Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 25, 2009 with permission of the Monhegan Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Monhegan Museum directly through this phone number or Web address:



 

A Painter's Paradise: Monhegan's Nineteenth-Century Artists

by Emily Grey

 

In the nineteenth century, Monhegan Island was transformed from a place of extreme isolation into a popular art colony and summer tourist destination. Monhegan is not unique in this regard. Its transformation reflects the development of a tourist industry throughout New England as Americans sought to escape crowded cities, nostalgic for an agrarian, pre-industrial society. These romantic travelers sought spiritual fulfillment in nature, and for the first time, America's wild beauty became a source of national pride. Artists were foremost among these tourists and were intent on capturing picturesque American scenery.

Painters began exploring Maine in the early nineteenth century, and many traveled up the coast to Mount Desert Island. Monhegan was further south, but it was also smaller, more isolated, less accessible, and less accommodating for travelers. The first artists to discover Monhegan in the 1850s were adventurous, willing to sacrifice middle-class comfort and security to paint the beauty of a distant Maine island. These pioneering artists exhibited their island paintings in Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia; told friends of their discovery; and laid the foundation for a summer community and art colony that gained momentum in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Some artists came to the island only once or twice, but most returned for many years, often well into the twentieth century. Viewed as a whole, their work documents the changing face of Monhegan as the village grew to include a summer community, and it reflects the changing artistic styles that resulted from study and travel at home and abroad.

In the mid-nineteenth century Monhegan's natural attractions had not been widely reported. The island was known primarily for its fertile fishing grounds and for the early voyagers who stopped there, such as George Waymouth, the Popham colonists, and Captain John Smith. It was the closest land in the well-known sea battle between the Boxer and the Enterprise during the War of 1812, and mysterious markings found on the adjacent Manana Island, thought to perhaps be Norse Runes, attracted the attention of historians and geologists. [1] Augustus Choate Hamlin, a Maine doctor and painter, first came to Monhegan in 1856 to study the markings, making a sketch of the island that was reproduced as an engraving in A History of New England, General and Local in 1859. [2] Like the visitors before him, Hamlin was attracted primarily by the island's history, but within a few years, another artist would visit Monhegan with very different intentions. In 1858, Aaron Draper Shattuck, a New York artist and second-generation Hudson River School painter, sailed out to the island on a sketching trip facilitated by a lighthouse inspector making his rounds up the Maine coast on the U.S. Schooner Vigilant.[3] Unlike Hamlin, Shattuck's primary interest was exploring Monhegan's natural scenery, and his is among the earliest descriptions of the island as a place of beauty on record. He wrote that his time there was brief, but that "Monhegan Island has some wonderful things about it, lots of beautiful coves, and grand cliffs rising high out of the sea."[4]

Shattuck's description reflected the newfound appreciation among American landscape painters for the American wilderness as a sublime and inspiring subject. This new perspective on the land was popularized by Thomas Cole and Cole's close friend, Asher B. Durand, both leaders of the Hudson River School. Living in New York City, Shattuck would have been familiar with their work and their writings. He painted in close proximity to other Hudson River School artists at the Tenth Street Studio Building where he secured a studio shortly after his trip to Monhegan. Many of the artists there also painted in Maine, notably Frederic Edwin Church, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Shattuck also exhibited his work with Maine-born artist, Samuel Colman, and with William Trost Richards of Philadelphia, a second-generation Hudson River School painter and American Pre-Raphaelite who painted on Monhegan in the 1890s and praised Shattuck's work.[5] Richards idealized Thomas Cole, and likened his contributions to art to those of Raphael and Michelangelo. [6] He also connected with the American Pre-Raphaelites, who were influenced by English art critic and painter, John Ruskin. Richards' Monhegan paintings from the 1890s reflect Ruskin's call for artists to study nature closely, but they are more broadly painted than the earlier detailed studies that first associated him with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.[7] Shattuck was also recognized as an American Pre-Raphaelite. His Monhegan inspired work from the late 1850s, such as his intimate rendering of a seaside cliff, Monhegan, reflects the American Pre-Raphaelite principle of truth to nature.

Shattuck and Richards were among many artists who came to Monhegan to sketch and paint en plein air in the tradition of the Hudson River School and American Pre-Raphaelites. Otis S. Weber and Frank Myrick, both Boston artists, traveled to Monhegan for "outdoor sketching" in 1884,[8] and Caroline D. Wade and George F. Schultz came from Chicago, exhibiting their Monhegan watercolors in that city as early as 1896.[9] These artists were drawn to Monhegan for the pristine beauty of the woodlands, cliffs, and sea, and were also eager to paint the small fishing village, which in the mid to late nineteenth century had little more than a school, a graveyard, a lighthouse, and a fog signal station on Manana Island.

