Cahoon Museum of American Art
photo © 1996 Paul Murphy, Hyannis, MA
Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon
The Cahoon Museum of American Art will present the retrospective exhibition "Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon" through July 14, 2001, with more than 60 pieces on view.
Martha Farham Cahoon, who died at age 94 in December 1999, was the grandmother of primitive painters on Cape Cod. She was born of Swedish immigrants in Roslindale in 1905, and her family moved to Harwich when she was 10. Although her high school teachers encouraged her to attend college, Martha instead apprenticed to her father, Axel Farham, a talented furniture decorator, and worked with him for 10 years. When she married Chatham native Ralph Cahoon in 1932, she passed on her knowledge of the trade to him. (left: Harvest, oil on masonite, private collection)
In the early 1950s, Joan Whitney Payson, the owner of a Long Island art gallery, encouraged the Cahoons to paint their folk scenes as pictures that could be framed. She quickly sold their first efforts at easel painting and soon gave them a two-person show - the first of many sell-outs. The Cahoons were happy to abandon the drudgery of refinishing old furniture and concentrate on their artwork.
In galleries around the country - as well as at the big Cotuit Colonial that was their home, studio and gallery - their paintings captivated many admirers, including members of the Kennedy, Mellon, Du Pont and Lilly families. The Cahoons were sometimes called "sophisticated primitives," and they became especially well-known for their whimsical paintings of mermaids.
After Ralph Cahoon died in 1982, their Cotuit home became the Cahoon Museum of American Art. The Cahoons' works became a highlight of the museum's permanent collection, and Martha continued to live in a small portion of the old house until her death.
Although famous in her own night, Martha has always been a little in husband Ralph's shadow. So now, in fond memory, the Cahoon Museum is giving her her day in the sun.
The Simple Pleasures retrospective will include several scenes that celebrate the simple pleasures of country life, including the satisfaction of working close to the land, the fun of homespun games, the friendship of animals and the wonders of the changing seasons. The show also includes fanciful paintings of mermaids, enchanting interpretations of the Garden of Eden, pictures of 19th-century villages and harbors, still lifes of flowers and shells, childhood themes and several superb examples of Martha's decorated furniture. The colored-pencil and crayon drawings Martha produced in her 80s and 90s are also represented.
Heritage Plantation of Sandwich and numerous private collectors have been very gracious in loaning works for this fun-filled show. One special attraction is a mural of a harbor scene that Martha Cahoon painted for her son after he lamented that he didn't have a water view from his room. After several years in storage, the painting was recently restored and will be back on its original wall during the exhibition.
In conjunction with the Simple Pleasure exhibition, the Cahoon Museum has published a 48-page exhibition catalogue with text about Martha Cahoon's life and art. Funded by a grant from the Elizabeth B. McGraw Foundation, the catalogue also reproduces 37 works from the show, including 23 in color, and includes a number of charming family photographs. The essay included in the catalogue, written by Cindy Nickerson, Director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art and curator of the exhibition, is reprinted below with permission of the author and the Cahoon Museum of American Art.
Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon
by Cindy Nickerson
Martha Farham Cahoon (1905-1999) lived the last 15 years of her long life in a portion of a Cape Cod art museum named in honor of her and her late husband, Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr. For her privacy's sake, it was a well-kept secret.
Located in the pleasant village of Cotuit, the Cahoon Museum of American Art resides in a 1775 Georgian Colonial that was once a tavern and overnight stagecoach stop. The old house was also the Cahoons' home, studio and gallery from 1945 until Ralph died in 1982. By then, the couple had achieved the status of local legends for their phenomenal success as primitive painters of scenes that step back in time and into the realm of fantasy. The mermaid motif, in particular, is inextricably linked with their names.
Saddened by Ralph's death and overwhelmed by the upkeep of the 14-room house, Martha put her home on the market, thinking she'd probably have to go into a nursing home. Then, Rosemary Rapp, another Cotuit resident, envisioned the place as a museum for her own collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American art, as well as for paintings by the Cahoons. She bought the house and granted Martha lifetime rights to live in four rooms on the ground floor.
