Published: February 7, 2012
In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, with the emergence of mass transit and interest in plein air painting, European artists began to spend summers in art colonies, often by the sea. They were soon joined by aspiring American painters who studied in Paris in the winter.
In art colonies artists exchanged ideas and techniques, painted outdoors with fellow artists and generally advanced their careers. The idea caught on like wildfire; soon artists were summering all over Europe and the United States.
In 1899, the trend came to a remote fishing village 40 miles out to sea on Cape Cod, when Charles W. Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Mass. Hawthorne, a somewhat overlooked major figure in American art history, was a portraitist and marine genre painter who emphasized painting outdoors in natural light. Although artists had been frequenting the area since the 1870s, this moment is considered the start of the Provincetown art colony, which flourishes to this day.
Provincetown in summer turned out to be an ideal place for artists. While retaining its rugged charm, it was accessible to Boston and New York City, and costs were reasonable, permitting promising but financially challenged painters to study there. As Abstract Expressionist and Provincetown denizen Adolph Gottlieb is said to have observed years later, “When you are a young artist, Provincetown is the place to be. When you make it, move to East Hampton.”
Significant events of Twentieth Century American art played out on the narrow streets and expansive dunes of the town, albeit tensions were present from the beginning. Hawthorne’s adherents gravitated to his school, 1899‱930, to create both traditional landscapes inspired by the special air, light and sea and portraits of picturesque local people. They were eventually challenged by Modernists touting new, progressive ideas from Europe. Hans Hofmann, an enormously influential abstract painter and one of the great teachers of Twentieth Century American art, ran highly successful schools in New York City and Provincetown from 1935 to1958.
What happened in summers in Provincetown was often played out on a grander scale during winters in New York, as the directions of American art varied from artist to artist and era to era. Artists of many disciplines and supporters of the Provincetown Playhouse flocking to the Outer Cape art colony gave rise to a Bohemian atmosphere, which in turn attracted more artists and art schools. The village became a philosophical battleground between the old and new, but rather than paralyzing the community, this dialogue seemed to stimulate greater creativity and encourage discussion about the true nature of art and the role of artists in society.
So many artists sojourned in the summer art colony, some staying briefly and others returning year after year, that it is difficult to define a true Provincetown artist.
During just one summer, 1916, Marsden Hartley, an early Modernist, produced an important body of work. Jackson Pollock only summered there, 1943‱944, but had a substantial impact on the community. In Provincetown, the drip and splatter painter had his famous exchange with abstract artist-teacher Hofmann, who urged that he paint from nature. “I am nature,” came Pollock’s cocky reply.
This important saga is explored in “The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899′011),” a splendid exhibition organized by the New Britain Museum of American Art †where it has already been seen (as well as at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art) †and on view at the Wichita Art Museum through April 29. Curated by Alexander J. Noelle of the New Britain Museum, the show’s more than 100 works document the legacy of the art colony “at the end of the world,” which has had such a significant impact on America’s artistic development. With the help of an excellent catalog, the show makes a good case for New Britain Museum director Douglas K.S. Hyland’s assertion that Provincetown is “the preeminent American art colony.”
Born in Illinois but raised in Richmond, Maine, on the Kennebec River, the son of a sea captain-turned farmer, Hawthorne (1872‱930) studied at the Art Students League and under William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock Hills, where he learned plein air painting and met his future wife.
Falling under the spell of Frans Hals and other Dutch Old Masters during a visit to Holland, he shaped a distinctive style for himself that utilized bold brushwork to depict landscapes and, most notably, stalwart local fisherfolk.
Launching the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown in 1899, Hawthorne applied Chase’s teaching methods of weekly criticism and private instructional follow-up to good effect. A Boston Globe art critic reported that Hawthorne stressed painting from models outdoors with careful attention to the “broad color and light effects of the environment. He tries, however, to impress the student with the necessity of his, or her, own individuality.”
Concurring, James R. Bakker, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, observes that although Hawthorne stressed “his theories on how to see color and paint, he did not tell his students what to paint. It was as much a philosophy on how to see and live life to the fullest as a philosophy of painting. He taught his students how to look at life in a new light.”
That kind of wise guidance attracted throngs of enthusiastic artists to the school for the rest of its director’s life. The Globe critic observed in 1916 that Hawthorne “has done more to put Provincetown ‘on the map’ as a resort for painters than any other one man in the place.”
Among the students who trained under Hawthorne, Edwin Dickinson became a longtime Provincetown resident, specializing in moody, softly rendered landscapes like “Provincetown Harbor, Railroad Wharf in the Rain” and disquieting self-portraits. Blanche Lazzell, guided by B.J.O. Nordfeldt, adopted a technique of making color prints from a single rather than multiple blocks, earning widespread acclaim.