The dedication of a chapel in 1880 was a momentous occasion that attracted local journalists and boatloads of visitors; perhaps the most extensively reported island event since the Boxer and the Enterprise battled off Monhegan's shores. Journalists increasingly described Monhegan's "exceedingly romantic and attractive"[10] qualities and predicted it would soon become a popular summer resort.[11] George Wharton Edwards, a painter and illustrator from New York, described Monhegan before the turn of the century as "a painter's paradise."

A man could set up his easel anywhere on the island and leave it where it stood for hours with perfect confidence, and everywhere there were paintable views of land and sea.[12]

While Shattuck recognized the potential of Monhegan for artists as early as 1858, his visit was brief. It wasn't until the 1880s that artists and tourists began to stay for extended periods, and with good reason. Although Maine became increasingly accessible by rail or coastal steamer, finding transportation out to Monhegan was difficult, and the journey was not for the faint of heart. Edwards remembered his first trip to Monhegan on a fishing smack in 1880:

We started at ten o'clock...with the expectation of arriving in about six hours -- the trip has been known to take four days -- but we didn't get in 'til ten o'clock that night, our fare meanwhile consisting of hardtack and a jug of water.[13]

Although Monhegan had a post office as early as 1858, it wasn't until 1883 that permanent, regular mail delivery was established. Captain William S. Humphrey began bringing the mail twice a week from Port Clyde and later from Boothbay in a sloop named the Goldsmith Maid which was "fitted up on purpose to carry passengers."[14] Humphrey later replaced the sloop with the Effort, a "staunch little schooner," according to the Boothbay Register. [15]

Despite the improvement in transportation, Monhegan still challenged some artists. Alfred Thompson Bricher took many sketching trips to Maine and painted magnificent seascapes with crystalline waters and rocky shores, but he expressed his discomfort to his wife while staying on Monhegan late in his career in August of 1895:

I am tired of sketching and want to see my Babies. It is an awful journey coming and going from here -- you cannot tell when you will get anywhere, as we are dependent on a sailing vessel. It has been very cold here. The thermometer said 55 degrees. I worked on the warm side of the island. Today I began a sketch but was driven in by the rain. [16]

Once on island, artists faced the additional challenge of finding accommodations. With no hotel or tavern, the first artists depended on island residents willing to open their homes at a moment's notice. The marine painter William Edward Norton is said to have stayed with the lighthouse keeper when he visited in the 1870s. Around 1878, however, Sarah Albee established a boarding house, and by 1892 she was averaging twenty-five boarders a week.[17] Echoing Edwards' sentiment, she advertised Monhegan as an "artists' paradise," and Myrick, William A. J. Claus of Boston, and British expatriate Samuel Peter Rolt Triscott of Boston were among her boarders.[18] Boarders brought a taste for recreation, and although Mrs. Albee obliged with ice cream socials and fireworks, the opportunities for entertainment were otherwise somewhat limited on the island. Pursuit of entertainment brought year-round residents and summer visitors together. There were ball games, and a yacht club was founded, with artists Edwards and George Clowes Everett of New York sharing membership along with fog keeper Daniel Stevens and fishermen Frank Pierce, George Smith, and Alonzo Davis.[19]

In the 1890s, artists began to purchase and build homes, making themselves more conspicuous residents and solidifying the artist community. Edwards and his wife were the first to buy a home, which stood adjacent to the church. He called it "Onarock" and equipped it with a cannon to alert the community of the arrival of the mail boat.[20] In 1899, Claus, who introduced Triscott to Monhegan, bought the east side of an old home known as "The Influence" with his friend, Alice A. Swett of Boston, one of Monhegan's early female artists. Described as a mansion, it was set apart by its hipped roof and prominent position overlooking the harbor. That same year, Eric Hudson, an artist from Boston, built a cottage close by, having discovered Monhegan in 1897 while sailing to Mount Desert with his teacher and friend Marshall Johnson, a Boston marine painter. The growth of the summer community was made clear with the expansion of the Albee House, which is visible in a "bird's-eye view" of the island painted in 1896 by Bert Poole of Boston.