Not only was Martha able to remain in her home, but activities surrounding the new museum lifted her spirits. She attended exhibitions and watched from her window as the staff put out decorative flags in the morning and took them in in the late afternoon. "She liked it because there were people to watch," says her son Franz Cahoon, a retired high school history teacher.
In addition, she had the thrill of seeing her own work hung as part of the permanent collection. And when she was 82, the museum gave Martha her first one-person show, an exhibition of recent colored-pencil drawings. In 1997, another show featured her crayon drawings. Its title, Young at Art, perfectly described the exhibit as well as Martha's delight in children, unending fascination with nature and people, and happy memories of her own girlhood.
Martha was born in the Roslindale section of Boston, on June 11, 1905. Her parents, Axel and Elma (Ericsson) Farham, were Swedish immigrants who hadn't really intended to move to America. While visiting relatives in Boston in 1902, Axel Farham had contracted typhoid fever, and they exhausted their return fare on medical bills. After recovering, Farham, a talented furniture decorator, began to work for relatives.
Shortly after Martha's birth, the family moved to the Hyde Park section of Boston. Axel Farham became friends with a number of Boston painters, most notably John J. Enneking, the impressionist landscape artist. As a little girl, Martha accompanied her father and Enneking on walks through Grews Woods in Hyde Park, holding their hands and listening as they discussed art. The first time she saw one of Enneking's paintings of Grews Woods at the Cahoon Museum, she immediately recognized the location.
Martha was the third of six sisters, following Brita and Lisa and preceding Mona, Tina and Osa. In 1915, the Farhams moved to a house with a large yard on Cape Cod. Perhaps they hoped to save money by living partly off the land, for Elma Farham was a gifted gardener. As an adult, Martha wrote this vivid account of their new home:
Axel Farham - "Pop" to Martha - initially commuted to work in Boston and came home on weekends. Later, he opened his own shop in Harwich Center, where he restored and decorated furniture. The Farhams grew potatoes, onions, carrots, string beans, peas, tomatoes and strawberries in their own garden and gleaned cranberries from nearby bogs. They also raised chickens and one pig a year for food. Although Martha and her sisters knew the pigs' ultimate fate, they treated them as pets. When fall came and the pig had to be slaughtered, the girls hid in the attic and covered their ears to block out the squeals. The children had to work hard, and Martha's particular chore was chopping kindling for the kitchen range. The six sisters finally got a brother with the birth of Eric Farham, who eventually carried on their father's business.
Martha's father was somewhat gruff and introspective. Her mother was smart and opinionated. Despite their rural lifestyle, the Farhams certainly weren't provincial. Martha's parents were great readers, with a special interest in history. They stayed well-informed about current events and listened to recordings of symphonies and operas on the Victrola in their parlor.
Martha loved to draw as soon as she could hold a pencil. She excelled in her classes at Brooks Academy, receiving the Brooks Medal in her senior year. But although her teachers encouraged her to go to college, Martha was determined to learn the craft of furniture decoration from her father. In 1922, the year she graduated, the Farhams moved to West Harwich, where there was a fine barn for Axel Farham's busy workshop. For 10 years, Martha worked there, too, as her father's apprentice, learning to scrape and sand furniture, cut stencils and trace their designs, and decorate pieces with garlands of flowers or landscapes.
In 1932, Chatham artist Harold Dunbar wrote about the Farham family for his column in The Harwich Independent. After a paragraph or two praising Axel Farham, he added: "Associated with him in the decorative work is his daughter Martha, whose taste and talent in handling of stencil, bronze and color applied to decorated furniture is probably unsurpassed in New England. You will find their work gracing many of the finest Cape Cod summer homes, including that of [the famous author of Cape stories] Joseph Lincoln."
