University of New Hampshire Art Gallery
The Beginning of Dublin as an Art Colony
Abbott Handerson Thayer, who knew the Keene area and Monadnock from boyhood, came to Dublin in 1888, marking what is generally regarded as the start of the Dublin art colony as it came to be known. However, there were a few painters summering and painting there before Thayer's arrival, after the earlier casual visits of White Mountain-bound artists. As the taste for the awesome in landscape gentled, Monadnock came to have the same allure for painters that it had had earlier for poets and writers. Industrialization, the Civil War, the opening of the West, all served to diminish the sense of America's grandeur and uniqueness and resulted in a growing taste for tamer, more intimate landscape. As the nineteenth century progressed, the Boston Athenaeum's exhibitions and the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1876 helped both to cause and reflect Boston's expanding awareness of painting.
Helen M. Knowlton, assistant to William Morris Hunt, announced in the Boston Courier in the spring of 1884 that she planned to "receive pupils for out of door sketching in Dublin, N.H. where she will pass July and August." Nothing confirms that the sketching sessions actually occurred. If they did not, the reason remains unclear. Did she become interested in Dublin through Rose Lamb, another Hunt student who summered there as early as 1870?
Even if Knowlton did not come to Dublin, Lamb had some fellow painters there. As elusive as Knowlton is Julia Dunn, variously described in the Transcript in 1883 and 1884 as a New Yorker and a Californian, who visited Dublin in a "professional" capacity, making sketches of local scenery to finish in her studio.
It seems somehow entirely suitable that the first major painter to make a home in Dublin, the summer place of New England's cultural flowering, came at the invitation of a direct descendant of one of Boston's earliest and most gifted painters. Mary Amory Greene, about whose personal life very little is known, inherited artistic inclination, if not talent, from her great-grandfather, John Singleton Copley, and wealth from her grandfather, Gardiner Greene. In the summer of 1887 Mary Greene studied with Abbott Thayer, who was staying in Keene. The following spring Thayer's first wife, Kate, was hospitalized with what turned out to be her final, lingering illness. Miss Greene offered to build a cottage for him in Dublin, and in the early summer of 1888 he moved into it with his children and servants. The winter of 1888-89 she spent in New York, again studying with him. Thayer's father wrote, "She has been a devoted friend in every way. Abbott gladly accepted her offer to manage his business correspondence . . . and she collects his pupil's fees and arranges his classes to keep his number full.... This leaves his eyes and his mind free for painting." In 1901, after several years of moving between New York and Dublin each season, Thayer settled permanently in Dublin with his children and second wife, Emma Beach.
The always chaotic household centered around the moody, impetuous, egotistical artist. Thayer's attractiveness to women guaranteed a succession of admirers, usually "of means," who were willing to try to organize domestic matters and write checks to help keep things moving. Even patrons, judging from his correspondence with them, Thayer seems to have taken for granted. While sometimes almost fawning in tone, his letters at other times are fairly arrogant. Offering some paintings to Isabella Gardner at a lowered price, stipulating that he be able to buy them back at the same price when he sold the huge work currently in progress, he asked, "Do I not seem to think you very kind as well as a picture lover"? Thayer's biographer, Nelson White, suggests that the relationship with patron Charles Freer worked well because of Freer's understanding of Thayer's naiveté and respect for his talent. Thayer's letters, as variable as one would expect of such an erratic personality, might have embarrassed or offended someone with less insight. "I do trust," Thayer wrote in 1893 to Freer, "that all my wordiness did not leave a shadow of an impression that I, as it were cling to you for money support... It is merely a comfort to know there is always Freer to wish with all his heart to stand by one in time of honorable need."