Some artists distinguished themselves further by wintering on Monhegan. In 1895, a Monhegan correspondent for the Boothbay Register reported that Everett, who would later build a cottage on the island with his artist wife, Aline McQuinn Everett, had spent the winter on Monhegan. The correspondent lamented Everett's departure, describing him as "a jovial, good fellow" whose company would be sorely missed.[21] Soon after, Triscott, who bought a home up the hill from Edwards in 1893, began spending some winters on the island, and then made Monhegan his permanent home in 1902 when he closed his Boston studio. Known especially for his watercolor paintings, Triscott taught other nineteenth-century Monhegan painters such as his close friend Sears Gallagher of Boston and Maud Briggs Knowlton of Manchester, New Hampshire, who later built a cottage close to his.[22] Triscott's delicate English style was representative of Monhegan watercolors of this period. Similarly refined island views were painted by his friend, Myrick, as well as Swett, and Mary King Longfellow, a Maine artist whose watercolor sketches of Monhegan from 1890 make her the island's earliest known woman artist. [23]

When artists weren't painting en plein air, they might be found working in studios, which were difficult to come by on such a small island. Some artists, such as Triscott, were able to build proper studios, while others rented space around town. Claus and Swett displayed works on a wall of their kitchen, and Daniel Weston Elliot, a painter and teacher from Massachusetts, rented studio space in the Pink House, which was later converted to the Island Inn. Paintings were often tacked floor to ceiling on the wall, and surrounded with fishnets, lanterns or greens. Journalists reported on tourists' fascination with painter's studios, and indicated that some artists painted quietly in fish houses in an effort to conceal their work space from the "prying curiosity of visitors."[24]

The walls of these studios were packed with paintings of sea, cliff, and town. Early paintings of Monhegan's shore often reflect the gentle summer weather in which they were painted. Those by Triscott and Gallagher, as well as those by Howard Hall Darnell of Philadelphia, frequently position the viewer near sea-level, gazing up at cliffs veiled in mist or warmed by the sun. Other paintings captured a more sweeping view of the headlands, such as Schultz's Monhegan Headlands, or of the sea, as in Off Monhegan by Maine-born artist, Walter F. Lansil of Boston. Picturesque views of the village and fishing activities were also popular, as exemplified in Norton's Unloading Fishing Boats, which shows fishermen at work. Norton, best known for his marine paintings, may have gravitated towards depictions of the working man as a result of his studies with George Inness who was influenced by the French Barbizon School. Other village scenes eliminated all figures from the composition, as can be seen in Monhegan, a quiet view of the village and near empty harbor, rendered in pencil and watercolor by Walter Griffin of Maine.

Nineteenth-century Americans were fascinated with small town America, and while such genre paintings were in demand, a greater audience could often be reached through illustrations. Several late nineteenth-century articles highlighted Monhegan fishermen and their families. One of the earliest was "Fish and Men in the Maine Islands," illustrated by Milton J. Burns for Harper's Weekly in 1880. Later, Edwards, who had some success in publishing, wrote and illustrated a popular little story about Monhegan, ineffectively concealing the island's identity by calling it P'tit Matinic. First published in The Century Magazine, it was bound as a pocket sized gift book in 1894. Although it was favorably reviewed, the Lewiston Journal suggested that P'tit Matinic led to a "low barometer of island sentiment toward him for the publication of island secrets." [25]

Artists in search of character also looked to island architecture. In 1898, an article in New England Magazine, with photos and illustrations by Triscott, Claus and Myrick highlighted the artists' attraction to fish houses.

Of the simplest architecture, and often somewhat dilapidated, they are yet exceedingly picturesque by reason of the yellowing touch of age, the artistic grouping of roofs, and the odd bits lying about. To the painter seeking novelties, they are a prize. [26]

The red Trefethren barn, depicted in Hudson's Fish House, stood in the center of town between the beach and the meadow, and was a favorite subject among nineteenth-century Monhegan painters. Harrison Humphrey's fish house out by Dead Man's Cove was another building of considerable character. The dilapidated exterior of "The Hermitage," as it was called, was painted by many artists; Triscott and Elliot were among the earliest.

By the turn of the century, pioneering artists such as Shattuck, Edwards, Triscott and Swett had established Monhegan as an artists' colony. Steamboats were making their way to the island on a regular schedule, more hotels were built, and some of the artists most closely associated with the island today, Robert Henri, Edward Willis Redfield, and Rockwell Kent, made their first journey out. Modernism was on the rise, and while artists such as Triscott and Swett retained their refined nineteenth-century manner, others, such as Knowlton, and Hudson moved with the current of the art world. Despite the different appearance of both the island and island art after the turn of the century, the underlying reasons that later artists visited Monhegan remained the same. Artists continued to identify with the land and surrounding sea, to find in the surf and sky a pervading spiritual presence, and to embrace Monhegan as an escape from the bustle and crowding of industrialized and urbanized America.