Old photographs show that, in her mid-20s, Martha had wavy, chin-length brown hair softly framing her pretty face. She radiated a quiet self-assurance and her eyes were lit by a twinkle of amusement - characteristics that age never diminished. In June 1930, she met the witty and charming Ralph Cahoon at a dance in his native Chatham, a town neighboring Harwich. In high school, he had played the title role in the comedy "Charlie's Aunt"; had, in his own words, "set a world's record for errors by a third baseman" and contributed cartoons to the school newspaper. Although he was five years Martha's junior, they hit it off, perhaps partly because of a shared interest in art, history and classical music. After high school, Ralph had attended the School of Practical Arts in Boston for two years.
At one point in their courtship, Martha told Ralph she didn't want to see him any more because of their age difference. He stayed away for a while, but finally reappeared on her doorstep, asking, in his humorous way, "Aren't you going to let this baby take you out anymore?" She relented, and in October 1932, they ran off to nearby Truro to be married by a justice of the peace.
Martha taught Ralph her trade, and they bought a house in Osterville where they opened an antiques shop and restored and decorated furniture. The combination was a natural as they were constantly seeking old furniture to decorate. In the midst of the Depression, they were thrilled when they did $99 in business their first year. "Another remarkable thing was that we never felt poor - we always felt rich," Martha later noted.
Franz, named for Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, was born in 1935. He was their only child. "Before I married I wanted to have six children" Martha once wrote. "Franz was such a live wire that another would have been too much."
Their move to their Cotuit home in 1945 gave the Cahoons considerably more space to display their work. They undertook a painstaking restoration of the old Colonial, which included stenciling some of the walls and floors with early-American designs. These remain part of the museum's charm today.
In decorating furniture and such home accessories as trays and buckets, Martha continued to use the floral and fruit designs she'd learned from her father Seashells and butterflies were other favorite motifs, and she expressed her love of animals in decorating children's furniture with images of Noah's Ark. In decorating larger pieces of furniture, she sometimes used unbroken surfaces to paint completely realized primitive scenes of early-American life. Ralph, who had more time to devote to their business, painted many elaborate scenes, frequently inspired by Swedish or Pennsylvania-Dutch designs.
One patron who admired their work was Joan Whitney Payson, owner of the Country Art Gallery in Westbury on Long Island. Feeling the Cahoons were wasting their talents on furniture decorating, she encouraged them to paint pictures that could be framed. Finding ready customers for the Cahoons' paintings in her gallery, she gave Ralph and Martha their first two-person show around 1954. It was a sell-out - as were most of their shows at Country Art Gallery over the next 25 or so years.
The Cahoons continued to produce some decorated furniture until around 1957, when their transition to easel painting was more or less complete. The artists were happy to dispense with the drudgery of refinishing old furniture and focus on their artwork. At first they tried painting on plywood and canvas, but soon discovered they preferred masonite. It gave them a surface that was as hard and smooth as the furniture they were used to.
In addition to showing at Country Art Gallery, Cahoons also had sell-out exhibitions at George E. Vigouroux's two galleries, the Lobster Pot Gallery on Nantucket and Palm Beach Galleries in Florida. (The Florida venue accounts for the palm trees in some of their beach scenes.) Even Vose Galleries of Boston, which did not usually show primitive paintings, gave them an exhibit in 1960. They also had shows at the John Nelson Bergstrom Art Center and Museum in Neenah, Wis., Myer Galleries in West Hartford, Conn., and the Lester Kierstead Henderson Gallery in Monterey, Calif., so their work traveled all over the country.
Their Cotuit gallery itself attracted many customers, including a fair number of the rich and famous. From nearby Hyannisport came members of the Kennedy clan, including first lady Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr. in tow. Members of the Mellon and Du Pont families also purchased Cahoon paintings. Josiah K. Lilly III and his wife, Josephine, founders of the Cape museum complex Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, were avid collectors of the Cahoons' paintings and friends of the artists. The Plantation assembled an exhibition of Cahoon paintings to inaugurate its new art museum in 1972 and gave them another show in 1980.
