Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on September 2, 2005 with the permission of the author and Emerson Gallery, Hamilton College. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Emerson Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Monhegan Island Art Colony: 1858-2003

by Edward L. Deci


Twelve miles off the mid-Maine coast, Monhegan Island (a mere mile wide by two miles long), was settled by Englishman John Smith in 1614. Monhegan residents from that community sent fish to help the Pilgrims through their first long winter at Plymouth.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Monhegan's few residents were farmers and fishermen. Sheep and cows roamed the island while men fished from dories in Monhegan's waters. Their catch was dried in flake yards scattered along the shore. Women tended their island gardens and homes. Such was Monhegan life when, in 1858, the first artist arrived on the island.

White Mountain painter Aaron Draper Shattuck, in a letter dated June 13, 1858, described his trip to the island aboard the U.S. Schooner Vigilant. He wrote, "Monhegan Island has some wonderful things about it, lots of beautiful coves and grand cliffs rising high out of the sea. The surf was dashing terribly on the Eastern shore and throwing its spray like rain upon the rocks."

Over the subsequent 30 years, a few artists visited the island, including Milton J. Burns, William Edward Norton, and Otis S. Weber. They took rooms in island homes and hiked the island capturing on paper and canvas Monhegan's rugged natural beauty and the charm of its fishing shacks. In the late 1880s, when the first boarding house opened, artists began arriving in greater numbers, and thus began the Monhegan art colony. During the 1890s, a few dozen artists worked on the island, including William Trost Richards, Alfred T. Bricher, George Wharton Edwards, S. P. Rolt Triscott, Eric Hudson, George Everett, and Monhegan's first two women artists, Maud Briggs Knowlton and Alice Swett.

Work from that period is classic nineteenth century. Influenced by the Hudson River School, but working with more intimate landscape and seascape motifs, painters such as Shattuck painted rocks and cliffs along the coast. Luminists Richards and Bricher did atmospheric renderings from the water's edge, and watercolor artists such as Triscott and Weber worked within a classic English tradition. Refined watercolors and paintings from the period not only portray the extraordinary natural beauty of the remote island, but also give the viewer a feel for this isolated community and its interdependent residents.

After the turn of the century, things began to change. Robert Henri, who visited the island in 1903, was already strongly advocating a new American art, an art that was not derivative of European traditions but had its roots wholly within the American experience. For Henri, painting was not intended to reproduce a likeness of the subject but to make a statement, to express an idea or emotion, about the subject. Henri's circle of students and friends, often called Ashcan painters, would indeed create a new art, and those who followed Henri to the island in the subsequent fifteen years -- including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Randall Davey, Emil Holzhauer, and Clarence Chatterton -- were among the leaders in doing so. While on Monhegan, they created works of great strength and vitality. For example, working with complete surety, Bellows needed but a few broad brush strokes to communicate the power and beauty of an island vista or crashing surf. Monhegan works by these painters are less well known than their cityscapes and portraits, but they have an immediacy and freshness that deserves greater recognition.

American Impressionist Edward Willis Redfield had been Henri's close friend since their student days at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and their Wanderjahr through Europe. Redfield also visited the island in the summer of 1903, at Henri's suggestion. Many impressionists would follow Redfield to the island in the subsequent fifteen years, giving the island strong representation by the two most important movements in American art of the era. Although Redfield founded the Bucks County, PA art colony, it was primarily impressionists from the summer colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut (founded by Childe Hassam) who visited the island regularly during that period. Although Hassam never visited the island, Charles Ebert, William Chadwick, Frank Bicknell, Wilson Irvine, and Ernest Albert were among the ones who did.

Master marine painter Frederick Judd Waugh was also a Monhegan regular during the early part of the 1910s, capturing the remarkable dynamics of waves. By the mid-1910s, a few modernists, including Maurice Sterne and Andrew Dasburg, would paint the island as their movement began to gain attention from the art world, thanks in part to the famous Armory Show of 1913 when European impressionism and post-impressionism was introduced to American collectors and art critics. Fifteen of Monhegan's artists, mostly Ashcan painters and American Impressionists, exhibited in the Armory show, but it was the European artists who received all the attention and whose work had the biggest impact on the rise of modernism in America.

In 1914, the tercentenary of John Smith's settlement, a major art exhibition was held as part of the island festivities. Bellows, Ebert, and Waugh were the jurors for the exhibition, which showed the work of 18 artists, including three women -- Alice Swett, Alice Kent Stoddard, and Mary Roberts Ebert.

With Ashcan painters, American Impressionists, traditional marine painters, and modernists all working on the island together, the period from 1903 to 1918 was unquestionably Monhegan's Golden Age of Art.


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