Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Ogunquit, ME

(207) 646-4909

Charles H. Woodbury and His Students

from the exhibition brochure by Michael Culver, OMAA Curator


Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) was not the first distinguished artist to live and work in the small fishing village of Ogunquit, Maine. He was, however, among the most influential. In July, 1898, he opened his "Ogunquit Summer School of Drawing and Painting" (re-named in 1923, "The Art of Seeing - Woodbury Course in Observation").

Woodbury would teach there for thirty-six summers, enrolling between sixty and one hundred students in a six-weeks course of "painting and drawing from nature." The success of his art school secured Ogunquit's reputation as one of America's preeminent summer art colonies. Woodbury's school (and the establishment in 1911 of Hamilton Easter Field's more avant-garde school), brought many of the most important American artists of the first half of the twentieth-century to visit and work in Ogunquit. This present exhibition honors the 100th anniversary of Woodbury's School, its founder, and many of the earliest students of the famed "Ogunquit art colony"

Even before opening his Ogunquit School, Woodbury was a successful and popular painter. He was also recognized as a superb draftsman and etcher. During his career he had over 100 solo exhibitions and was included in numerous invitational and juried shows throughout the country. His work is represented in the major American museum collections of the Addison Gallery of American Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of San Francisco; and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Among the many honors earned by Woodbury were membership in the National Academy of Design; election as President of the Watercolor Club of Boston; membership in the Society of American Artists; and youngest member ever elected to the Boston Art Club.

In addition to teaching at his own school in Ogunquit, and in Boston, Woodbury taught at Wellesley College and was a visiting professor at Dartmouth College and the Art Institute of Chicago. He wrote three art education books, did illustrations for books and magazines, designed World War I posters, and traveled to many cities where he conducted art classes, lectured on art education, and judged exhibitions.

Woodbury enjoyed a national reputation as a renowned artist and art educator (he began teaching at the age of seventeen). His theories on teaching art, and his influence on other teachers and students who disseminated his educational philosophy throughout America are equally as important as the large body of work he himself produced. Research suggests that during the thirty-six years he taught at his own schools in Boston and Ogunquit, he may have trained over 4,000 students.

Woodbury was a demanding and immensely influential teacher who inspired great devotion and admiration from his students. In 1934, his son David and David's wife Ruth attended a two week portion of his Ogunquit classes. Ruth Woodbury recalls: "If students came to him to learn to paint, he said what needed to be said. But he was fair and they respected him." Many of Woodbury's pupils became well-known professional artists; others, innovative and influential art educators. Many, called "Representatives of the School", were vigorous and vocal proponents of Woodbury's art education methods. In addition to careers as artists and educators, many of Woodbury students were also involved in the fields of architecture, crafts, advertising, publishing and museum administration. Woodbury's influence as a teacher did not stop with his schools. His three widely read books. Painting and the Personal Equation (1919), Observation: Visual Training Through Drawing: (1922), and The Art of Seeing (1925) defined his art education philosophy.

Woodbury believed that every student, no matter the degree of talent, could benefit from his drawing and painting courses. His schools attracted both professional and amateur artists. Fundamental to Woodbury's teaching was to strengthen his students' powers of observation and memory (a lesson he believed would be useful to artists as well as to the general public. He also emphasized the importance of depicting motion in their paintings and drawings. In 1928, Woodbury introduced the use of motion pictures as a teaching device, thus allowing students to understand things and people in motion. He also taught students to make quick and accurate painting and drawing decisions based on fundamental art principles.

It may seem curious, since most Woodbury students were conservative painters who worked in the style of their instructor, that his teaching also stressed self-expression. According to the 1939 Woodbury Summer School brochure, "The Woodbury staff teaches the visual language that each must speak according to his own personality. The student is free to choose his own interest -- landscape, marine, still life, or figures.... Each student retains his personal initiative" The modernist painter Niles Spencer studied briefly with Woodbury in Ogunquit. Spencer was greatly influenced by Woodbury's teaching, his work becoming more expressive and painterly. In fact, Spencer said that he kept all his life the notes he took at Woodbury's School.

The student list included in this catalogue (the first attempt to document as many of the students' names and biographies as possible) shows that Woodbury's Ogunquit School consisted chiefly of women artists. In general, the women (and the men) who attended the school came from in and around Boston, attracted to Woodbury's style of academic impressionism. After all Boston was hardly a "hot bed" of modemism. The avant-garde artists who did came to Ogunquit would have studied at the Field School.