 

1 For a partial transcription of A.C. Hamlin's lecture on the Manana island inscriptions, see The New York Herald, "The Scientific Congress: American Association for the Advancement of Science," August 27, 1856.

2 Austin Jacobs Coolidge, John Brainard Mansfield, A History and Description of New England, General and Local (Boston: Austin J. Coolidge, 1859), Facing 212.

3 A letter from Shattuck to Marian Colman of June 13, 1858 indicated that he was joined on this trip by a "Mr. Brown, 'artist'" who is most likely Harrison Bird Brown, of Portland, Maine. Quoted in J. W. Myers, "Aaron Draper Shattuck, 1832-1928, painter of landscapes and student of nature's charms" (PhD diss., University of Delaware, 1981), 90.

4 Ibid., 88.

5 Richards described Shattuck as "the man who painted that beautiful study of plants by a stream," in a letter to his wife, Anna M. Richards, in the summer of 1857. Quoted in Linda S. Ferber, William Trost Richards, (1833-1905): American Landscape and Marine Painter (New York: Garland Publishing, 1980), 139.

6 W.T. Richards to James Mitchell, Philadelphia, April 27, 1854. Quoted in Ferber,19.

7 Ibid., 369-374.

8 "Art and Artists," Boston Daily Globe, July 27, 1884.

9 George F. Schultz's exhibit of a collection of Monhegan watercolors was reported in the Chicago Daily Tribune, "In the Art Studios," February 16, 1896. Caroline D. Wade exhibited "Off Shoal Point, Monhegan" at the Art Institute of Chicago, according to the Daily Inter Ocean, "The Fall Exhibition," October 25, 1896.

10 Boothbay (ME) Register, July 13, 1888.

11 Samuel Adams Drake, Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875), 104.

12 "The Discovery of Monhegan," 1910, newspaper unknown, Monhegan Museum archives.

13 Ibid.

14 "Monhegan," Boothbay (ME) Register, July 7, 1883.

15 Boothbay (ME) Register, February 2, 1889.

16 A letter from A.T. Bricher to his family, August, 1895. Quoted in Jeffrey R. Brown, Alfred Thompson Bricher 1837-1908 (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1973), 31.

17 "Monhegan," Boothbay (ME) Register, August 20, 1892.

18 Myrick and Claus boarded with Mrs. Albee in July of 1889. Boothbay (ME) Register, July 20, 1889. Triscott boarded there in August of 1892. Boothbay (ME) Register, August 20, 1892.

19 "Monhegan," Boothbay (ME) Register and Summer Tourist, August 18, 1894.

20 Ibid.

21 "Monhegan," Boothbay (ME) Register, March 9, 1895.

22 Judith McDonough, "Maud Briggs Knowlton" (typed document, Monhegan Museum archives, 1979), 2.

23 "Miss Mary K. Longfellow has portfolios filled with water-color sketches made in Boothbay and Monhegan during the summer." "French Technical Art Education," The Art Amateur; A Monthly Journal Devoted to Art in the Household 24 (December 1890): 28. Until recently, Maud Briggs Knowlton was thought to have been the earliest woman artist to work on the island, having first visited in 1893.

24 "Ultima Thule," Springfield (MA) Daily Republican, August 27, 1883.

25 "Following Trail of Three Centuries on Monhegan," Lewiston (ME) Evening Journal, August 6, 1914.

26 A.G. Pettengill, "Monhegan, Historical and Picturesque" New England Magazine, September 1898, 77.

About the Author

Emily Grey is Curator of Exhibitions at the Monhegan Museum, Monhegan Island, Maine. She received her M.A. in art history from the University of Maryland, and has curated numerous exhibitions on the art and history of Monhegan Island. She is the author of A Century of Women Artists on Monhegan Island (2005) and organized the exhibition of the same title. She was the main author of the exhibition catalogue for a show of contemporary women artists' work, On Island: Women Artists of Monhegan, held at the University of New England in 2007.

 

About the Monhegan Museum

The above essay was written in conjunction with the Monhegan Museum's 2009 special exhibit A Painter's Paradise: Monhegan's Nineteenth-Century Artists. According to the Museum the exhibit "traces the early development of the Monhegan Island Art Colony, and features oil paintings, watercolors, prints, drawings and illustrations made by the first artists to visit Monhegan."

The Museum is located at 1 Lighthouse Hill, Monhegan, ME 04852. Please see the Museum's website for hours and admission fees.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 25, 2009, with the permission of the Monhegan Museum, Monhegan Island, Maine, which was granted to TFAO on July 24, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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