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Artists of This Vicinity

Artists of This Vicinity
by Mrs. Elwyn G. Campbell

Presented at the Roundabout Club in 1921 and at the Fairhaven Colonial Club in 1922

Part One

When I was very young, about 1890, artists and literary folk formed interesting colonies at Marion and Nonquitt. In Marion, where we went summers, I remember my mother attending a reception in Mrs. Richard Watson Gilder’s studio and telling me of the celebrated people she saw there.

Mrs. Gilder was Miss Helena DeKay before becoming the wife of the Century editor and was one of the organizers of the Society of American Artists an artist herself whose ideal heads and flowers were beautifully done, but whose career was cut short because she became an invalid soon after her marriage.

While in Marion, however, she and her husband drew many celebrities and embryo celebrities to the place. You have all seen her studio. It is now the Marion gas plant, just past Tabor Academy, on the trolley road to the station. In Gilder days, though, no trolley road passed its doors; only a grass grown wood path led to this old stone building in the midst of “pines that bring the sunset near” at the head of “The Singer’s Lane” behind the Gilder home. It had been an oil refinery – before that a salt factory, but Mrs. Gilder had it transformed into a studio, Stanford White himself designing the great stone fireplace.

Joe Jefferson and his wife were often among the Gilder’s guests here and few know that the noted character portrayer treasured his reputation as an artist far more than his name as an actor and that later when he built Crow’s Nest on the other side of Buzzards Bay one of his chief joys was in his splendid collection of pictures.

In the Gilder studio, too, St. Gaudens modeled one summer -among his subjects the wife of ex-President Cleveland. Vincent du Mond and Guy Rose also felt the charm of this workplace so filled with the ghost thoughts of gifted people.

Charles Dana Gibson was a frequent visitor to the Marion colony, being particularly the friend of the writers, Mrs. Rebecca Harding Davis and her son Richard, whose first wife, by the way, Cecil Clark Davis, today is a portrait painter of prominence, having a studio in Marion. The sculptors Salvatore and Winegar have spent time in Marion in recent years.
About the Nonquitt colony I have not quite as much personal knowledge. I remember in my very young days driving with my father to Nonquitt to take back a repaired clock to R. Swain Gifford and learning for the first time of the number of noted people who found inspiration with him along this bit of New England coast. Today Walton Ricketson is perhaps the best narrator of the activities of this colony that I know. He and his sister were there many summers and there it was that he made the medallion of Louisa Alcott, who, with her sister, also had a Nonquitt workshop. Here Ricketson went boating with Harry Chase and Arthur Cumming. Benoni Irwin, the portrait painter, was his friend. Here he knew Twachtman, Sartain, Greenwood and Murphy, all well known artists of today; then pupils and friends of R. Swain Gifford. Mrs. Gifford, who was Miss Frances Elliot of New Bedford, a magazine illustrator and writer, oddly was a classmate of Mrs. Gilder’s at Cooper Union, New York – only one of the links between the two colonies.

Again when very young I remember going to various houses and being shown beautiful pictures. S. Griffiths Morgan, Joseph Grinnell, Captain Thomas Nye, Captain William Blackler, Oliver Crocker, John J. Hicks, James Arnold, Samuel Leonard, Edward C. Jones and others made quite remarkable collections. Captain “Tom” Nye’s particularly held many fine examples of American art and where these collections were not intact, in the homes of Howlands or Swifts or Hathaways or Stetsons or Cliffords, or Rotches and other descendents or relatives of the cultured owners of whalers and in the homes of men who had been influenced to buy when they had the opportunity, many worthy pictures by local artists were to be seen.

Perhaps I lived in a more or less artistic atmosphere. My sister illustrated and painted and we numbered many artists among our acquaintances and friends. At any rate my interest in the art of this locality has always been alive. I notice in magazines whenever illustrations are signed by home names and am immensely proud whenever I come across a picture by a person of whom I know, in some home, gallery or museum.

But when I started out to write this paper I decided I had a most superficial knowledge of the subject. I still have only a part of the story learned, though I have done the best I could with the limited time at my disposal.

