The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920-45 was a collaborative exhibition presented by the Nantucket Historical Association and the Artists Association of Nantucket at the Whaling Museum, June–November, 2007.
The Nantucket Art Colony came to life in the heart of maritime Nantucket – among the shacks, shanties, boathouses, and other old buildings that were the relics of the island’s long-vanished whaling past.
The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920-45
Beginning in the early 1920s, Florence Lang converted many of these wharf shacks into studio spaces available for rent to artists in the summer months: Harborview, Wateredge, the Scallop, the Barnacle, Sailloft, Barnsite, and more. Frank Swift Chase, the painter and teacher who would become the “dean of Nantucket artists,” arrived in 1920. In 1924, Lang opened the Easy Street Gallery, converting an old cooper’s shop into the island’s first modern art gallery. Soon a group of artists, known as the “waterfront artists,” arrived to study with Chase, to occupy the wharf studios, and to exhibit their work in August at the Easy Street Gallery- the Nantucket Art Colony was born. With the “esprit de corps” of the waterfront painters, and the influx of many talented visiting artists, the Art Colony flourished for the next two decades, bringing about a rebirth of the waterfront and a transformation at the heart of the island’s identity from a whaling port dependent on the sea to a haven and harbor for the arts.
The exhibition opened on May 26, 2007, and will remain on display through November 12, 2007, in the Peter Foulger Gallery, Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street.
The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920-45 is a collaborative exhibition presented by the Nantucket Historical Association and the Artists Association of Nantucket, made possible with the generous support of the Nantucket Art Colony Honor Committee, and created with the assistance of many.
Before the Art Colony: 1870−1910s
In the 1870s, as the nation began to recover from the psychic wounds inflicted by the Civil War, Nantucket was slowly reinventing itself as a holiday destination. Much of the island’s appeal, in addition to its natural beauty and beaches, lay in the perception of it as a kind of living museum of the quaintness and charm of “old times”− of the simpler, preindustrial way of life that the war had destroyed. On Nantucket, this rustic charm was largely the effect of the demise of the great whaling era and the resulting islandwide depression that left much of the town, and the wharves in particular, wrapped in a ghostly aura of dereliction and decay.
Such a setting provided an ideal opportunity for postwar artists, who discovered in Nantucket a gallery of old seafaring characters, dilapidated houses and barns, shoreline wrecks, and a general atmosphere of the simplicity and faded glory of the past. Already a nationally known artist, Eastman Johnson purchased a home on Nantucket in the early 1870s and began to paint many of his masterworks, including The Old Stage Coach and The Cranberry Harvest − Island of Nantucket, using Nantucket settings and subjects. These works attracted national attention, and inspired an ever-increasing flow of artists to visit the unique gemlike island thirty miles at sea.
Many artists with Nantucket roots, including native genius James Walter Folger and Nantucket-descended Wendell Macy and William Ferdinand Macy, created impressive genre scenes capturing the spirit of the place. Most of those early artists were men, but as opportunities arose for women to receive formal artistic training in important centers of American art instruction such as the Art Students League in New York City, more and more women artists joined the pilgrimage. Some of them, like Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, had Nantucket parentage; others, like Virginia Guild Sharp, married into Nantucket families; still others, like Annie Barker Folger, were born on the island. They all shared a fascination with the island’s physical beauty, its relics of the past, and the overall way of life that made Nantucket in the postwar era an ideal subject of their paintings.
The Vision of an Art Colony
The step from a loose group of like-minded artists and friends working on Nantucket in the 1900s and 1910s to a self-conscious and self-styled “Art Colony” was made by one remarkable individual: Florence Lang, an amateur painter and patron of the arts from Montclair, New Jersey, and a Nantucket summer resident. In the late 1910s, Lang turned her eye upon the loose collection of old wharves that made up the Nantucket waterfront—the shacks, shanties, and boathouses from the island’s long-vanished whaling and fishing heyday, now idly soaking in the sea air. Out of those ghostly remains, Lang’s vision of a future Art Colony was born.
