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Home | Articles | Nantucket Art Colony
by Ben Simons
|In the early twentieth century Nantucket's whaling wharves launched a generation of artists who transformed the island's identity from an economic hub dependent on the sea to a haven for the arts. The Nantucket art colony came to life in the 1920s among the shacks, shanties, boathouses, and other old buildings that were the relics of the island's long-vanished whaling past. Florence Lang, a Nantucket summer resident and native of Montclair, New Jersey, began converting many of these wharf shacks into studio spaces to rent to artists in the summer months. In 1924, she opened the Easy Street Gallery, converting an old cooper's shop into the island's first modern art gallery. Soon, a group of artists, known as the "waterfront artists," arrived to study with Frank Swift Chase, the painter and teacher who arrived in 1920 and would become the "dean of Nantucket artists." |
Early exhibitions at the Easy Street Gallery were genteel affairs—only tea was served—in sharp contrast to the more politicized air of other contemporary art colonies. The Boston Herald reported: "Down in old Nantucket the Paradise has been established.... There are no bobbed and hennaed beauties, bare of knee and smocked of frock; there are no dawdlers and pretenders, no dabblers in batik or spouting, long-haired orators, who talk revolutionary ideas.... Artists on Nantucket are real people." The New York Herald-Tribune commented, "In Nantucket's art world, it appears, there is neither avarice nor politics."
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Many of Chase's works are clearly painted in the field, with quick, expressive brushwork. He favored subdued grays, blues, lavenders, and browns, frequently employing the wet-into-wet technique he taught his students and using a heavily loaded brush and occasionally a palette knife, which created thick and choppy strokes. Chase showed his work regularly in the Easy Street Gallery shows in August, at the Candle House Gallery, at his studios, and, starting in 1945, at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries. Upon his death in 1958, the local Inquirer and Mirror eulogized the longtime guiding spirit of the art colony: "For many years his group of eager students benefited by his sound guidance, his encouragement, and his understanding of each individual's needs. His own painting had fine solidity and a poetic feeling for the beauty of nature."
During a hiatus of over twenty years, she raised her two sons and managed an antiques shop in her hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire. Congdon returned to painting on Nantucket in 1926, newly inspired by the burgeoning art colony. When her husband retired in 1930, the couple moved permanently to Nantucket. Congdon became a regular student of Frank Swift Chase. Her style developed from more thinly painted, smoothly finished works to heavily built-up canvases in which strong shading, sweeping blocks of color, and vigorous impasto were laid on with a charged brush or palette knife. Her typical subject matter was the waterfront wharves, the Creeks, and the range of open pastures, moors, ponds, and lonely farms that were scattered accross the island. Congdon exhibited regularly at the Easy Street Gallery through the 1940s, as well as showing periodically at the Hope Chest in 'Sconset and in Annie Alden Folger's shop on Union Street.
By 1915, Lever had acquired a summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and may have been drawn to visit Nantucket around this time. Firmly established on Nantucket by 1928, he exhibited twelve paintings, of which at least eight were Nantucket scenes, at the Easy Street Gallery exhibition in 1929. Hampered by financial difficulties, and suffering from what he perceived as critical neglect and the diminished attention of major galleries and museums, Lever moved to Caldwell, New Jersey, and then to Mount Vernon, New York, where he became director of the Studio Art Club. He continued to struggle for recognition for the next two decades, until arthritis curtailed his artistic output.
On Nantucket, Saltonstall drew inspiration for her exquisite lithographs from the island's rich variety of flora. Other favorite subject matter included shells, mushrooms, ducks, and vignettes culled from her close observation of her natural surroundings. Her oil paintings typically feature waterfront scenes, often undertaken from the front deck of her cottage or from a nearby wharf. Although she occasionally broke up her summer with trips to Martha's Vineyard or Maine, and made several overseas expeditions, she always returned to her beloved Nantucket.
|text continued from above...Shows at the Easy Street Gallery ran typically for the month of August, with exhibition rosters that included Frank Swift Chase and his remarkable corps of students, among them, Anne Ramsdell Congdon, Ruth Haviland Sutton, Emily Hoffmeier, Elizabeth Saltonstall, Isabelle Tuttle, Gertrude Monaghan, and Harriet Lord. Other significant talents such as Tony Sarg, Walter Gilman Page, Inna Garsoian, Henry S. Eddy, and Edgar Jenney, and prominent visiting artists like Richard Hayley Lever showed frequently. Hundreds of artists exhibited their work at the gallery during its twenty-year existence. |
Although some artists lived away from the water, the true heart of the art colony was among the "waterfront artists," who developed a magical camaraderie and later played crucial roles in the future of arts organizations on Nantucket, including the Kenneth Taylor Galleries and the Artists Association of Nantucket. In the early 1940s, one of this corps, Ruth Haviland Sutton, purchased the Commercial Wharf property from Lang and carried on the practice of renting studio space to artists. Island Service Wharf continued to operate until its sale to Sherburne Associates in 1964.
|The Nantucket Art Colony, 19207–1945, an exhibition of the Nantucket Historical Association, is on display in the Peter Foulger Gallery of the Nantucket Whaling Museum through November 12, 2007. For more information, visit www.nha.org or call (508) 228-1894 x 0.|
|Ben Simons is the Robyn and John Davis Curator of Collections for the Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, Massachusetts. He curated The Nantucket Art Colony,1920-1945 and is author of the forthcoming accompanying exhibition catalogue.|
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