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When painter Jamie Wyeth was asked to write the catalog introduction to “Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England,” his initial response was, “I’m the wrong person; I hate art colonies and wouldn’t be caught dead working in one.”
Then he realized that Monhegan, where he owns a home, is an art colony and that some of his favorite painters – Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Robert Henri – were “Monhegan artists,” and he demurred.
“Call of the Coast” is a joint venture between the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., and the Portland Museum of Art (where the show hangs through Oct. 12). Drawing on their own collections, the two museums have assembled a survey of 74 works by artists who worked in the art colonies of Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Conn., and Ogunquit and Monhegan in Maine. This exhibition of summer art will sure to be a hit with summer visitors to Portland.
It has been a lifetime since art of any real consequence was created in any of these popular art colonies, the denizens of which these days tend to be rearguard copyists romancing the past for the delight of the tourists and summer folks, which is probably why they are anathema to Jamie Wyeth. But in their day, around the turn of the 20th century, Old Lyme and Cos Cob attracted a lot of late American Impressionists and the beach community of Ogunquit and the island of Monhegan drew their share of Modernists up from New York.
When you walk into the first gallery of “Call of the Coast” you are greeted by light and leafy scenes of gentle Connecticut by the likes of Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Emil Carlsen, Charles Ebert and John Henry Twachtman. The aesthetic similarity is such that one museum staff member quipped that it looked like “five artists all copying one another.” Hard to imagine now that the loose, dappled palette of painters in love with sunlight was once considered controversial.
Beyond the limpid idylls of Old Lyme and Cos Cob beckon the blunt, muscular figurative works of Ogunquit Modernists such as Bernard Karfiol, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Robert Laurent and Abraham Walkowitz. The Modernists were followers of the influential Hamilton Easter Field, who oddly enough is not represented in the art colony show. The brawny Modernists, with their penchant for folk motifs and Expressionist figuration, basically took over Ogunquit, which had once been the summer retreat of the Boston painter Charles Woodbury and his Virginal Wayfarers, as the women who came to study with Woodbury were known.
The pivotal painting in the “Call of the Coast” show is probably Charles Ebert’s “Monhegan Headlands,” a 1909 Maine painting by a Connecticut colonist. Where most painters depict the dramatic cliffs of Monhegan in dark and powerful brushstrokes befitting the rugged coastline, Ebert made the iconic Monhegan bluff look as impossibly light and airy as a Monet haystack.
Ebert’s Impressionist Monhegan provides the transition to the island art colony and the more substantial works of Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent, American realists through and through. The exhibition then comes to an abrupt end with abstract Monhegan paintings of Murray Hantman, one of the many abstract painters who replaced the realists on the island around mid-century.
There are probably more artists on Monhegan these days than there ever were in their heydays, but as Portland Museum of Art curator Susan Danly notes in her catalog essay, paraphrasing Jamie Wyeth, the island art colony’s “very success compromises the sense of isolation, natural beauty, and admiration for Maine’s maritime traditions that first attracted artists to Monhegan a hundred years ago.”
The first law of tourism is “Tourists ultimately destroy the very thing they seek.” The same goes for artists.
Charles Ebert’s 1909 oil on canvas “Monhegan Headlands” is part of “Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England,” at the Portland Museum of Art. (Courtesy PMA)