Beginning in 1917 with the purchase of South Wharf, Florence and her husband, Henry, bought large tracts of land along Washington Street Extension and South Beach, as well as portions of Commercial (Swain’s) Wharf and Easy Street. They converted the shacks that populated the wharf properties into modest but workable studios and offered them for rent in the summer months for reasonable rates, in the range of fifty to seventy dollars. Lang’s plan was to create a casual atmosphere that would allow visiting artists to experiment, share studio space, socialize, discuss their art, and embark on field trips to distant sketching spots.
In addition to the necessary studio spaces, Florence Lang also created Nantucket’s first art galleries, in the modern sense. In the early 1920s, she purchased a former spermaceti candlehouse at the foot of Commercial Wharf and turned the structure into the island’s first gallery—the Candle House Studio. Exhibitions at the Candle House included regular solo and group shows during the height of the summer. Many of Lang’s resident artists, known as the “waterfront artists,” exhibited here in the 1920s and beyond. With the success of the Candle House, another outworn structure caught Florence Lang’s eye: an old cooper’s shop that had been used as “Hayden’s Saltwater Bathhouse,” located near the Yacht Club. Lang purchased the building, moved it to Easy Street, and opened its doors in 1924 as the Easy Street Gallery, which immediately became the premier venue for the Nantucket Art Colony and continued to serve as its hub into the 1940s. Lang’s visionary developments set the stage for the future of the arts on the island, and created the necessary conditions for the emergence of Nantucket as an Art Colony.
The Art Colony Wharf Studios
When Henry and Florence Lang purchased South Wharf and portions of Commercial Wharf, the future direction of the waterfront lay in their hands. On South Wharf (Island Service Wharf ), they founded the Island Service Company, supplying gasoline, coal, ice, and other essentials from a large warehouse at the end of the wharf. The wharf, warehouse, and the company vessel named Nantisco (for Nantucket Island Service Company) would be captured in many a canvas by the artists of the colony.
Florence Lang’s vision for the transformation of cottages on Commercial Wharf and other scattered spots along the waterfront from old shacks to artist studios was pivotal for the Art Colony. Her renovated wharf studios were minimally equipped, with cots, soapstone sinks, and shared toilets and showers. Each cottage possessed a charming nickname, such as Wateredge (the longtime studio of Elizabeth Saltonstall), Harborview, the Scallop, the Barnacle, Sailloft, and Barnsite. With rents as low as fifty to seventy dollars per season, as the Boston Herald gasped, it was easy to “realize why Nantucket artists are still rubbing their eyes and wondering if it’s really true!”
Although many artists also lived away from the water, the true heart of the Art Colony was to be found among the “waterfront artists,” who developed a magical camaraderie and “esprit de corps,” and later played crucial roles in the future of arts organizations on Nantucket, including the Kenneth Taylor Galleries and the Artists Association of Nantucket. In the early 1940s, one of this corps, Ruth Haviland Sutton, purchased the Commercial Wharf property from the Langs and carried on the practice of renting studio space to artists. Island Service Wharf continued to operate until its sale to Sherburne Associates in 1964.With the Langs’ help, Nantucket’s whaling wharves launched a generation of Nantucket artists, who brought about a rebirth of the waterfront and a transformation at the heart of the island’s identity from an economic hub dependent on the sea to a haven and harbor for the arts.
The Easy Street Gallery (1924-1943)
Located on the gentle curve of Easy Street between Steamboat Wharf and Old North Wharf where the Nantucket Railroad once ran, overlooking the Easy Street Basin, the legendary Easy Street Gallery dominated the art scene on Nantucket for nearly twenty years during the height of the early Art Colony. From its first season in 1924 until just before the formation of the Kenneth Taylor Galleries and the Artists Association of Nantucket in 1945, the Easy Street Gallery hosted annual exhibitions featuring the work of major, and minor, Art Colony artists, alongside works of visiting and itinerant painters.
The inspiration for the Easy Street Gallery came once more from Florence Lang, who, according to one critic, “made a study of the Art Colony at Provincetown.” When the Langs opened the gallery’s doors in 1924, the Inquirer and Mirror reported: “So beautifully has it been transformed into a really fine picture gallery…sky-lighted with a charming little mezzanine gallery overlooking the main one, it becomes a fine institution dedicated to the cause of Art.”
