An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection

by Donelson Hoopes

 



 

Rockwell Kent was one of Henri's pupils who was encouraged to experience the bracing challenge of Monhegan's scenery. Kent arrived on Monhegan in 1905, and remained for several years. He built his own house there, and when not painting, he worked as a stern man in a lobster boat, and generally joined in the life of the community. The paintings from this phase in his career, like Maine Coast, reveal Kent's attachment to Henri's assured and fluid manner while also suggesting a strong personal vision of his own. Wreck of the D. T. Sheridan is indicative of Kent's mature style, with the forms of nature simplified and sharpened in the modern manner.

George Bellows, Henri's most gifted student, made several visits to Monhegan between 1911 and 1914. The first time was in the company of his teacher, and Bellows was ecstatic: "This is the most beautiful country ever modeled by the hand of the master architect. . ." he wrote in a letter home. The experience evoked in him a strong attachment for Maine, and by the summer of 1916 Bellows and his family were installed in a house in Camden. They invited yet another of Henri's students, Leon Kroll, to join them and for a time Camden became Henri country. Bellows had made a brief visit to Matinicus two years before, and vowed to return some day. He did so in the fall of 1916, setting up his temporary studio in a fishing shack on the harbor. Matinicus lacked the dramatic cliffs and the solemn firs of Cathedral Woods on Monhegan, but its waterfront offered sufficiently appealing material in the shapes and patterns of battered buildings. With its distortions and adventurous color juxtapositions, Matinicus represents a departure from his former, more conventional style. While Bellows was busy on Matinicus, his house guest, Leon Kroll, was painting on the mainland. Lowering Day, Camden, employs the same high-pitched color statements found in the Bellows work. Together, these pictures suggest that Bellows and Kroll were being guided by certain theoretical experiments in audacious color harmonies Henri was making at precisely this time.

Modern art received formal public acknowledgment in the United States with the advent of the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, better known as "the Armory Show." Some 1300 works of art by European and American painters and sculptors were seen by an unprecedented number of visitors. Henri and several other of "The Eight" group were represented, including Maurice Prendergast. Like many Americans, Prendergast had studied abroad and was attracted to various movements that came after impressionism, such as symbolism and neo-impressionism, before he finally settled in Boston around 1900. Writing from Paris on another trip in the fall of 1907, the year Watching the Regatta was painted, Prendergast reported on an exhibition of Cézanne watercolors he had seen ". . . which was to me perfectly marvelous. He left everything to the imagination. [The watercolors] were great for their simplicity and suggestive qualities. . . . I think Cézanne will influence me. . . " However that might have been, Prendergast was no imitator. His watercolors rank among the most original and brilliant ever produced.

Prendergast made frequent trips to New York in connection with his part in the exhibition plans of "The Eight." It was probably there he met Marsden Hartley, then an unknown young artist from Lewiston, Maine. Prendergast took an interest in his work, introducing him to Alfred Steiglitz, the New York owner of the first avant-garde gallery in America, and Hartley was given his debut one-man show there in 1909. Hartley had received some formal instruction in New York, but his career really began to develop after 1900 when he returned to Maine, and found inspiration in his state's western mountains. Songs of Winter, No. 6, typical of the paintings from this period, is marked by expressive use of agitated, broken color of unusual richness and originality. Over the years, Hartley constantly modified his ideas and theories about painting; but in the end, he would return to the mountain motif in a series of powerful images of Mount Katahdin.

Foremost among the American modernists of his generation, John Marin made a highly significant contribution to watercolor painting in this century. Much of this work is indelibly associated with Maine through a vast output of images inspired by places such as Deer Isle and Cape Split. Marin's first visit was in the summer of 1914, beginning what would be a lifelong communion with the spirit of rock and wave. His artistic orientation was in cubism, which he freely adapted to his personal vision. He saw the elements of the physical world ". . . at work, pushing, pulling, sideways, downwards, upwards. I can hear the sound of their strife, and there is great music being played." The crystalline geometry of Boat Fantasy, Deer Isle, Maine, No. 30 is conceived in terms of symbols that Marin invented to express the idea -- not the illusion -- of space. Yet however removed from representational art his work may be, Marin always regarded himself as a realist responding to nature: "The sea that I paint may not be the sea, but it is a sea, not an abstraction."

By the 1930s, Ogunquit was firmly established as one of the premiere art colonies of the country. No longer known primarily for its summer art schools, Ogunquit had transformed into a community of established painters and sculptors who were mostly seasonal residents "from away." The roster reads like a Who's Who of American modernism. Walt Kuhn was among them; as one of the organizers of the Armory Show exhibition, his allegiance was to modern art. His paintings often recall the work of the fauve painters as well as Roualt and Derain, influences that are abundantly present in Landscape with Cows, painted during his second summer at Ogunquit. Abraham Walkowitz, another Armory Show participant, deserted his distinctive expressionist style during the 1920s, and turned to painting figure groups laden with overtones of social concern. In the bucolic environment of the art colony, however, he could simply enjoy the act of painting Old Home, Ogunquit, Maine without feeling pressed by his reformer's conscience.

 

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