An artist’s return to painting in her own words
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Historic Nantucket.
Scrawled alongside a list of paintings Anne Ramsdell Congdon (1873–1958) planned to exhibit in 1925 was the declaration, “I begin my art career again!”1 This proud statement boldly encapsulates the theme of the exhibition opened in June 2021 in the Whaling Museum’s McCausland Gallery. After raising her sons and running an antiques business in Nashua, New Hampshire, the 52-year-old Congdon rediscovered her artistic voice on the sunlit wharves of the downtown harbor and the wild, windy fields of Polpis and Monomoy. Anne Ramsdell Congdon’s Nantucket Renaissance brings together approximately fifty paintings, watercolors, and drawings from her notable career, with a special focus on her second foray into art.
“I begin my art career again!”
In 2019, the Congdon family lent to the NHA diaries, sketchbooks, and various accounting records kept by Anne Congdon to be digitized and transcribed.2 Thanks to the family’s generosity, the exhibition is able to contextualize the artist’s paintings with her own words for the first time. The exhibit includes many paintings, drawings, and oil sketches that have never been displayed publicly, made possible by loans from the Congdons and other private collectors. The exhibition five thematic sections are enriched with original quotations from the artist that provide insight into her artistic process and vision. A computer screen set up in the gallery also encourages visitors to peruse Congdon’s sketchbooks and further explore her daily life on Nantucket from the 1920s through the 1940s.
The first section of the exhibition is dedicated to Congdon’s early works and training. A promising artist in her youth, she began taking art classes when she was only seven years old and continued painting at a private school in Worcester, Massachusetts.3 At 18, she travelled to Europe with a group of friends to sightsee and enhance her artistic training at the Académie Delécluse in Paris.4 Returning to the United States, she studied in Boston, Maine, and New York State with British watercolorist Rhoda Holmes Nichols and New England Impressionist Charles H. Woodbury. She paused her artistic career in 1902 when she married Dr. Charles Everett Congdon in her family’s Nashua living room.5
Although she never entirely stopped painting and crafting, Congdon spent approximately two decades focused on raising her sons, Robert Dinsmoor Congdon (1904–1989) and Allen Ramsdell Congdon (1906–1975) in New Hampshire. 6 Always locally engaged, she regularly volunteered at the Unitarian church and ran her own antiques shop in Nashua, which she closed in 1926 when she decided to pursue art in earnest.7 Her interest in antiques serves as evidence of her lifelong love of history, which appears in her later works. The business aspect of managing a shop also proved highly useful as she embarked on her second try at a professional painting career and arranged for the
shipping of her works to exhibitions and buyers across the United States.8
Anne Ramsdell Congdon made her triumphant return to art when she enrolled in July 1925 in an outdoor painting class with Frank Swift Chase, frequently hailed as the “dean of Nantucket artists.” This course re-ignited her love of painting en plein air and connected her with the productive Nantucket Art Colony, of which she quickly became an active and celebrated member.9 The paintings in this section introduce Congdon’s new, broader style and explore the ways she seamlessly reflected Nantucket’s duel nature as both a vacation spot and a fishing port by placing sail and fishing boats side-by-side in her compositions. Such themes dovetailed nicely with the island’s tourism market, which was focused on enticing visitors with the promise of a tranquil, early-American summer escape during the anxiety and chaos of the Great Depression and World War II.
When Congdon returned to painting in the later decades of her life, she brought the sharp business skills she had cultivated dealing in antiques. She paid attention to what sold well and often repeated popular motifs in her art. For instance, she called a painting of a two-masted schooner affectionately known to islanders as the Ada Sea Shell a “pot boiler,” because she knew it would sell quickly and boil the pot—pay the rent, so to speak.10
In the studio this AM—I finished rearranging a 12 x 16 of the Ada C. Shull (Ada Sea Shell) at the Island Service docks—goodness knows how long ago of one I put in discard. At least it’s a “potboiler”—everyone who comes in exclaims “wonderful.”