Thayer's manner of painting expressed his impetuous nature. As described by Barry Faulkner, his "canvasses were battlefields, whose issue was sometimes long in doubt . . Thayer went at painting hammer and tongs, and had a relish for obtaining immediate effects by unorthodox means, such as rubbing dust over a spot of paint he thought slightly too light, or smudging a drawing with his thumb." Maria Oakey Dewing, a fellow student at the National Academy about 1870, called Thayer a very irregular painter, partly because he could not distinguish between his good work and his bad, and partly because he had the very difficult aim of idealizing the feminine head. Perhaps the first was what made it so difficult for him to leave a painting alone. There has been much written and discussed about Thayer's custom of having a work in progress copied by a student to give him a canvas on which to experiment without risking the original. Even this, however, did not settle his feelings about completed works and it was common for him to ask the owner of a painting to return it to him for changes and improvements. To Freer he wrote of a painting in the collector's possession, complaining that the "figure makes me wince. It is too loud striding and robustly wound about. For God's sake ship it to me and let me put on in wax that could always wash instantly off a gentle white draped body with less action."
With all of this, Thayer was a well-regarded painter. His idealized female figures suited the late nineteenth-century spirit of the American Renaissance, while his landscapes of Monadnock described his deep fascination with every element of the mountain under all conditions. When he came to Dublin in 1888 he had already achieved a reputation for portraiture and had a wide network of friends in the world of art. Although he has been described as not having been much a part of Dublin social life, he was distinctly the magnetic force of the art colony there. It was through him that George de Forest Brush and Frank Benson came to summer there, while Barry Faulkner, Alexander James, Rockwell Kent, Richard Meryman, and John Sharman came to Dublin specifically to study with him. Each year Thayer would send a small painting to the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston for interested students to copy. The two best ones were selected by him to come to Dublin, live with the family, and work with him in his studio.
Thayer's family "lived upon a high spiritual and intellectual plane ... in close communion with nature... The table talk was spirited and brilliant and upon many and various topics." However, the physical surroundings were difficult, especially in winter. Mary Greene had built Thayer a summer place--no running water or electricity, no heat--and it remained so even when it became his permanent home. Among other health fetishes, Thayer considered a centrally heated house unhealthy, his children were responsible for keeping the fires going in winter. He had other very strong opinions, including the belief that sleeping in the open prevented tuberculosis. Right through the New Hampshire winters, family and guests would dress in warmest clothing and bearskins to sleep in open lean-tos, albeit ones with views of Monadnock!
Thayer's theories of protective coloration and countershading in birds and wildlife grew out of interests and observations that started in childhood. His work eventually led to the development of camouflage, but his erratic behavior in presenting his material made it difficult for anyone in authority to realize the value of his work. He was more effective as a protector of his beloved Mt. Monadnock, working to keep its acreage out of private ownership and originating a system of wardens to protect birds before there was an Audubon Society.
Thayer and George de Forest Brush had a friendship that went back to their days first at the National Academy and then in Paris in the late 1870s when both were students of Jean Léon Gérôme. In 1899 Thayer suggested that Brush and his family try a summer at Dublin after several years at Cornish. (Nancy Brush Pearmain Bowditch, Brush's daughter and biographer, recalled that her family had visited Dublin even before this.) The Brushes rented Mary Greene's cottage, a barn belonging to Joseph Lindon Smith became he studio. In 1901 they came again, renting right on the lake, and that year decided to buy the old farmstead that became their permanent home.. Brush, who had spent some years in the West and knew a lot of Indian lore, built a tepee for his family to live in while the house was renovated.
George Brush was as independent in his ideas as Thayer, but a more even disposition and a gentle, loving manner endeared him to many Dubliners and gave him a place in the social life of the summer colony. Like Thayer, he refused to send his children to school, but less from fear of germs than from the belief that all originality would be erased there. Brush was always willing to entertain at various gatherings with his version of the Crow Indian Dog Dance or with talks on various subjects. His daughter, Jane Brush Coates, related that after a disastrous studio fire he greeted her with enthusiasm for how hard the firemen had worked, rather than with grief for his own loss.