The Cahoons apparently took their success in stride. They graciously painted small and less complicated pictures for admirers of moderate means. They contributed many paintings to community fund-raisers. Martha, who kept a journal for decades, usually mentioned - in a cursory way - what paintings she was working on. But she was lust as likely to write about a chat with a friend, how early she'd let the cat in, the daffodils coming up in the yard or what she'd paid for bacon at the grocery store. She saw herself as a wife and mother first, an artist second.
Although the couple almost always exhibited together and were generally given equal attention in articles, Ralph was certainly the more lionized of the two. While Martha doesn't seem to have begrudged him his greater popularity, she did bridle over slights to her own talent. For instance, customers who admired one of her paintings occasionally reneged on buying it after realizing it was hers, not Ralph's. It also miffed Martha when people commended her husband as the more prolific artist. She would complain to intimates that, well, of course he was, because he didn't have to cook or clean or take care of Franz.
Only Martha's art was naïve. Martha herself remained intellectually curious all of her life. She particularly enjoyed Scandinavian operas and Tchaikovsky. She took Franz to see ballets in Boston while he was growing up. In her reading, she favored philosophy, poetry and biographies of such people as Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi, whom she admired for their goodness and humility. A number of Martha's paintings reflect her interest in Buddhism and Oriental culture.
Although she was a rather quiet person who liked time to herself, Martha enjoyed being around people and seldom turned down an invitation. "She loved to sit at the mall," says her daughter-in-law, Ruth Cahoon. "She didn't want to go in the stores, she wanted to sit and watch people. She loved to go to the supermarket. She'd get three things in her basket - none of which she needed - so that she could go through the checkout line and sit and watch people. She seemed to appreciate the strength of ties between people and seeing that played out."
Ralph died on Feb. 17, 1982. On Feb. 20, Martha attended his funeral (although it was a well-known policy of hers not to attend funerals even for relatives and close friends). From Feb. 21 through 24 she sorted through Ralph's tracings, throwing out those that were brittle or torn. On Feb. 27, she gave away Ralph's clothes. As usual in her journals, Martha left little insight into her thoughts and feelings. She apparently plunged right back into life-as-usual, dealing with her grief by working as hard as ever.
Martha's first freestanding painting - dated 1950 - shows a 19th-century family with its horse and buggy on a dirt road in front of its homestead. Part of the homestead is a red Georgian Colonial resembling the Cahoons' home in Cotuit. With its dusky palette, the painting resembles the old-fashioned scenes Martha painted on furniture.
Although the Cahoons continued to set many of their paintings in the 19th century, they developed more individualistic styles soon after they turned to easel painting. By the 1960s, Ralph had found his niche producing satin-smooth paintings of innocently flirtatious mermaids whose tails present no barrier to engaging in such activities as dancing, playing tennis, cooking, riding horseback or picking apples. Their shenanigans are often set against a seaside New England backdrop that features a lighthouse, clipper ships and perhaps an aerial balloon or two in the sky. In Ralph's paintings, crisp delineation and jewel-like colors sparkle right along with the artist's irrepressible sense of humor.
Except when she wanted to re-create the look of traditional folk art, Martha also brightened up her palette and adopted a more playful style that gives her work a storybook charm. Her edges - not to mention her wit - are a bit softer than Ralph's, and there's sometimes a touch of atmosphere in her pictures. Many of her paintings - particularly the earlier ones - are elaborations on the floral and shell designs she used on furniture. Small clusters of flowers became full bouquets of stylized, yet recognizable blossoms. Although brighter in tone, her flower paintings bear an interesting resemblance to those her father painted as freestanding pictures. In painting shells, Martha began to place them within the context of beach scenes, often treating them as if they were a kind of still life arrangement on the sand.