Four categories of women attended Woodbury's School. The first, possessing varying degrees of talent and commitment and with independent fortunes, spent their entire summer in Ogunquit. Next were women of lesser means, who taught public school and according to their budget could spend only a portion of the summer there. Then came the more accomplished artists -- those who taught in private schools, colleges and universities, and exhibited and sold their work whenever possible. Last were the amateur artists who belonged to their local art associations and took the summer course for "fun," but were never widely recognized for their artistic talent. The men who attended the Summer School fit into these same categories, or were professionals who could arrange their summer schedules around the Ogunquit School.

Charles Woodbury was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. He began sketching at the age of six, and sold his first oil painting when he was fifteen. At seventeen he won a painting award from the Boston Art Club, and became that Club's very youngest member. His early successes are all the more impressive considering his lack of formal training. Woodbury did occasionally attend life classes at the Boston Art Club, and in 1890 took his first formal training at the Academie Julian, in Paris. During his junior year at MIT, Woodbury participated in an informal watercolor class taught by MIT architecture instructor Ross S. Turner (1847-1915). Before this class, Woodbury had not used watercolors. In a 1915 newspaper article, Woodbury declared that Turner's influence launched his painting career. Other than these experiences Woodbury was largely self-taught.

Although his artistic talents were appreciated by his family, his father Seth (an inventor and cabinetmaker) urged him to pursue the more conventional career of engineering. In 1882, Charles entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite a heavy academic workload, Woodbury continued to paint throughout his college years. By his second year at MIT, the sale of his work enabled him to pay all school expenses, in addition to supplementing his family's income. Along with his own art work, he had already begun to give private lessons.

By now a successful painter and teacher who could expect to be financially secure, Woodbury considered leaving MIT, but chose to complete his studies rather than to "give up." This practical, resolute, and hard-working attitude characterized his entire life. In June, 1886 Woodbury received a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering. One year later, his first solo exhibition of 30 paintings at Boston's T. Eastman Chase Gallery sold out. In 1887, Woodbury took a studio on School Street in Boston, where he taught classes in drawing. One of his students was Marcia Oakes from South Berwick, Maine. Three years later they were married. In 1895, Woodbury taught at the Worcester Art Association. In June of 1898, he opened his own school in Annisquam, Massachusetts; in July he moved the summer classes to Ogunquit.

Woodbury had made his first visit to Ogunquit in 1888, while visiting Marcia Oakes and her family at their summer home in York Beach. In Ogunquit he rented a room at Captain Charles Littlefield's "Ogunquit House" on Shore Road, and painted his first Ogunquit oil of the wharves on the bank of the Ogunquit River. In a 1937 newspaper interview Woodbury recalled: "Perkins Cove was nothing but a cluster of fishermen's dwellings when I discovered it on that first visit to Ogunquit. The only place to stay was the old Ogunquit House in the village. They told me it had been a great season. Four strangers had been there."

Woodbury had always loved the sea, and was exhilarated by the dramatic rocky coast of Ogunquit. In 1898, he built a summer house and studio on the rocks overlooking Perkins Cove; and one year later, he moved into a larger, more comfortable family home nearby. The area around Lynn had also provided Woodbury with the beach and ocean views, and the same scenes of fishermen and fishing shacks he found in Ogunquit. Even by the early 1800s a group of Lynn artists painted local coastal scenes.

Along with Woodbury, were Edward Burrill (1835-1913), Edward A. Page (1850-1928), and C.E.L. Green (1844-1915). Examples of their work are also included in this exhibition. They were Woodbury colleagues who taught with him at the Lynn Evening Drawing School and occasionally painted together. Throughout his career Woodbury worked alongside other well-known colleagues - Frank W Benson, Hermann Dudley Murphy, and John Singer Sargent - all represented in this exhibition. Why then did Woodbury choose Ogunquit over his Massachusetts birthplace?

A Massachusetts Painters Project publication suggests that in the first years of the 20th century, urbanization destroyed the "picturesque" quality of the Lynn coast, compelling artists to seek more attractive locations. The trend away from the industralized city to more natural, rural locales was a prevailing notion in the early 1900s. For those who could not permanently move out of the city, this Thoreauvian quest led to the popularity of summer resorts like Ogunquit.

Artists who had traveled and worked in Europe were especially drawn to Maine. Winslow Homer moved to Prouts Neck because it reminded him of the North Sea coast of Great Britain. Hamilton Easter Field settled in Ogunquit because it resembled Brittany. The rural, slower-paced village of Ogunquit was almost as pleasing to Woodbury as its rocky coast and turbulent ocean vistas. Much of the appeal of Ogunquit was its native population. Over the years, most residents accepted the artists who summered in the village.

