As fitting summer fare, the Portland, Maine, Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, have teamed up to produce Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England, an exhibition of 74 paintings and prints by 48 of the artists who flocked to the coastal art colonies of Old Lyme, Cos Cob, Ogunquit, and Monhegan at the turn of the 20th century.
All of these venues still attract artists of a sort, but the quality and character of the seasonal art is nowhere near what it was a century ago when the sublime pleasures of summer on the coast were just being discovered.
Call of the Coast (in Portland June 25 to October 12 and in Old Lyme from October 24 to January 31, 2010) is drawn from the collections of the two museums and visually demonstrates the clear lines of aesthetic demarcation that separated the various art colonies.
The Connecticut colonies were populated primarily by Impressionists, while the Maine colonies tended to attract Modernists with a distinct fault line running through the Ogunquit colony, where the two camps existed side by side.
The reason for birds of a painterly feather flocking together was primarily force of personality. Each of the colonies had key figures who colonized the areas with their followers. Henry Ward Ranger, a painter of the bucolic Barbizon ilk, was the pioneer in Old Lyme. American Impressionists J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman were among the first to find the Cos Cob section of Greenwich.
When you visit the Griswold Museum, and now if you see Call of the Coast in Portland, it’s almost embarrassing how similar American Impressionists such as Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf were in their dappled sunlight approach to the gentle, leafy Connecticut coast.
Rugged Monhegan tended to appeal to New Yorkers of a Modernist bent with influential artist/teacher Robert Henri encouraging his followers, chief among them George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent, to join him on this monumental little fishing rock in the sea.
The island’s art was thus dominated by the muscular realism that flowed from the Ashcan School until later in the century when abstract painters of the New York School, such as Murray Hantman, Michael Loew, and Zero Mostel, moved in.
The most interesting social dynamic, however, took place in sandy Ogunquit, where the lyrical realism of Bostonian Charles Woodbury and the so-called Virginal Wayfarers of his nearly all-female Ogunquit Summer School of Painting and Drawing held sway until Hamilton Easter Field, a charismatic New Yorker, founded his Summer School of Graphic Arts there in 1911.
Field’s followers included his protege, sculptor Robert Laurent, and painters such as Bernard Karfiol, Niles Spencer, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, each of whom practiced a form of Yankee Modernism that translated New England folk motifs and local color scenes into the blunt, expressive, urban language of Modernism.
Call of the Coast is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue (Yale University Press, $29.95 softcover) and is a perfect example of how art museums can make their collections more meaningful by combining them in thematic context. Had the Portland Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum drawn the Provincetown Art Association and Museum into the act, they really would have had the coast covered.
[Portland Museum of Art, Seven Congress Square, Portland ME, 207-775-6148. Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme CT, 860-434-5542.]