Her repertoire soon expanded to include mermaid fantasies, country scenes, harbor scenes, aerial balloons and, really, any subject that took her fancy. Along with Ralph, she was sometimes dubbed a "sophisticated primitive." Despite the whimsy in their paintings, the couple depicted the buildings, ships, trains and costumes of the 19th century with a fairly high degree of accuracy. They studied engravings in Harper's Weekly and pored over reference books to find out how things should look.
Martha's Dockside of 1969 smoothly blends stylized authenticity with sheer fantasy. In the middle of a delightfully detailed harbor scene, a mermaid sits on a wharf, her head protected by a pink umbrella held by an obliging sailor. Other people on the wharf point or gesture in her direction. Martha not only painted New England settings, but river scenes graced by steamboats with paddle wheels. Some of these contain mermaids, too.
Martha's mermaids are more passive and ethereal creatures
than Ralph's, as in Sailors and Mermaids, in which two mermaids are
surprised by sailors trying to throw a net over them. In Fair Isle,
exotic-looking mermaid is the victim of her own misadventures in knitting. Strands of brightly colored yarn create a lively pattern as they twine about the reclining mermaid's tail and branches of nearby trees.
From the '50s until the mid-1970s, Martha produced many scenes showing shorebirds, such as sandpipers and yellowlegs, near the water's edge. In addition to painting the birds with loving accuracy, she also added careful depictions of seashells, rocks and seaweed. One picture of her at her easel shows some seaweed dangling from a nearby curtain tie, so she clearly wanted to get it just right. She stopped painting shorebird scenes by the mid-1970s, possibly because her vision was changing and she was having trouble with the details.
Many of Martha's paintings capture the spirit - if not the specifics - of her girlhood in Harwich. They are idealized rural scenes suffused with nostalgia for a simple life made joyful by the fun of play, the satisfaction of working close to the land, the friendship of animals and the wonders of the changing seasons. Children are, inevitably, important in these pictures. In Farm Plowing, the spring setting is established by blossoming and budding trees, furrows of freshly plowed soil and laundry blowing on the line. The two lambs, little girl and baby in the foreground also suggest newness of life. Also set in the spring, Down on the Farm shows a variety of farm animals, including some particularly charming pigs that are the focus of attention for a little girl and her parents. Judging by their dress, they seem to be visitors from the city. Perhaps Martha was fondly remembering the pigs of her own childhood. Both paintings contain images of boys pumping water, the chore the artist came to find so boring, but apparently recalled as a significant part of country life.
Representative of the fall season, Harvest is crammed with details suggesting abundance and a pleasant, mellow feeling. Two people in a horse-drawn wagon pause to talk to neighbors on the road. Meanwhile, their white horse - who almost seems to be smiling - passes the time of day with a black dog. Two men lounge by haystacks in the field. At the lower right, a scene-stealing vignette features a girl with a doll, baskets of fruit and a kitten.
In Martha's snow scenes of the country - and she did many - the emphasis is on winter fun. These paintings celebrate the pleasures of sledding, sleighing, ice skating and building snowmen. With vivid colors, hard edges and decorative white spots representing snowfall, the early piece Ice Skating in New England has a somewhat old-fashioned Currier & Ives look. Although a "danger" sign indicates a break in the ice, it creates only a mild tension, no sense of foreboding. A dog is there to alert the two female skaters!
Occasionally, the Cahoons spoofed famous works of art. Martha, as well as Ralph, greatly admired the French primitive artist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Her 1982 painting And Thou Beside Me was clearly inspired by Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy and has a similarly trancelike quality. A mermaid asleep on a red blanket replaces the gypsy. A rather friendly-looking tiger, instead of Rousseau's lion, watches over the sleeper. A tray with a book, some bread and a cruet of wine takes the place of the gypsy's lute. No doubt when Martha painted this picture, she was also thinking about the oft-quoted verse from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishapur - the one that reads:
Peaceable Kingdom was apparently based on the 15th-century The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry panels Martha saw at the Cluny Museum in Paris in 1958. She was impressed - even moved - by the allegorical pieces, which she wrote about in her journal.
