Dorothy Eisner (1906-1984) was a thoroughly modernist painter who worked her way through most of the artistic trends of the 20th century from the Ashcan School and Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism. Her mature work, however, took the form of a rather Matisse-like application of painterly expressionism, very loose, free, and colorful, to paintings of her immediate environment and her friends.
Some of Eisner’s best work was done on the Cranberry Isles off Maine’s Mount Desert Island. There she joined fellow New York artists such as William Keinbusch, John Heliker, Robert LaHotan, Gretna Campbell, and Louis Finkelstein for summers full of art and socializing. (The Portland Museum of Art will feature Art of the Cranberry Isles from February 21 to June 28.) Less well-known than the art colony on Monhegan Island, the summer art enclave on Great Cranberry, a low, marshy island named for the bogs that once pocked the landscape, always struck me as low key and intimate.
The gentle Cranberry Isles landscape seems to inspire serene, introspective paintings compared to the melodramas of bold Monhegan. Dorothy Eisner’s island paintings tended to focus on the human landscape, lively cottage interiors, views to the shore, lawn chairs, and friends playing croquet on the lawn outside her cottage.
Currently (through March 14), ACME Fine Art in Boston is featuring Dorothy Eisner on Cranberry Island, an exhibition of her late Maine paintings which might be seen as a sequel to ACME’s 2005 exhibition of her late Expressionist paintings. The Eisner island paintings in the show evoke a personal summer world well loved, well lived, and well painted, a kind of Cranberry corollary to better known Fairfield Porter paintings of his family’s Spruce Head Island. Indeed, painterly realist images of coastal Maine summer life are staples of contemporary Maine art, from the late Alfred Chadbourn’s sensual Stonington townscapes to Lois Dodd’s offbeat paintings around her Cushing farmhouse, Brita Holmquist’s Dark Harbor tone poems, and Jill Hoy’s celebrations of Stonington landscapes and gardens.
Eisner’s Maine paintings were all I knew about until a week ago when Painting My World: The Art of Dorothy Eisner (Antique Collector’s Club Editions, $35 hardcover) arrived in the mail. Edited by Christie McDonald, Eisner’s daughter and a French professor at Harvard, Painting My World features four thoughtful essays by people who knew Eisner and her work well – McDonald, City University of New York professor Mary Ann Caws, Maine poet and art critic Carl Little, and Boston University professor Rosanna Warren – along with color reproductions of 80 of Eisner’s paintings. It is the sort of documentation that every working artist of substance deserves, a record of their lives and of their achievements.
What you see in Painting My World is Eisner’s evolution from a social realist who studied under Boardman Robinson, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in the 1920s through the Abstract Expressionist influence of Jack Tworkov, with whom she studied after World War II, to her blossoming as a painterly realist in the 1970s and 1980s. It was quite a journey and one well worth retaking.
Christie McDonald will be reading from and signing copies of Painting My World at ACME Fine Art on Saturday, January 31, at 1 p.m.
ACME Fine Art, 38 Newberry St., Boston MA, 617-585-9551. ACC Editions, 116 Pleasant St. Suite 18, Easthampton MA, 413-529-0861.