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100 Years of Art in Provincetown

Above the glistening waters that stroke the shores of Provincetown, Massachusetts, is a brilliant sun. Reflecting off the waters surrounding this peninsula community, this sun is seemingly brighter than anywhere in the world. Artist Charles Hawthorne blossomed under this warm sun, spreading seeds of his talent across the community to grow and command attention today, one hundred years later.

Planting The Seeds

Charles Webster Hawthorne was born in Lodi, Illinois, in 1872, while his mother was on an extended visit with family, and raised in the town of Richmond on the coast of Maine. Money was scarce for the Hawthorne family and as a boy Charles was required to work long hours cutting ice. A diligent worker and a popular young man, he offered little evidence of pronounced artistic talent.

In 1890 Hawthorne relocated to New York City and enrolled in evening classes at the Art Student League under the guidance of Frank Vincent du Mond. With a work ethic not unlike that of the fisherman he would depict in his later masterpieces, Hawthorne, at the age of eighteen, labored in a stained glass factory during the day to generate an income.

In 1896 Hawthorne left New York City to study with renowned artist William Merritt Chase at the Shinnecock Summer School on Long Island. He returned the following summer to assume the role of Chase’s assistants. Also, during this period Hawthorne met Ethel Marion Campbell, the classmate he would eventually marry. With Chase’s abrupt and unexpected discontinuation of his school early in 1898 Hawthorne’s period of formal training ended.

Summer schools had already achieved great popularity in Europe at the turn of the century and American artists were beginning to embrace this movement. In 1899 Hawthorne found that the atmosphere, affordable accommodations, and, in particular, the quality of light, made Provincetown the perfect place in which to start a summer art school.

The Cape Cod School of Art flourished. Hawthorne’s power as a teacher captivated his students, his peers and the broader community. In the early decades of this century his name became virtually synonymous with the thriving art colony of Provincetown. With one hundred years of perspective one can easily recognize Hawthorne as the cornerstone of a creative haven that continues to support contemporary artists.

Hawthorne advocated painting outdoors - the plein air approach. Nature was his classroom and he immersed his students into the true beauty he revered. He recognized the challenge that capturing a light intensified by the blazing sun posed to his students.

Hawthorne emphasized color over drawing. “Don’t...bother about the object,” he would say, “but make spots of color against each other in relation. Color makes the form - Manet did it with spots of color, spots...together telling as one.” The innovative Techniques he practiced, such as applying paint with a putty knife rather than a brush, further reinforced his methodology.

Hawthorne had a strongly independent spirit and emotional sensibility; his students not only learned necessary techniques but the attitude required to escalate a picture to the status of a captured reality and vision. On Saturdays Hawthorne would critique the students’ paintings in sessions that lasted for hours. His lessons in Impressionism created canvases not unlike a ballroom filled with brilliant color, enhanced by a unique light, where alizarin rests lightly on the shoulder of vermilion and they move together with vitality. Hawthorne taught his students to administer their palette with conviction and challenged them to create what they observed rather than what they knew.

Twenty-eight students were enrolled when he established the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. By 1915, this number had increased to ninety. In 1928 he was charging fifty dollars for his summer session and offset his fee by providing a number of scholarships. Charles Hawthorne, the teacher, the artist, and the man attracted not only dedicated students but also fellow artists to share in the natural splendor he had come to profit from on so many levels.

Hawthorne’s impact on the community was obvious. Often as many as one hundred spectators would gather to view Hawthorne’s plein air classes, held either on one of the long wharves or down by the seaside. His weekly “performances” at the easel were rapidly executed; the painted image would emerge as the product of spontaneous observations. His audience relished not only the beauty of his work, but also the charm of his character. With the exception of two summers abroad, Hawthorne remained in Provincetown to teach and to create until his death in 1930.

Charles Hawthorne created a legacy that has lived well beyond his years. He simplified his surroundings to their most basic compositional relationship, that of color to light. More importantly, he was able to share this unique vision with hundreds of students and scores of spectators. In the words of Charles Hawthorne: “What people subconsciously are interested in is the expression of beauty, something that helps them through the humdrum day, something that shocks them out of themselves and something that makes them believe in the beauty and the glory of human existence. The painter will never achieve this by merely painting pictures. The only way he can appeal to humanity is in the guise of the high priest. He must show people more - more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in.”

The history of the Provincetown Art Colony is not unlike an Impressionist painting. Hawthorne’s school was merely the first brushstroke in a masterpiece comprised of many other brilliant “spots of color.” Hundreds of artists have contributed to the legacy that is Provincetown.

Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art was the first of many that contributed to Provincetown’s growth as an art colony. E. Ambrose Webster’s Summer School of Painting and George Elmer Browne’s West End School of Art both began shortly thereafter. They too advocated Impressionism, a style of painting that had been accepted in academic circles by 1900. Impressionism however, was not the definitive “Provincetown” style of painting. As other movements began to take hold in the art world, Provincetown artists were on the cutting edge of change. Their canvases frequently defined what it meant to be a Realist, an Expressionist, or an Abstractionist painter.

The broad spectrum of Provincetown talent became readily apparent after the notorious New York Armory Show of 1913. Here, like a sudden stormfront, the “conservative” and “modern” styles clashed, clouding over what American artists traditionally accepted as scholarly art. Representing Provincetown, Oliver Chaffee, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Abraham Walkowitz, Marguerite and William Zorach exhibited canvases and asserted the role of “modern” art on American soil.

The Provincetown Art Association, established on August 22, 1914, was born of a conscientious effort to build a permanent collection of paintings by local artists. By 1917 the original membership of 147 had grown to 288. Inadvertently, the Art Association also emerged as the local stage on which the controversy between the “moderns” and the “conservatives” played itself out.

The “conservatives,” artists in the traditional mode, worked directly from nature and shared a common philosophy of art. Included among them were Hawthorne, William Paxton, Richard Miller, G.E. Browne and Max Bohm. The “modernists,” heavily influenced by the Armory show and current trends in Europe, were looser in their approach; their subject matter came from the imagination and led to new uses of color and subject matter rendered in a freer composition. These two groups had what Ross Moffett and Tod Lindenmuth described as “a different opinion as to what forms of painting are most likely to manifest genuine artistic merit.” In 1927 the “modernist” petitioned the trustees of the Art Association for a separate “modern” show; the Association complied and that year mounted a “modern” show in July, followed by the “regular” show in August. This pattern repeated itself each year until 1937, when the “modernists” were allowed into the fold.

Artists were also flocking to Provincetown during this period to escape the devastating effects of World War I. Finely crafted and aesthetically pleasing, the “Provincetown” print debuted in the wake of this confusion. Invented by American painter B.J.O Nordfeldt, the “Provincetown,” or white-line, woodblock print is the only American printmaking innovation, influencing both the process and the product. The print’s simple quality, candid colors, fine lines, and select forms harmonize, providing a visually stimulating image. Each print pulled from the block expresses the inner spirit of the individual artist. Norfeldt’s work influenced many printmakers and artists working in Provincetown at the time. Prints created by Blanche Lazzell, Edna Boies Hopkins, Ada Gilmore, Oliver Chaffee, Agnes Weinrich, and Ethel Mars typify the qualities associated with this medium.

The growth of discontent between “modernist” and “conservative” agendas continued into the twenties. Ross Moffett and Heinrich Pfeiffer began a new school in 1924. Their Provincetown Painting Classes had a definite “modernist” bent. The engines of modernism would continue to gain momentum well into the thirties, propelled by creative minds such as that of Karl Knaths, Jack Tworkov, Tod Lindenmuth, Agnes Weinrich, Blanche Lazzell, Edwin Dickinson, Charles Demuth, and William and Lucy L’Engle. Perhaps amazing to believe, this list is by no means exhaustive.

After Hawthorne’s death in 1930, his student Henry Hensche took over the helm at the Cape Cod School of Art. Changing only the name to the Cape School of Art, he maintained Hawthorne’s teaching procedures and theories. For fifty-five years Hensche’s teachings guaranteed life for Hawthorne’s practice of plein air demonstration and weekly critiques. The school continues under the auspices of Lois Griffel, one of Hensche’s students. Here, Griffel follows the teachings of Hawthorne and Hensche: dedication to light, color and painting outdoors.

Hans Hofmann, perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of American Art, established his school in Provincetown in 1935. Much like Hawthorne’s outdoor classes, Hofmann’s sessions were also attended by overflowing crowds. Hofmann encouraged students new to abstraction to learn from nature and to embrace their creativity, and then unleash it upon the blank canvas before them. Interestingly, Hofmann’s lessons seem to echo those of Hawthorne a generation before.

So many artists with national reputations have worked in Provincetown. Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko enhance a list that seems too good to be true. The Provincetown International Art Institute, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the Fine Arts Work Center, the Cape Cod School of Art, the Heritage Museum, a number of successful art galleries, and many other existing institutions continue to provide for artists and people interested in the arts, today.

The seeds Hawthorne sowed one hundred years ago have flowered into a beautiful garden filled with unique and rare breeds, dazzling in color, wild and wondrous to behold. Walk the streets of Provincetown and experience this proverbial garden, but do wear a wide-brimmed hat. As with so many artistic treasures to behold, one may easily become blinded by the light.

[Melissa Noel Wertman and Julie Heller, Provincetown Pocket Book]

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