Provincetown’s Beginnings as an Artists’ Colony
by Gillian Drake
The phenomenon of the artists’ colony has it roots in the rebellion by young European artists in the 1870s and 1880s against the conventional academic training of the time, which required the artist to copy historical work indoors. There was a growing movement to paint naturalistic subjects in the open air, at first mainly landscapes, but later figures as well, culminating in the new style of Impressionism. With the rise of open-air painting, artists’ colonies sprang up mainly in France, most notably at Barbizon and Pont-Aven. Foreign painters flocked to them to spend the summer painting outdoors and to be with other artists who would offer advice, criticism and support. These communities were affordable to the limited budgets of students and impoverished artists, being located in rural areas of great natural beauty not yet discovered by tourists; they also filled the need to find a primitive world far removed from modern civilization which reinforced the romantic notion of the peasant, or fisherman, as a noble being.
American artists returning home from enjoying the communal and rural life of the European artists’s colonies found it was often difficult to readjust to the ways of their homeland. Some of these artists opened their own schools in the US, enabling young artists to study with the finest teachers without having to travel abroad. These schools, usually run by a veteran of a French art colony, were started in various parts of the American countryside, the first in 1877 by William Morris Hunt, a former Barbizon student and friend of the French painter Millet, in the fishing village of Magnolia, Massachusetts. Another was started at Annisquam on the northern coast of Cape Ann because it was reminiscent of Pont-Aven, a picturesque fishing village in Brittany, where Gauguin had loved to paint. Other art colonies were formed at East Hampton on Long Island, at Woodstock, New York, and Taos, New Mexico. Yet none of these colonies had the size or importance that Provincetown would achieve.
Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art
Provincetown’s development as an artists’ colony began in 1899 with the opening of Charles W. Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art. Returning to America after studying in Europe and staying briefly at a fishing village in Holland, he boldly decided, at the age of 28, to set up an open-air school of painting in America. After searching the East Coast for a suitable location, he decided upon Provincetown because of its great natural beauty and sense of isolation. As the 1901 brochure advertising his school reads, “He was captured by the jumble of color in the intense sunlight accentuated by the brilliant blue of the harbor and the small forest of stunted pine and oak, black against the brilliant sand.”
The brochure described Provincetown as the “oldest and most picturesque fishing hamlet on the New England coast. It seems impossible to realize when first setting foot in the village that one is only three or four hours from Boston. For the very reason of its obscure position, Provincetown has kept its refreshingly primitive character, not having been rendered colourless by the inroads of summer excursionists.” Hawthorne’s art school was an immediate success and attracted many students from all over the country, including the distinguished painters Edwin Dickinson, Ross Moffett, George Yater, Philip Malicoat, and Henry Hensche.
By this time, the town was becoming a magnet for artists, some coming for the summer season, others moving to the Cape permanently. Fishing lofts and trap sheds were turned into studios and townspeople converted their homes into boarding houses or rented out rooms. By 1916, there were six art schools operating in Provincetown. The Provincetown Art Association was formed in 1914 and held its first exhibitions in the summer of 1915. The Beachcombers Club, a men’s organization of artists and writers which is still thriving today in its salty clubhouse in the waterfront, was founded in 1916.
Charles Hawthorne was primarily a figurative painter and he frequently chose members of Provincetown’s fishing community as subjects of his highly realistic paintings. Some of these can be seen in Provincetown’s Town Hall and the High School as part of the town’s extensive art collection, and others are frequently on view at the Provincetown Art Association & Museum and the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis. Hawthorne worked directly on the canvas, making no preliminary drawings, and boldly used pure colors, often directly applied by a palette knife, in a way that was admired by some abstract painters who later settled in Provincetown. However, he cut himself off from the more progressive styles of art and today is a lesser-known figure than many of his contemporaries, though he is regarded as one of the last great exponents of the realistic style of the late 19th century. On Hawthorne’s untimely death in 1930, his devoted assistant Henry Hensche, only 30 years of age, continued his summer school, changing the name to the Cape School of Art and continuing to teach Hawthorne’s methods of painting en plein air until his death in 1992.