Perhaps you would like to know what some of my sources of information have been.

In the Free Public Library in New Bedford there is a splendid collection of local work on the walls throughout the building – two dozen or more painters, illustrators, sculptors and wood carvers from this vicinity being represented. Every picture in the lecture room is the result of local ability. Besides this, through the kindness of assistants a great amount of data is at one’s service. The Standard and Mercury have published many accounts of local exhibitors; art magazines and books have much about them and photographs of originals are to be seen.

In the Old Dartmouth Historical Society rooms are many portraits, only two of which I believe are signed. There are also among other paintings a marvelous Arctic sunset by Bradford, a beautiful Bierstadt of the island of Cuttyhunk, one of Wall’s valued historical paintings. A fine marine of Charles Gifford’s, an odd Van Beest, a wharf scene by Percy E. Cowen, some characteristic Benjamin Russell whaling prints, a few sketches by H.H. Crapo and at the time I went last an exhibition of Clifford Ashley’s unusual skill.
One should also go to the Swain School to find out about local art. The money for the maintenance of this school was left by William A. Swain, for whose son Robert Swain Gifford was named. It was incorporated in 1881 and now has courses in general and normal art – arts and crafts, design, architecture, jewelry and metal, ceramics, painting, sketching, modeling, etc. Harry A. Neyland, a well-known artist, is the director and former directors and members of the faculty have shown marked ability. Here are held exhibitions from time to time of posters, paintings, arts and craft work of the school pupils and of artists outside and once a year the Swain Camera Club displays its talent.
Up to last year there has been for several years the New Bedford Art Club’s exhibition to attend. This was usually held annually at the end of the year in the old bank building at the foot of William Street, New Bedford, or in the Gas Company’s hall and was open to the public. The Art Club was originally formed by Herbert Bryant and Walton Ricketson, its aim being to bring together men congenial along the line of art – art lovers, amateurs and professionals – and to exhibit.

In 1921 the New Bedford Society of Fine Arts was formed with John H. Clifford president. The aim of this group of enthusiasts is to encourage art in the community and find a permanent exhibiting place for the works of art that are constantly being created and for the treasures that may be bought or loaned by New Bedford people. The first public exhibition of this society was held in December, 1921, in the William J. Rotch house and opened many eyes as to the extent and fine character of the best art work in New Bedford. More that 200 canvases were shown.

There is a great need here of a permanent exhibition gallery. When Bierstadt, Bradford and Van Beest were painting their work was on sale or exhibited by Charles Hazeltine and James Lawton, the gathering places of art folk, all displayed the work of local celebrities – the Giffords, Chase, Eldred and others. When the King of Hawaii visited New Bedford in 1874, pictures by more than a dozen local artists were loaned by Leonard Ellis from his stock for the purpose of adorning the king’s apartments in the Parker House.

What store here today could produce such an exhibit? Today the New Bedford Free Library, the Swain Free School and the Old Dartmouth Historical Society rooms are the only places where exhibitions are held throughout the year and the space in each is limited. There is certainly need of a permanent gallery. Its influence might be tremendous. Charles Gifford’s hand thrilled to use brush and palette when, as a boy of twelve, he saw an exhibition of Bierstadt’s paintings. In Richard Canfield’s gambling houses the redeeming feature was the assembling there of magnificent works of art. Canfield was born and brought up in New Bedford during the golden age of art here. The influence of early environment perhaps has much to do with his great hobby.

In Fairhaven the Colonial Club is following the thought of the New Bedford Library trustees and in the Coggeshall House are pictures by Fairhaven artists – Bradford, Eldred, Charles and R. Swain Gifford, Miss Elizabeth Delano, Frederick H. Hitch and Percy E. Cowen.

In the Fairhaven Town Hall can be seen the work of Bradford, EIdred and Charles Gifford. And this brings up an incident occurring at the end of the afternoon I spent in the studio of a prominent New Bedford artist. I was waiting for the Fairhaven car and beside me was a Fairhaven man whom I had met a few times. Full of my subject, after a brief discussion of the weather, I launched forth with “Just what are the pictures in the Town Hall?” He appeared a little startled, then answered regretfully, but very reasonably, “I really don’t know. I have been away so much this winter and anyway I generally go to the Olympia.” It hadn’t entered my head that there were movies in the Town Hall at that time.

