39 Strickland Road in Cos Cob. For information, 203-869-6899.
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