In Martha's version, a mermaid in a short red skirt takes the lady's place under a canopy, and the lion of the prototype again becomes a tiger. The tapestries have a deep red background with a millefleurs (thousand flowers) treatment. This is the probable explanation for the richly patterned red background of Peaceable Kingdom, which is quite an anomaly for Martha.
In the late 1970s, Martha became entranced with the Garden of Eden theme, which gave her an excuse to paint animals to her heart's content. In her 1981 version, she created a whimsical setting with a backdrop of mountains, snowcapped and shaped like gumdrops - rather like some mountains in the Oriental art she admired. A brook meanders throughout a landscape dotted with umbrella pines, palm trees and rock formations. Of course there's an apple tree with an abundance of shiny red "forbidden fruit." Pairs of creatures ranging from turtles to elephants populate the scene. In this version, Martha also included a solitary unicorn. The absence of its mate is Martha's fanciful way of explaining the unicorn's "extinction."
For their part, Adam and Eve wear grass coverings and seem a bit downcast. Apparently, the Fall is past, but the couple remains in Paradise. Given her love of children, Martha apparently couldn't resist the anachronism of a very young Cain and Abel in the Garden either. In Genesis, they're born after the expulsion.
Martha did many small paintings of children and such childlike subjects as dolls and toy soldiers. She probably envisioned these small pieces decorating girls' and boys' bedroom walls - and that's probably where many of them initially hung. Almost doll-like, the red-cheeked little girl in Peasant Girl appears in a cheerful meadow scene with two rabbits, a singing robin and a row of daisies. Martha's beguiling "sunbonnet babies," as she called them, picture wee girls in profile, their faces hidden by the brims of their hats. Jack Be Nimble illustrates the nursery rhyme about Jack lumping over the candlestick. In Martha's version, the candlestick is shaped like a seahorse and set on a beach. Christmas Joy shows gifts, including some old-fashioned toys, around a Christmas tree. The snowy landscape on the wall helps express the season.
Martha continued painting for only a few years after Ralph's death. During that time she did a considerable amount of work for Ralph's good friend Bernard Woodman (1920-1986). Woodman was esteemed for his sailor's valentines, the name for shellwork arranged in geometrical designs and floral shapes within the confines of an octagonal box. During the whaling era, sailor's valentines were created as a cottage industry in Barbados, where sailors bought them for their wives and sweethearts. Woodman was largely responsible for reviving the art in the 20th century. He collaborated with the Cahoons on a number of pieces, using their small circular paintings as the hubs for his shellwork. The "rounds" Martha painted for Woodman are simple pictures that allow his shell designs to shine.
Once Martha gave up painting, she turned to colored pencils and crayons, mediums that required no cleanup and were actually very appropriate for her chosen subjects. For more than ever, Martha's late drawings celebrate children and childhood. The pieces she did in her 80s and 90s are full of mermaids and mer-creatures. Many drawings illustrate memories of her own early life or were done to surprise family members. Martha drew Mer-Models, for instance, when Ruth Cahoon was studying fashion design. In the latter years of her life, Martha suffered from generalized arthritis and stiffness in her hands, but never carried out repeated threats to give up drawing for good.
Martha died at age 94 on Dec. 5, 1999. She had been admitted
to the hospital only three or four days earlier and remained aware until
the end. Just a little more than a month before, she and her great-granddaughter,
Kim Cahoon, had carved a pumpkin for Halloween. It was one of Martha:s last
creations - though her first jack-o'-lantern - and a testimony to her enduring
ability to see life through the eyes of a child.
About the author
Cindy Nickerson is Director of the Cahoon Museum of American
Art. Nickerson has a master's degree in art history from the University
of Denver and a bachelor's degree in art from Coe College in Cedar Rapids,
Iowa. She is a former employee of the Cape Cod Times, where she reported
on the Cape's art scene for many years. She also curated "A Century of Impressionism on Cape Cod," an exhibition
which ran at the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis, MA in 1999.
Read more about the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Resource Library Magazine
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11
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