FEBRUARY 1946 12
Anne Ramsdell Congdon was highly creative when painting downtown scenes. Many of her sunny streets seem like they were painted en plein air, but her diaries make clear that most were actually created indoors in her studio. Looking more closely at the artworks in this section, it’s clear that she sometimes removed powerlines, made roads appear more sandy and rustic, and even included diminutive figures that seem to be dressed in rural nineteenth-century attire. While it was certainly an important part of her artistic process to rework older sketches in her studio, her diaries also record a fair number of amusing mishaps that may have deterred her from painting outside in town. Struggling on Gardner Street one morning in October 1936, for instance, she writes, “my hat blew off & and landed in a tree.”13
Weather-imposed obstacles aside, Congdon’s tendency to add imagined, anachronistic elements in her town compositions aligned with American Regionalism and American Impressionism––two artistic movements that swept across the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists who worked in these styles typically focused on rural subject matter, conjuring nostalgia for a fictionalized, idyllic past. It’s quite possible that Congdon was actually in contact with at least one American Regionalist painter. Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) traveled to Nantucket to be hosted by Nantucket patron and artist Esther Hoyt Sawyer at her house on Hulbert Avenue in the 1920s through 1940s.14 The exhibition further explores the possibility of Congdon’s connections to Regionalism with a comparison between her Lily Street and a painting of the Nantucket Naval Air Base by Sawyer who studied with Dickinson.
The next section of the exhibition is devoted to pastoral, a term that describes peaceful countryside themes in art and poetry. In the years between the two world wars, Impressionist and Regionalist painters across the United States turned to nature to find hope and solace in lush, fertile landscapes. Congdon’s pastorals similarly showcase a variety of rural views of the island’s farms and fields that probably served as tranquil antidotes to the ongoing stresses of modernization. Her diaries reveal that she was acutely aware of politics and the pressures of changing society, especially as it pertained to the growing presence of airplanes and the heartbreaking impact of World War II.15
While we were sitting in the old cemetery on a hillside—miles from a main road & in a carpet of blackberries—surrounded by old moss covered gravestones—the sound of an engine broke the absolute stillness—& looking up one saw an airplane fly so gracefully down, out, & over Gregg Pond—“The old—& the very new” we said.
SEPTEMBER 1925 16
Congdon may have also used pastoral compositions to engage with Nantucket history. Her diaries record that her husband, Charles, was very knowledgeable about island history and was often asked to speak at the Unitarian church and local gatherings for veterans.17 One notable admirer was the Detroit-based author Dr. William Oliver Stevens, who wrote and illustrated the popular 1936 book Nantucket: The Far-Away Island. After meeting Anne while working on his pencil drawings on a downtown wharf in summer 1935, Stevens proceeded to call on the Congdons on more than one occasion, “looking for Nantucket material” to enrich his book.18
The featured image of Top Gale, Quaise highlights at least one location Congdon may have selected because of its rich and storied past.19 The name Quaise comes from the Algonquin word “Uhquae” meaning “end point” and, as such, was seemingly highly favored by the seasonally mobile Native population who inhabited the island historically.20 In the seventeenth century, Englishman Thomas Mayhew noted the Indigenous appreciation for Quaise and specifically claimed it for himself when he sold his rights to the island to a group of investors, including Tristam Coffin, in 1659.21 A century later, the land was divided into farms, one of which was owned by Kezia Folger Coffin (1723– 1798), a famous and controversial island merchant of the Revolutionary period.22 Another significant event in the area’s history occurred in 1822, when the town purchased land in Quaise to establish a poor farm and asylum to help the elderly, unemployed, and mentally impaired find stable footing on island.23 This civic reform effort was short-lived. After ten Asylum inmates perished in a devastating fire in 1844, the Asylum was disbanded, and two of its buildings relocated into town.24
It’s unclear if any trace of this history of Quaise existed when Congdon was painting Top Gale in the 1930s and 1940s. It seems likely she was aware, at least partially, of the legacy of the location. Her 1927 diary records that she visited the historic Miriam Coffin Tea House, which operated on the site of Kezia Coffin’s old Quaise farmhouse.25 Named for the protagonist of an 1835 novel by Joseph C. Hart based on Coffin, the Polpis tea house was an out-of-town gathering spot for tourists in the 1930s, serving maple syrup that was cheekily advertised as smuggled.26
Congdon’s inclusion of the lone Quaise farmhouse perched high on the horizon line in her Top Gale, Quaise makes it tempting to ponder whether the land’s history inspired her popular pastoral. Maybe she was alluding to an imagined version of Thomas Mayhew’s last colonial hold, Kezia Coffin’s Revolutionary War-era farmhouse, or perhaps even a trace of the failed nineteenth-century Asylum when conceptualizing the composition. It’s difficult to prove any of these interpretations, but the wild, colorful landscape and ondescript farmhouses make Top Gale, Quaise and many of her other pastorals ripe for a variety of nostalgic interpretations.