In the summer of 1916, the Boston Sunday Globe ran a feature story about Provincetown under the banner headline, "Biggest Art Colony in the World," reporting that “the thing that staggers visitors these days is the art students—mostly women—with their easels set up at nearly every corner, on wharfs, in old boats, in yards, along the beach.”
Among those to arrive in Provincetown at this time were Mabel Dodge, who listed artist Maurice Stern among her four husbands, and journalist John Reed, whose Communist sympathies would take him to Russia where he would write his famous account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, and where he would die and be buried in the Kremlin Wall. Others were the painters Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, who painted the local Methodist church in a uniquely cubist style. This group of high-spirited bohemians, with their new-found sense of political and sexual freedom, were viewed with some alarm by the more conservative artists.
Charles Hawthorne, like many others, remained opposed to the sweeping changes affecting the modern art world. Tensions between the two factions heightened in the 1920s when Hawthorne and his friends took control of the Provincetown Art Association and virtually banned the modernists from exhibiting there. Eventually, the latter group forced the Association to allow them to have their own separate exhibitions, a situation which lasted until 1937, by which time a complex intermarriage of styles made it pointless to distinguish between the conservatives and the modernists. The traditionalists included Richard Miller and the marine painter Frederick Waugh, who spent his last years in Provincetown because it reminded him of his youth in France. The modernists were led by Ross Moffett, E. Ambrose Webster, who ran his own Summer School of Painting, Oliver Chaffee, and Karl Knaths, and were given support by Max Bohm, who felt he could afford to be generous in his attitude to younger painters since he had already established his own reputation, mainly in France, as one of American’s foremost painters. His granddaughter, Anne Packard, is now one of Provincetown’s best-known painters, and his great-granddaughter, Cynthia Packard, carries on the family tradition.
In 1930 Edward Hopper began spending his summers in Truro, painting his haunting and evocative images of the Outer Cape. His studio still stands there today, in a rural landscape that remains virtually unchanged. Painters Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta and Max Ernst brought surrealism to Provincetown at this time, and in 1935 the abstract painter Hans Hofmann opened his School of Modern Art after fleeing his native Germany when Hitler came to power. Hofmann’s school operated in Provincetown in the summer and New York in the winter, and Hofmann became internationally respected both as a gifted teacher and a painter. His summer school, located in a barn built out of ships’ timbers by seacape painter Frederick Waugh, became the artistic focal point of the town, and he attracted many young students who went on to become the next generation of notable artists. These included Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers, Robert de Niro, and George McNeil. Many of Hofmann’s former students are connected to Cape Cod, including Sam Feinstein, who lived and taught in Dennis and made a seminal film of Hofmann at work in the 1950s, and painters Robert Henry and his wife Selina Trieff who now live in Wellfleet. Both the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and the Cape Cod Museum of Art have extensive collections of work by former Hofmann students.
In 1955, a radical group of struggling young artists from New York City, including Jan Muller, Red Grooms, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Tony Vevers, Lester Johnson, and Robert Beauchamp, arrived in town, attracted by the free-wheeling nature of the summer art community. They opened the innovative Sun Gallery as a place to exhibit their work, which was leaning towards figurative expressionism, and to perform their Happenings, crudely-performed theater pieces which many members of the art community found “outrageous.”
These were good times to be an artist in Provincetown; the healthy tourist economy ensured a good supply of well-paid menial jobs that left large blocks of time for work, rent was cheap, as little as $50 for the summer season, and there was a supportive community of fellow artists of extraordinary diversity. The town was throbbing with energy and vitality created primarily by this group of exciting young artists. In 1958, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. acquired the Center Methodist Church (now the town’s new library) to open his Chrysler Art Museum. He built up an enormous collection of work by Provincetown artists, often purchasing works of art in bulk directly from the studios of impecunious painters, thereby enabling many to survive the long winters. However, he soon tired of Provincetown and in 1971 moved his collection to Norfolk, Virginia. The museum has de-acquisitioned part of its collection and many works of art have returned to their home in Provincetown.
—by Gillian Drake, from "The Complete Guide to Provincetown," Shank Painter Publishing, 1992.
Charles W. Hawthorne art class at Miller Hill
"The Last Voyage" by Charles W. Hawthorne
Charles W. Harwthorne teaching a class on the beach in Provincetown, c. 1910.
Art class on the beach, c. 1950s.