I have also seen some of our fine local paintings in their old and new homes and have inquired of friends and relatives, a most fascinating way of informing myself about local art. I have interviewed various artists themselves. Artists are the most graceful hosts and hostesses. Miss Elizabeth Delano’s placard saying “Studio visitors welcome” truly expresses the attitude of all whom I visited and such interesting realms were opened to me as I sat before the hearth fires of men who spoke of R. Swain Gifford as Robert, or moved about the studios noting gems of art (hat had been given by their creators or listened while my hosts reminisced or talked illuminatingly of their work and the work of others. A paper could be written about each of such interviews and I hate to have to slip over these pleasant hours to the summary that you all expect.

The artists of whom I speak have painted during a period of over a hundred years. I apologize to the subjects of the following resumes if any unkind criticism is given, for, with Socrates, “1deem it unjust for anyone, no matter what his position may be, to pass public judgment on the artistic merit of the work of another in any field of art.” The difference in the tone of press notices 25 years apart has drawn my attention to the unfairness of such procedure more than once.

William A. Wall stands out of the past as a portrayer of the townspeople of Old Dartmouth and nearby settlements, and of historical scenes connected with them; and Benjamin Russell as the accurate delineator of the ships which brought to this community her early glory.

Wall was the son of an Englishman and was born in New Bedford in 1807. Early in his twenties he left his trade of clock and watchmaker to paint, having no master and preparing his canvases and even his brushes himself. Later he studied in New York and later in Philadelphia under Sully. In 1832 he went to Europe, to Paris and to Italy, but strange to say, his work after this was not as good as before, according to some art criticisms. His local paintings, “Birth of the Whaling Industry” in the New Bedford Library and “New Bedford Fifty Years Ago” (the original of which is owned by Miss Amelia Jones) are best known, though there are many others. His portrait of himself now in the Old Dartmouth Historical Society rooms and of N. P. Willis (the poet who married one of the Grinnells) now owned by the New York Historical Society are examples of his best work in this line. of the portraits painted in this locality three or four generations ago practically all were by Wall.

Benjamin Russell, the son of an important whaling merchant, made the careful drawings and water colors of whaleships that you may see in old homes about here and among the treasures of collectors. Zephaniah Pease has some fine ones. Russell’s sketches show exact knowledge of rigging and sail and hull as well as historical incident. He gave information which helped Van Beest, Bradford and Gifford complete their three famous whaling pictures (based, some say, on old English prints) “The Chase,” ’6The Conflict” and “The Capture” (seen often on postcards.) Collaborating with Caleb Purrington, a Fairhaven painter and decorator, he worked out “The Panorama of the Voyage of a Whaleship around the World” which attracted much attention. He haunted the wharves with his sketch book and most of his work is in pencil, washed in with india ink, finished with a fine brush point and pen and delicately tinted.

Chronologically speaking the next important artists to be considered are Albert Van Beest, William Bradford and Albert Bierstadt.

Albert Van Beest, born in Rotterdam in 1820 was an ex-officer in the Dutch navy, a friend of royalty, well educated and traveled – coming to America age of 25. He was “thoroughly trained in art, but with no great talent,” Isham says in his “History of American Painting.” He was the master of William Bradford and I have been told his studio where he worked with Bradford and began R. Swain Gifford’s instruction was on the land at the south terminus of Main Street, Fairhaven. Afterward his studio was in the Ricketson block, Union Street, New Bedford. Winters he spent mostly in Boston and New York where he died only forty years old. Some good paintings by Van Beest are owned by the Misses Leonard in Oxford.
William Bradford, Fairhaven’s most distinguished artist, was born in the northern part of the town in 1823, a Quaker, destined to be a marine artist whose paintings have been hung in Windsor Castle and in art galleries all over the world and who numbered among his friends the big men and women of his day in England, France and America. Beginning by painting ships in Lynn harbor and on the coasts of Labrador and Nova Scotia, he felt the urge of the Arctic region and exploring this with Dr. Hayes and others was the first artist to represent truthfully the icy splendors of the far north. His pictures and photographs of this region are remarkable. Besides working with Van Beest in Fairhaven and New Bedford he had a studio in New York. He traveled much but always spent his summers in Fairhaven where his daughter now lives. On his grave in Riverside Cemetery, Oxford, is a boulder brought south by Peary, a fitting memorial for the “Artist of Greenland.”

Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany in 1830 but he was brought to New Bedford when he was two years old and grew to manhood here. He went to school with my first school teacher, Mrs. Knight, and she used to tell how clumsy he was – always tumbling up the aisles – never knowing his lessons, and a boy who no one thought would ever amount to anything. He early developed ability in drawing and, saving what he earned in a frame factory and from teaching water colors evenings, took up the study of oils in Boston. Many men, Captain Blackler, Captain “Tom” Nye and Joseph Grinnell of New Bedford, Peter Cooper and William Cullen Bryant and others, interested themselves in him and sent him to Europe where he aroused the attention of the leading artists. After his return to America from studying in Dusseldorf and Rome he went west and the Rockies figure in many of his later paintings though he did some work in animals.

Bierstadt received medals and decorations in most of the European countries and his pictures have commanded tremendous prices and enviable positions everywhere. I wonder if his “View on the Kern River” and “Sunset among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg and “Great Trees of California” in the Imperial Palace, Berlin are still in place. Several of Bierstadt’s pictures are owned hereabouts. William C. Hawes has the beautiful Lake Lucerne that he painted for Captain Blackler and Miss Dana has one. “Sir Donald,” “Selkirk Range near Canadian Border” and “Sunset on the Platte River” are in the New Bedford Library and familiar to most. In the Corcoran Art Gallery and in the Capitol at Washington are fine examples of his work and no one from here can help feeling proud to know that he always had a great affection for New Bedford, the city of his adoption and that we may claim the great artist as our own.

After this the other artists to be considered form a large group for these men brought in the golden age of art in southeastern Massachusetts. A. P. Ryder, R. Swain Gifford, Charles Gifford, Clement Swift, William Ferdinand Macy, William Starbuck Macy, Harry Chase, F. D. Millet, Arthur Cumming and L. D. Eldred are now dead, but Walton Ricketson, Miss Elizabeth Delano, Dwight Tryon, Dodge MacKnight, Frank Brownell, Louis Richardson, Eben F. Comins, Henry S. Eddy, Clifford Ashley, Arnold C. Slade, Percy E. Cowen and others bring us to the present day and all do their part in the production of noteworthy art.

Perhaps the work of no New Bedford artist is creating quite as much of a furore at the present time as that of the late Albert P. Ryder. Born in New Bedford in 1847 he moved to New York at the age of twenty but came back here at times and many will recall this gentle recluse as he dreamily walked the streets or wandered about on moonlight nights. He studied under William E. Marshall in the metropolis and at the National Academy and while there was a victim of a terrible sickness when his fellow students took turns watching with him. One of these students, a New Bedford artist, told me that Ryder was never the same afterwards – always a man of moods, very like those of his greatest friend, Blakelock. Most of Ryder’s work was done during the last quarter of the last century. A few bits of landscape and still life seen through temperament. His worst paintings are very bad, according to an art criticism published in 1905, but it adds that “his best, to those to whom symbols appeal give a delight unlike that from any other source.”

Most of his paintings are full of suggestion, mystery and delicately graded color. There is about them the vivid incoherence of a dream. Until recently Ryder’s pictures have had no great market value. Now they are worth thousands of dollars and are worthy of being stolen as they journey from one exhibiting place to another. In Frederic Fairchild Sherman’s lately published monograph on this artist true appreciation of the man and his work is expressed. Mr. Sherman has included reproductions of some 25 of the 150 pictures known to exist but these give no idea of his beautiful color work. His “Moonlight at Sea” in the National Gallery at Washington appealed to me.
Continue to Part Two.