Alice [daughter-in-law] helped me—with my paintings for the “Encore” this morning—nailing most of them into Frames. The stubborn one has to wait for Bob.
Oil Sketches and Small Works
The final section of the exhibition focuses on Congdon’s artistic process. Previous publications proposed that she exclusively painted outdoors, but her diaries record that she typically only created small-scale works en plein air. The collection of sketches done in pencil and oils included in the exhibition are some of her most expressive and enthusiastic works. She often had her husband, sons, and friends drive her around Nantucket in search of compositions––“ cruising around looking for motifs” as she happily wrote in October 1928.
Congdon painted outside briskly and with passion, exploring light and color effects in a range of landscapes and seasons. The oil sketch of Sankaty included in this section, generously lent by Dick and Mimi Congdon, is similar to a larger composition from 1936, lent by Pete Steingraber, also in the show. Although both feature her signature vibrant impasto, the brushstrokes in the oil sketch are more loose and energetic. A quote from her 1947 diary details that she returned more than once to this Sankaty scene, a motif that brought back memories of driving to ’Sconset with her friend Annie Alden.27
After moving to Nantucket in 1930, Congdon’s painting routine settled into a seasonal rhythm. She painted outside as long as the weather allowed, but by late November and December, she was working indoors. January and February were typically her most productive months for creating larger paintings; she chose which outdoor oil sketches she wanted to transform into bigger compositions and “rearranged” and “revamped” them in the attic studio at her home on Orange Street. She returned to painting outside on warm days in the spring, but also prepared her winter works for the summer exhibition season. She searched for old frames at the Hospital Thrift Shop and enlisted her husband, sons, and daughters-in-law to help her refit and gild the frames and transport her finished works to shops and exhibitions during the summer.28 From approximately June to September, she went back to painting small works outside, but also took time off from art to run the book room at the Hospital Thrift Shop and bask in the summer season with her friends and family.
Anne Ramsdell Congdon both restarted and transformed her artistic career on Nantucket. This was no small feat for a doctor’s wife in her fifties, but, as her diaries demonstrate, she was more than up for the task. She was relentless in her drive to paint every day and eager to broaden and improve her technique. She also painted all over Nantucket, seeking out compelling motifs and successful “pot boilers” that continue to be attractive to Nantucket tourists and collectors. Her professional painting career was also immeasurably aided by the support of her family and the many friends she made in the Nantucket Art Colony.
Anne Ramsdell Congdon’s Nantucket Renaissance would not be possible without the support of the Congdon family, who preserved her sketches and diaries and have now generously made them available to the NHA for study and display. The opportunity to read her words and gain a sense of her lively personality while considering her paintings has provided invaluable insight into how Anne Ramsdell Congdon became one of Nantucket’s most successful and celebrated artists. Although she ultimately wrote that she wasn’t pleased with how her art was hung in the seminal Encore exhibition at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries in 1946—a show for Nantucket artists of “national importance” that is usually framed as the capstone of her rejuvenated career—we hope that the exhibition displays her bold and beloved paintings in a way she would have approved of, lit and contextualized to their fullest potential.
In the studio this A.M.—working on an Autumn canvas—my “motif” an old oil sketch. I did one after many years ago when Annie Alden—dropped me off on the moors—looking toward Sankaty—on our way to our cottage at ’Sconset.
1 Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, “Memorandum,” vol. 3: Item MS563 DO-MS563/3 [Daybook, 1925–1928].
2 See Collection MS563, Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, 1884–1948, on the Nantucket
Historical Association website. https://nha.org/research/the-collections/finding-aid/guide-to-the-anne-ramsdell-congdon-papers-1884-1948/
3 Biographical information comes from Margaret Moore Booker, “Anne Ramsdell Congdon (1873–1958)” in Picturing Nantucket: An Art History of the Island with Paintings from the Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association (Nantucket, Mass.: Nantucket Historical Association, 2000), 87–91.
4 Her European travels are outlined in Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 1: Item MS563 DO-MS563 [Daybook, 1891].
5 For a summary of her first meeting with her husband at an army campground in New Hampshire, see “Winter Club’s Memorial Meeting to Dr. Charles Congdon” in The Inquirer and Mirror, December 9, 1944.
