Art and Artists of New England Islands | Drawn to Islands
“The whole coast along here is iron bound– threatening crags, and dark caverns in which the sea thunders,” wrote painter Thomas Cole on September 3, 1844, as he explored Maine’s Mount Desert Island for the first time. “The view of Frenchman’s Bay and islands is truly fine. Some of the islands, called Porcupines, are lofty and belted with crags which glitter in the setting sun. Beyond and across the bay is a range of mountains of beautiful aerial hues.”
In 1844, the bridge that connects the island to the mainland at Trenton was only seven years old, and the dramatic landscape of Mount Desert Island, the only place along the East Coast where mountains rise straight out of the sea, had yet to be discovered by the masses. Cole, founding father of the Hudson River School, and the 19th-century artists who followed him to Maine’s most majestic island–among them, Frederic Church, Thomas Doughty, and Fitz Henry Lane–provided America with so vivid a vision of Mount Desert’s natural wonders that journalists, sportsmen, and rusticators soon followed. By the 1880s, Mount Desert, the village of Bar Harbor in particular, was well on its way to becoming the thriving summer resort it still is today.
New England’s island landscapes differ markedly from one to another, ranging from the high, hard, stony coast of Maine to the low, soft, sandy shores of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The retreating Laurentide ice sheet deposited Block Island, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod as glacial outwash and terminal moraines some 15,000 years ago, while the rockier northern islands from Mount Desert to Vinalhaven, North Haven, Monhegan, and the Isles of Shoals were formed by glacial erosion of the underlying bedrock, already bucked and folded. And just as artists paint, draw, print, and sculpt in a wide variety of styles, so each island landscape seems to have its own art history.
The nine little Isles of Shoals on the Maine/New Hampshire border, for instance, are closely associated with American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who came to Appledore Island in 1890 at the invitation of poet Celia Thaxter, one of his former students. Thaxter’s family ran the inn on the island, and Thaxter herself became the center of a summer salon.
On Appledore, Hassam painted Thaxter’s gardens, the island’s low ledges, and the high horizons of the Atlantic Ocean, all in a felicitous palette of sunny oils. On Appledore, as well, Hassam, who’d begun his artistic career as an illustrator and watercolorist, made the first sale of what would become a celebrated series of works in his new medium to composer George Chadwick. The Isles of Shoals, Hassam wrote, were where “I spent some of my pleasantest summers [and] where I met the best people in the country.”
The “best people” to whom he referred were summering aristocrats, but artist Rockwell Kent was attracted to rugged Monhegan as much by the local fishermen as by the island’s monumental landscape. In his 1955 autobiography, It’s Me, O Lord, Kent recalled his first visit, in 1905, by extolling “those hardy fisherfolk, those men garbed in their sea boots and their black or yellow oilskins, those horny-handed sons of toil–shall I go on? No, that’s enough.”
Kent had followed his mentor, Robert Henri, out to Monhegan, the coastal island that eventually evolved into one of the most fully developed summer art colonies in New England. What Monhegan artists tended to look for was authenticity: hardworking people living close to nature in a wild and unspoiled place. Among the artists associated with Monhegan over the years have been George Bellows, Leo Brooks, Jay Hall Connaway, Lynne Drexler, James Fitzgerald, Alan Gussow, Edward Hopper, Eric Hudson, John Hultberg, Elena Jahn, Frances Kornbluth, Leon Kroll, Michael Loew, Hans Moller, Zero Mostel, Reuben Tam, Andrew Winter, and James Browning Wyeth.
Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew and grandson of N.C., first visited Monhegan as a teenager, and on his 21st birthday, in 1967, he purchased Rockwell Kent’s seaside cottage there. Notoriously private, Wyeth grew uncomfortable with the presence of so many artists and art lovers on Monhegan and eventually sought solitude in the lighthouse on his own private island (which he purchased from his parents), Southern Island, off Tenants Harbor. He now paints on both islands. “One is people. The other is not. It’s that simple,” Wyeth says of his island art. On Monhegan, with its thriving population of summer residents and daytrippers, he paints the social life, and especially the lives of children, while on Southern he mostly paints landscapes, seascapes, and seabirds. “Islands tend to give me focus. They sure do eliminate things,” Wyeth says. “I can stand on Southern Island and see the borders of my world.”
The roots of many New England island art communities seem often to lie in New York cultural institutions, as urban artists over the years have sought cooler rural locales to escape summer in the city. A case could be made, for example, that the Art Students League of New York (ASL) colonized Martha’s Vineyard. Painter Vaclav Vytlacil, a teacher at the ASL and one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group, brought Modernism to bear on island imagery during the 40 years he summered in Chilmark. And Thomas Hart Benton, the great American Regionalist painter and another ASL instructor, credited the social realism of Chilmark with inspiring his first forays into figurative work.
“Like all people who live in near-isolation for long periods of the year,” Benton wrote, “the Chilmarkers were friendly, glad to talk and visit at the general store and at their homes. Finding willing models among them, I began in the summer of 1920 my first essays in American genre painting.”