The vast majority of artists are never able to make a living from their art, and the fate of even those who do is typically to slip into obscurity after death. If they were any good at all, their work may enjoy a second life on the antique and auction market 50, 75, 100 years after they are gone. If they accomplished enough during their lifetimes, and are lucky enough to find a champion, a time may come when they are re-discovered and re-assessed. E. Ambrose Webster’s time has come.
E. Ambrose Webster (1869-1935) was a well-known painter in his day, a thoroughgoing Modernist and one of the founders of the Provincetown art colony. These days, not many, even in the art world, know his name. I certainly didn’t in any event. Art historian Gail R. Scott is hoping to change that. Her beautifully illustrated E. Ambrose Webster: Chasing the Sun (Hudson Hills Press, Manchester VT, 2009. $50 hardcover) is a substantive and scholarly 224-page monograph that seeks to set Webster back on the art historical stage as an innovative colorist. Scott’s book was published to coincide with a pair of Webster exhibitions – E. Ambrose Webster: Modernist American Painter at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina (Nov. 19, 2008 – Feb. 22, 2009) and E. Ambrose Webster: Chasing the Sun at Babcock Galleries in New York (Nov.13, 2008 – Feb. 27, 2009).
Edwin Ambrose Webster was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and studied at the Boston Museum School under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson. As both Tarbell and Benson were graduates of the Academie Julian in Paris, they tended to send their students there for an exposure to European culture and aesthetics. Webster studied there from 1896 to 1898, eventually settling in Provincetown after his return to the United States.
From 1900 until his death, Webster operated the Summer School of Art out of his Bradford St. cottage. Provincetown, not yet the art colony it would become, appealed to Webster because of the quality of the marine light at the tip of Cape Cod. As the subtitle of Gail Scott’s book implies, Webster was drawn to sunny landscapes, venturing out from Provincetown to paint in Bermuda, Jamaica, the Azores, France, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. In 1913, however, the year Webster was included in the landmark Armory show of Modernist art, he painted through the fall and winter in Tamworth, New Hampshire, creating snow paintings that, to my eye, are among the best of his work.
Webster died in 1935, leaving his estate to his wife Georgianna, who, being childless, eventually left her husband’s life’s work to her nephew Karl Rodgers when she passed away in 1942. Webster’s reputation slowly went into eclipse, being resurrected briefly in the early 1960s when one of his last students, Kenneth Stubbs, convinced the East End Gallery in Provincetown to mount a series of three Webster exhibitions. In 2001, Miriam Stubbs, Kenneth’s widow, curated a major Webster retrospective at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Gail Scott, a noted Marsden Hartley scholar who lives in Portland, Maine, did most of research for her Webster book between 2002 and 2004. Babcock Galleries, which owns the Webster estate, helped underwrite her work and the publication of E. Ambrose Webster: Chasing the Sun.
Webster’s mid-career landscapes are remarkable for the brilliance of their color. His oil paintings have the clarity and translucence of watercolors. His late work, Cubist-inspired nudes and figures, is nowhere near as interesting or original. In the summation of her case for reconsidering Webster, Scott puts Webster in the company of Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, and Georgia O’Keeffe, arguing that “He was a precursor, developing new approaches to color and compositional structure long before other artists began to experiment in similar ways and helping to shape and define American Modernism.”
Still, when Scott curated the Webster exhibition for the Greenville, South Carolina, museum, she worked hard to find a Massachusetts museum to take the show and could not.
“It will take another five years of people getting acquainted with Webster,” Gail Scott predicts, before we here in New England will get to see the major E. Ambrose Webster retrospective that’s just waiting to happen.