Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England at the Portland Museum of Art

June 24 - October 12, 2009



Introduction: The Call of the Coast

By Thomas Denenberg and Amy Kurtz Lansing


The coast of New England, extraordinary for its geology and symbolic currency, has long attracted tourists and artists drawn to the primal drama of wave on rock or the soothing play of glass-like ocean greeting sandy shore. The coast is historic, animated in the public imagination by founding myths of the American colonies and legends of heroic maritime culture. It is timeless, populated by hardy individualists seemingly immune to the vicissitudes of change. It is literally on the verge of a sublime and capricious ocean. The coast can be quiescent, even genteel, a domestic-scale landscape of soft marshes, small islands, and sheltering coves imbued with restorative powers by tourists seeking relaxation. Above all, the coast of New England is multivalent. It is no one place or geographic feature, but is built over time with layers of association by writers, artists, and storytellers. The New England coast, therefore, is as much cultural construction as natural phenomenon.

The nineteenth century brought about a sea change in the popular attitude toward the coast of New England. As industrialization, immigration, and urbanization propelled the United States into the modern era, the edge of the ocean shifted from being perceived as an economic resource to a therapeutic shelter. The Atlantic coast, once a zone of labor and commerce, became a haven for vacation. Hotels sprang up in the decade after the Civil War serving a new middle class of managers and professionals enjoying leisure-time with their families (figure i). Like-minded families colonized Nahant, York, Harpswell, Mount Desert and other picturesque spots, re-pioneering life alongshore as part of a calendar proscribed by new patterns of life in the industrial age.

The call of the coast proved especially attractive to artists who placed their skills in service of the new tourist culture of summer. Seascapes -- romantic visual dramas of sailing vessels tossed on the rocks or quiescent harbors brimming with commerce -- enjoy a lineage that dates to the seventeenth century and remained in vogue for generations. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, from the sublime scenes of Thomas Cole, through the crystalline clarity of Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane and on to paintings of place by Frederic Church, William Stanley Haseltine, Alfred Thompson Bricher, William Trost Richards, and Worthington Whittredge, images of the coast took on a nuanced and privileged importance in American visual culture (figure ii). Winslow Homer, as responsible as any one American artist for orienting popular attention to the coast in the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, captured this new engagement with the ocean. Homer in his 1882 move to Maine evolved into the father figure for a generation of painters who would come to eschew Victorian artistic convention and frame the coast as a modernist landscape (figure iii).

Whereas Homer sought solitude -- indeed his persona as the "hermit of Prouts Neck" is now the stuff of legend -- the vast majority of painters, printmakers, and photographers who followed the tourist path to New England on railroads and steamship lines preferred company. Banding together for the purposes of camaraderie, creativity, and commerce, they founded coastal art colonies from Connecticut to Maine. The American fondness for these communities can partly be traced to French antecedents in the 1870s and the 1890s.[1] During breaks from their studies in Paris, artists traveled to the countryside to paint outdoors and to enjoy each other's companionship outside the competitive atmosphere of the ateliers. The rhythm of life in these colonies followed a pattern -- staying at an inexpensive local inn, artists breakfasted together before dispersing into the countryside to sketch. Over lunch and dinner, they discussed their work, freely offering critiques and encouragement. After supper, they sang, played games, and shared in a general bonhomie. For American painters studying in France, the art colony experience was unforgettable. As one later recalled, "Out of doors, all around the small tables after déjeuner and over our coffee, what pleasant stories and reminiscences, what sociability and good fellowship!"[2] Another author wrote of the colony at Pont-Aven that artists dedicated themselves "equally to the spoiling of canvas and to a thorough enjoyment of the open air life."[3] Colony life became central to the American experience abroad, and artists sought to recreate similar communities back home.

Rural artists' colonies had existed since the 1820s, when painters visiting the forest of Fontainebleau southeast of Paris began to lodge together at an inn in the village of Barbizon. By the 1870s, dozens of artists summered in Barbizon, staying at Auberge Ganne or at several other hotels that opened to cater to painters of various nationalities. Americans admired Barbizon school paintings, and when they arrived in Europe after the Civil War, artists such as Theodore Robinson and Theodore Butler made pilgrimages to the village to take in its by-then famous scenery for themselves. The presence of so many of their countrymen soon made the small community of Barbizon a home away from home for Americans studying in Paris.