Many of Woodbury's students eventually bought land and built homes in the community. Some moved year-round to Ogunquit, marrying there, and establishing a presence in the village for many generations. Although most of the Ogunquit natives were not born art lovers, they were canny enough to realize that the art school and its students offered them a new source of income.

Woodbury's Ogunquit Summer School was immediately successful when it opened, drawing students from all over the Boston area. Each winter, brochures about the school were distributed in the Boston art community. As Woodbury's fame as a teacher spread, students from as far away as California came to study in Ogunquit, where they set up their easels for plein-air painting, from Narrow Cove to the Marginal Way and Ogunquit Beach.

Woodbury and his staff were always on hand to offer suggestions, often stopping to illustrate specific aspects of composition, color, form and perspective. The six-weeks course was divided into three parts: Painting Course I and II (the Drawing Course was held in Boston prior to the summer move to Ogunquit). The Ogunquit painting courses ran from approximately July 13 to August 13. The Ogunquit School remained in continuous operation from 1898 until Woodbury's death in 1940 (except for the years between 1917 and 1924 when he closed the school to devote his energies to the war effort, making posters for the U.S. government and working on projects with the British government).

Woodbury taught and painted up until the day he died in 1940. With the beginning of World War II in 1939 and Woodbury's death, the Ogunquit schools and the art colony began to decline. After the War, Robert Laurent continued the Field School in rerkins Cove. But the need for summer art schools began to wane. With cultural changes, new economical considerations, better transporatation and roads, and the dredging of Perkins Cove in 1939, Ogunquit became a convenient destination for vacationers. Property in and around Perkins Cove was suddenly prime real estate; studios and fishing shacks were converted into businesses. In 1961 the Laurent School (the last summer art school) closed.

Charles Woodbury and his Ogunquit School have remained a strong and unquestioned influence on 20th century American art, and art education. A painter whose work goes in and out of fashion (Woodbury's name is only briefly mentioned in the preface of John Wilmerding's important anthology, American Marine Painting). He must surely be recognized as one of the finest marine painters of this century. In his sea paintings we see what Woodbury meant when he told his students to "paint in verbs, not in nouns." His work is never static. His message to his students: "Don't just paint it, paint it doing something." -- his emphasis on movement is present not only in his seascapes, but also in the trees, clouds, and figures he painted. In oils and watercolors, and especially in his on-the-spot sketches and his etchings, the sense of things in motion is produced through quick, sure-handed strokes that convey his mastery of the mediums. This discipline to discern and quickly to record those observations was fundamental to Woodbury's teaching, and to his art.

Woodbury hoped that through his teaching he could help establish what he called "a universal graphic language" that would make art an essential part of everyone's life. In his 1934 Summer School brochure he said, "If the few who create and the many who appreciate have a common basis of training in the value of things seen, felt and heard, the gap between life and the arts will be filled and the gain be as great to the general education as to the artist." A philosophy and a goal as desirable now as it was then.



This exhibition is made possible by generous grants from The Barn Gallery Associates; Barnacle Billy's, Inc., Ogunquit; and Fleet Bank of Maine. The OMAA is grateful for their continuing support of our annual exhibitions and programs.

From top to bottom:Charles H. Woodbury, Deco Wave (Dancing Wave),1914, oil on canvas, 27 x 27 inches, The "Ktaadn" Collection, Jay DeMartine and Michael Fredman; Edna C. Hodgkina, Gloucester Docks, c. 1935, oil on canvas, 20 x 27 inches, lent by Katherine Hodgkins Zerbe and Robert McC.Zerbe, Russell Taber Hyde, Julia Before the Curtain, 1917, oil on canvas, 26 x 22 inches, courtesy Gallery 17, Carmel by the Sea, CA; Mabel Woodward, Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice, c. 1920, oil on board, 8 x 10 inches; Charles H. Woodbury, Red Ships, Portsmouth, n.d., oil on canvas, 20 x 27 inches, The "Ktaadn" Collection, Jay DeMartine and Michael Fredman; Charles H. Woodbury, Rushing Wave, 1911, 29 x 36 inches, oil on canvas, The "Ktaadn" Collection, Jay DeMartine and Michael Fredman; Charles H. Woodbury, Fishermen, c. 1900, 12 x 16 inches, oil on canvas, lent by Henry Burr, Jr.

Read more about the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/26/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.