Portland Museum of Art
Journeys over Water: The Paintings of Stephen Etnier
April 9 through June 7, 1998
Snow Fence, no date, oil on masonite, 20 x 36 inches, private collection
Because of his enthusiasm for adventure and Caribbean wanderings, Stephen Etnier (1903-1984) can easily be compared with his close contemporary, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Like Hemingway, Etnier sought out the adventures that supplied the subject matter of his art. Each man strove to define himself as an independent and heroic figure. Etnier was an aficionado of ocean sailing, stylish automobiles, airplanes, and island life. He was clearly intrigued with whimsical displays of American commercialism. His lifelong enthusiasm for technology and consumer culture provided a series of themes that were explored by few other artists of his generation. Many of his paintings focus on signage, storefronts, advertising gimmicks -- on America's unrefined commercial face, with its contrived energy and tawdry kitsch.
Scows, South Freeport, c. 1972, oil on masonite, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches,
Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Gift of Marion P. Dana
Etnier was a scion of America's Ashcan School, cut loose from city life, navigating among scenic coastal splendors and appealing dives, from Maine to Florida, New Orleans, Jamaica, Nassau, Haiti, Barbados, and the Bahamas. He became a Jack Kerouac of the inland waterway, with deeper pockets and better social connections. But if Stephen Etnier is to be likened to a single American writer, it would most appropriately be John Steinbeck -- the Steinbeck of Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Travels with Charley. Like Steinbeck, Etnier was frankly devoted to the pursuit of rudimentary American realities. Etnier's career produced an artistic travelogue, an inventory that is endlessly alert to the unsophisticated flavor of American life. He was a vagabond cultural observer, for whom the visual slang of America revealed his country's truest character.
Stephen Etnier lavished particular attention and sensitivity upon Maine, his chosen home and source of identity. A native of York, Pennsylvania, Etnier came to Maine first as a summer resident, then as a devoted sailor, a summer pioneer on Gilbert Head, and, for the last thirty-five years of his life, as an established citizen at South Harpswell.
In his evolution as a painter, Stephen Etnier passed through
three artistic phases. Each phase or period was characterized by a separate
and distinctive style. The unifying feature of the three phases was Etnier's
remarkable devotion to iight.
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Images and article (Introduction to catalogue essay by Daniel E. O'Leary) are courtesy of Portland Museum of Art.
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