American artists soon set off across the French countryside in search of fresh subjects they could paint without jostling against others in the ever more crowded Fontainebleau forest. Motivated by a fascination with Europe's old-world charm, they pursued what one artist called "one's ideal of what French country should be."[4] Alighting in a suitable spot, artists usually invited friends to join them and followed a productive season with a return visit the next year. Americans founded a number of art colonies in places such as Pont-Aven and Concarneau in Brittany, and Grez-sur-Loing and Giverny closer to Paris. When J. Alden Weir visited Pont-Aven in the 1870s he observed that the artists had adopted the distinctive Breton wooden shoes known as sabots -- styling themselves simultaneously as natives and as bohemians sampling a taste of the pre-industrial past.[5] This pose, early manifestation of the persona of the modern artist, flew in the face of Parisian fashion as seen in the busy summer resorts of the Normandy coast (figure iv).[6]

Giverny, one of the largest and longest-lived colonies, emerged as a center for landscape painting in the 1880s. Seeking isolation, Impressionist master Claude Monet settled in the village in 1883. To his chagrin, other painters soon followed, finding it both picturesque and easily accessible via a quick train ride from Paris. In 1887, a group of American artists -- including future Lyme Art Colony member Willard Metcalf -- spent the summer in Giverny. Although Metcalf had been painting tree-shaded brooks in the soft, silvery, thinly-brushed greens favored by artists at Grez-sur-Loing, in Giverny he learned to see the sun. Similar to the predominance of Henry Ward Ranger during the first years of the Lyme Art Colony, Monet's presence in Giverny imparted a strong source of stylistic inspiration for visiting artists. Metcalf, Robinson, and others dedicated themselves to recording effects of light and atmosphere at different times of day and under varying weather. Such sensitivity to environmental conditions would remain a key element of the artistic practice at colonies in Connecticut and in Maine. Likewise, communal life at Giverny provided a model for Old Lyme and other American art colonies. The proprietors of the Hôtel Baudy, the artists' lodging, cooked their guests special food, carved out studio space, and stocked art supplies -- hospitable traits that Metcalf and others later recognized in Florence Griswold, their host in Old Lyme. By the 1890s, the large expatriate community, more bourgeois than bohemian, served as a reference point for the colony experience among artists returning to America.

Three American art colonies circumscribe the move to the coast. Old Lyme, Ogunquit, and Monhegan, settled at different times by artists of greatly varying perspective, graphically illustrate the cultural work of life in such communities. There are certainly others. Provincetown and Gloucester come to mind immediately. Old Lyme, Ogunquit, and Monhegan, however, serve as more than mere synecdoche. The essays and entries that follow are based on the institutional legacies of each colony. The works selected for the catalog and exhibition are drawn from the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum and therefore encompass decades of collecting and interpreting. [7] Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England is an enduring memory of art making in Old Lyme, Ogunquit, and Monhegan.



1 The definitive resource on European art colonies is Nina Lübbren, Rural Artists' Colonies in Europe, 1870-1910 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001). See also Nina Lübbren, "Breakfast at Monet's: Giverny in the Context of European Art Colonies," in Katherine M. Bourguignon, ed., Impressionist Giverny: A Colony of Artists, 1885-1915 (Giverny, France: Musée d'Art Américain/Terra Foundation for American Art; distributed by The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 29-43. What follows is indebted to Lübbren. Another useful source is Michael Jacobs, The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America (Oxford: Phaidon, 1985).

2 Arthur Hoeber, "A Summer in Brittany," The Monthly Illustrator 4:12 (1895): 76.

3 H. Jones Thaddeus, Reflections of a Court Painter (London and New York: John Lane, 1912), 22.

4 Mildred Giddings Burrage, "Arts and Artists at Giverny," The World Today: A Monthly Record of Human Progress 20 (March 1911): 346, quoted in Katherine M. Bourguignon, "Giverny: A Village for Artists," in Bourguignon, ed., Impressionist Giverny, 19.

5 See Lübbren, Rural Artists Colonies, 32.

6 George T. M. Shackelford, The Romance of Modernism: Paintings and Sculpture from the Scott M. Black Collection (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 29

7 The Portland Museum of Art is home to the Hamilton Easter Field Collection, originally exhibited at the Bard Gallery in Ogunquit and the Florence Griswold Museum is steward of the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection, a collection particularly strong in artists who worked in Old Lyme.


About the authors

Thomas Denenberg is the Chief Curator and William E. and Helen E. Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art. Amy Kurtz Lansing is the curator at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 16, 2009, with permission of the Portland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on July 15, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jacqueline Richardson of the Portland Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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