6 Her name can be found on the 1909–10 registry for the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston. Booker, “Anne Ramsdell Congdon,” fn2.
7 “I’m giving up the antiques business.” Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, May 14,
1926, vol. 3.
8 Among the Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers are two accounting books: volume
14, Item MS563 DO-MS563/14 [1925-1926]; and volume 15, Item MS563 DO-MS563/15 [1925-1929].
9 For more information see The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920–45, a collaborative exhibition presented by the Nantucket Historical Association and the Artists Association of Nantucket. On view at the Whaling Museum, June–November 2007 and now available online.
10 February 28, 1946, in Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 10, Item MS563 DO-MS563/10 [Daybook 1946]
11 Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 3, July 22, 1925, Item MS563. DO-MS563/3 [Daybook, 1925–1928].
12 Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 10, February, 1946, Item MS563. DO-MS563/10 [Daybook, 1946].
13 October 30, 1936, in Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 5, Item MS563 DO-MS563/5 [Daybook 1934–1937].
14 Esther Hoyt Sawyer (1890–1971) was a member of the “‘45 Group” of Nantucket modern artists and arranged an important exhibition of Dickinson’s work at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries in July 1949.
15 Congdon essentially stopped painting the summer of 1942 in favor of volunteering for the Red Cross and British War Relief Society. Her friends’ son, Harry Gorman, was also reported MIA from the navy in April. See Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 8, Item MS563 DO-MS563/8 [Daybook 1942].
16 “Memoranda,” Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 3.
17 Charles Congdon was a veteran of the Spanish–American War and World War I.
18 Congdon writes: “Dr. Stevens came in this morning as I painted on the sun porch.—Talked with me about a many matters. He is writing a history of Nant. & illustrating it by his pencil sketches.” November 6, 1935, vol. 5. The quote in the essay is from December 30, 1935, in the same volume.
19 For an overview of the history of Quaise see Betsy Tyler, “8 Quaise Pastures Road: A House History,” published by the Nantucket Preservation Trust in 2015 and available online at https://issuu.com/npt.com/docs/8_quaise_comprehensive
20 In 1916, a Wampanoag burial site was discovered in Quaise. Recovered materials included a few clay pots and the remains of a human skeleton with a dog, “buried at the feet of its master.” Proceedings of the Nantucket Historical Association (1916), 53.
21 For more about Nantucket’s indigenous and colonial history, see the works of Nathaniel Philbrick: Abram’s Eyes (Nantucket: Mill Hill Press, 1998) and Away Off Shore (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).
22 Tyler, “8 Quaise Pastures,” 6. For more on Kezia and her exploits during the American Revolution: Eduoard Stockpole, Smuggler’s Luck (New York: William Morrow & Co, 1931 [reprint: Mill Hill Press, 2005] and Lisa Norling, Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720–1870 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000), 42.
23 Alison M. Gavin, “The Asylum at Quaise: Nantucket’s Antebellum Poor Farm,”
Historic Nantucket vol. 52, no. 4 (Fall 2003).
24 One Asylum building was moved to 144 Orange Street, where it was renamed “Our Island Home” in 1905 before becoming Landmark House in 1986. Another was used as the House of Corrections adjacent to the Old Gaol on Vestal Street until it was declared a fire hazard and torn down in 1952.
25 Congdon writes: “All went & had at Miss Hollister’s tea room at Polpis this P.M.” October 7, 1927, Vol. 3. The Hollister family owned the rebuilt Kezia Coffin farmhouse from 1912–1927 and the subsequent owner, Josephine Wherry, opened the “Miriam Coffin Tea House” to summer visitors circa 1930. Tyler, “8 Quaise Pastures,” 14.
26 Joseph C. Hart, Miriam Coffin, or The Whale-Fisherman. A Tale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835). Hart’s work was a major influence for Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick. A 1931 advertisement for the Miriam Coffin T. House appears in Tyler, “8 Quaise Pastures,” 15.
27 Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 11, January 21, 1947, Item MS563 DO-MS563/11 [Daybook, 1947].
28 See entries from May 1936 and 1937 in the Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 5.
29 Her involvement and opinions about the Encore show at the Kenneth Taylor Gallery appears in the July and August entries of the Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 10.
30 Anne Ramsdell Congdon Papers, vol. 11, January 21, 1947, Item MS563 DO-S563/11 [Daybook, 1947].