Brush loved Monadnock, keeping his trees topped to allow a full view of it, but he resisted the mystique of it and rarely painted it. His family was his primary subject. He shared Thayer's interest In the concept of idealized women, although stylistically the two artists were very different. Brush's madonna-like paintings of Mrs. Brush and their children show the effect of much time spent in Italy. While not religious in theme, these paintings of mother and child celebrate the special quality of that relationship. His years of careful study of old masters' techniques resulted in the rich look of fabrics and foliage. After winning many medals at exhibitions around the country and in Paris, in 1923 Brush was given an honorary Master of Arts degree by Yale. The words of the citation summarize his role in American painting: "He represents the eternal traditions of good art in his idealistic conceptions and consummate craftsmanship. His pictures are a final refutation of ephemeral fads and false teachers."
Brush gave up teaching at the Art Students League in 1898 because he felt it took too much time form his own painting. He did teach his own children and occasionally others, such as Barry Faulkner, who spent a year with Brush, and Robert Pearmain, who eventually married Brush's eldest daughter, Nancy.
In 1915 Frank Weston Benson wrote several letters to Abbott Thayer. "I always think with joy of the years in Dublin and how much you gave me," he wrote in one, and in another, "I could wish that we lived as near each other as in the summers twenty five years ago. I wanted my children to know you a little..." By the late 1880s Benson had completed his studies and established himself as a painter and teacher. In the early 1890s the Peterborougb Transcript mentioned at different times that his Dublin cottage was occupied by him or a renter and in 1893 that he was there painting Colonel Higginson's portrait for a commission from the Colonial Club in Cambridge. Benson was important as one of 'The Ten" formed in 1898 in a break with the Society of American Artists. His painting career encompassed portraits, women in austere interior settings, figures (often family members) in lovely outdoor scenes, and, eventually almost exclusively, wildlife and hunting scenes. Almost nothing is known of his involvement with Dublin, other than his relationship with Thayer and the portrait he made of Higginson. He Seems not to have used the area as inspiration for his work, even though some of his later paintings have outdoor settings.
If Thayer and Benson were little involved in Dublin's social
life, Joseph Lindon Smith more than made up for both of them by the extent
of his activities on many fronts. Smith came to Dublin in 1890. Although
a painter by training and profession, he spent enormous energy and time
pursuing what was almost a passion -- theater. In September 1896 he put
up Teatro Bambino, "a little private theater on his place at Phillips
Point," and for many years he organized theatricals that people still
remember. At first they were tableaux vivants, some of them based on paintings
by Dublin artists. Then plays with children and one or two adults were produced.
Gradually the plays became more and more elaborate and their fame spread.
Ethel Barrymore once appeared in one. The summer of 1913, when Woodrow
Wilson was in Cornish, Smith's friends there requested that he come to direct a pageant.
The main thrust of Smith's artistic work was as a copyist of decorative friezes and other elements of Greek and Egyptian objects and architecture. He traveled extensively, sometimes on behalf of Isabella Stewart Gardner, buying paintings and sculptures for her Fenway Palace. Mrs Gardner frequently visited the Smiths in Dublin, where Smith's talents and energy were often in demand.. He decorated the church for a wedding ceremony, spoke on a variety of topics to different groups, and gave much of the impetus for forming, in 1901, the Dublin Lake Club, which remains to this day an important focus of Dublin summer life. Until her death in the early sixties, Mrs Smith savored her roles as social arbiter of the summer colony and secretary of the Club
George Gray Barnard might be said to have married into Dublin. His wife, Edna, was the youngest daughter of Professor Monroe and a niece of Dr. Osgood. In 1916 Barnard used a barn studio at Dublin to work on a large marble sculpture for John D Rockefeller's Pocantico Hills (New York) estate. At the time of the great controversy over his statue of Lincoln (about 1918), Jane Brush Coates remembers that her father's candid criticism of it spoiled his friendship with Barnard.
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