Another early student, Gerrit Beneker, showed Hawthorne’s strong influence in a solidly modeled view of a working man at lunchtime, replete with half-eaten sandwich and lunch pail, in “Noon Hour.” Jack Tworkov studied with Hawthorne at the National Academy of Design and in Provincetown, eventually moving from representation to Abstract Expressionist canvases featuring structured geometric shapes, as in “Untitled Q.”
Other notable Hawthorne students include the unfairly neglected Modernist Ross Moffett and African American artist William H. Johnson, who turned from expressionism to memorable faux naïve views of the black American experience.
In 1914 Hawthorne helped found the Provincetown Art Association, beginning a long and rich history of annual exhibitions and collecting local artwork. Some 650 Outer Cape artists are represented in the permanent collection of more than 3,000 objects.
Meanwhile, Hawthorne became a painter highly respected for his masterful technique and solid realism, gaining election to the National Academy of Design and winning many honors. Best known for dignified portraits of Provincetown’s fishermen and women, he also created fluid Impressionist watercolors.
When Hawthorne died in 1930, his former student Henry Hensche established his own school, hoping to carry on his mentor’s teaching methods, and continued to direct it for 50 years. “He was primarily concerned with teaching pupils to interpret the relationship between shape and color and to be aware of how the component parts related to the whole,” according to Elizabeth Ives Hunter, director of the Cape Cod Museum of Art. “Many of Hawthorne and Hensche’s guiding principles continue to flourish and inspire artists in Provincetown today,” says Bakker.
The other giant figure in the Provincetown art colony saga, German-born and Munich- and Paris-educated Hofmann (1880‱966), opened his school in 1935, and through masterful teaching and his own nonobjective canvases, ushered the community into the modern age. An exuberant, forceful, humane and innovative instructor, he stressed the interaction of nature, theory and paint on two-dimensional surfaces, their relationships determined by intuitive rather than logical means and color as the primary element of structure. He preached “push-pull” ideas about how color could generate illusions of both depth and motion.
As art historian Deborah Forman observes, “Hofmann brought together the structures of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism with the evocative power of Matisse’s colors and motivated a generation of American artists to free themselves from the constraints of representational art and launch an indigenous art movement.” In so doing, he “exerted a pivotal influence on the rise of Abstract Expressionism, which propelled American artists into the Twentieth Century and transported the center of the art world from Paris to New York.”
Among his students: Robert De Niro Sr, Helen Frankenthaler, Red Grooms, Wolf Kahn, Lee Krasner, Paul Resika and Larry Rivers. “For many †not only his own students †&⁛Hofmann] led the way to a revolution in American art,” concludes Forman.
In his own paintings, Hofmann explored a variety of styles, inspired by Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró and Mondrian. Marked by explosions of color within structured compositions, they are among the most memorable works of the Abstract Expressionists and are highly prized today.
Other art schools and an increasing number of galleries helped burnish Provincetown’s reputation as a haven for artists. Many important artists, such as Childe Hassam, Hartley, David Burliuk and Pollock visited only briefly, while some, like Milton Avery, William Baziotes, Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Karl Knaths, Robert Motherwell, Theodoros Stamos, Bob Thompson, Tony Vevers and E. Ambrose Webster, summered for at least several years. Other luminaries associated with Provincetown and included in the exhibition: Will Barnet, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Willem de Kooning, Chaim Gross, Edward Hopper, William McGregor Paxton, Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn, Charles Sheeler, Andy Warhol, Frederick Waugh and John Whorf,
Today, Provincetown’s art colony, many of whose members are part of the town’s 2,500 year-round residents, face a deluge of summer visitors and rising costs of living in a major tourist destination.
Talented artists, some with deep roots in the community, have energized new arts institutions and galleries and are creating art that extends Provincetown’s artistic heritage. Among the contemporary artists on view in the show: Susan Baker, Varujan Boghosian, Romolo Del Deo, John Dowd, Robert Douglas Hunter, Penelope Jenks, Danielle Mailer, Robena Malicoat, Daniel Ranalli, Tabitha Vevers and Bert Yarborough. With luck, pluck, talent and perseverance, they will add luster to the legacy of America’s oldest continuous art colony.
“Tides of Provincetown” travels to Cape Cod Museum of Art, May 18⁁ugust 26. The 176-page catalog features useful essays and illustrations. Published by the New Britain Museum and distributed by University Press of New England, it sells for $25. The Wichita Art Museum is at 1400 Museum Boulevard. For information, 316-268-4921 or www.wichitaartmuseum.org .
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