Exhibitions at the Easy Street Gallery were genteel affairs—only tea was served—in sharp contrast to the gallery scene that developed after the war, and to the more politicized air of some contemporary colonies. Shows at the Easy Street Gallery ran typically for the month of August, with exhibition rosters that included all of the major figures of the period: Frank Swift Chase and his remarkable corps of students—among them Anne Ramsdell Congdon, Ruth Haviland Sutton, Emily Hoffmeier, Elizabeth Saltonstall, Isabelle Tuttle, Gertrude Monaghan, and Harriet Lord–and other significant talents including Tony Sarg, Walter Gilman Page, Inna Garsoian, Henry S. Eddy, and Edgar Jenney. Prominent visiting artists such as Richard Hayley Lever and Volney A. Richardson also showed frequently. Hundreds of artists exhibited their work on the gallery’s walls in its twenty-year existence. The Easy Street Gallery represented the heart of the Art Colony at its peak.
The Sidewalk Art Show
Founded in 1930 by society illustrator and painter Maud Stumm (ca. 1870-1935), the Sidewalk Art Show was an outdoor exhibition mounted every August for several days, originally along the walls of the Atheneum, but later on the Sanford building at Broad and Federal streets. Open to all artists, amateur or professional, the show attracted hundreds of visitors to admire and peruse the often freshly painted works by island artists. It featured the work of as many as fifty artists at a time, with up to three hundred works on display.
The Sidewalk Art Show was a phenomenal success. The Inquirer and Mirror credited it with being the first of its kind in the nation, and called Nantucket “the cradle of the movement which has brought art … to the ‘man on the street.’” In its first year, some three hundred people visited the exhibition, which included works by more than twenty painters. The Inquirer and Mirror reviewer wrote: “The wide shady walk by the library was an ideal place to examine and discuss Art and the beauty of Nantucket, which was the principal subject of the oil, water-color, black and white studies displayed. Little children, tourists, sailors, townspeople came again and again, eagerly examining the varied aspects of the Island, and deciding which was truest to life.”
Emily Hoffmeier took over the direction of the Sidewalk Art Show after Stumm’s death in 1935, and continued the tradition at the Sanford building for many years. The Sidewalk Art Show became a regular offering of the Artists Association of Nantucket, a popular feature of the art landscape on Nantucket into the 1980s.
Exhibition Sponsors and Credits
The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920-45 is a collaborative exhibition presented by the Nantucket Historical Association and the Artists Association of Nantucket.
This exhibition was made possible with the generous support of the Nantucket Art Colony Honor Committee:
John W. Brewer
Bob & Judy Brust
Laura & Bill Buck
Laurie & Bob Champion
Meredith & Eugene Clapp
Richard & Amanda Congdon
Mr. & Mrs. Earl M. Craig Jr.
Raymond I. Dawson Jr.
Kathryn & Jim Ketelsen
Arthur & Sara Jo Kobacker
Peter & Bonnie McCausland
Kathryn & Roger Penske
Ellen & David Ross
Bonnie & Peter Sacerdote
G. West & Victoria G. Saltonstall
David & Barbara Spitler
Genevieve & Richard Tucker
Marilyn J. Whitney
Stephanie & Jay Wilson
Mr. & Mrs. Robert Young
Mr. & Mrs. Richard Congdon
We would also like to thank the following for their invaluable loans of artwork and assistance in exhibit preparation:
Jeff Allen Photography
Max and Heidi Berry
Meredith and Eugene Clapp
Mr. & Mrs. Richard Congdon and Family
Nina and Bob Hellman
George S. Heyer Jr.
René and Erma LaPierre
Luce Group, Inc.
Peter & Sally Nash
Grace Tuttle Noyes
G. West Saltonstall
Endicott P. Saltonstall
Barbara Beinecke Spitler
Eva-Maria and Hans Tausig
Curated by Ben Simons, Robyn and John Davis Curator of Collections
Photography: Jeff Allen Photography
Copy Editor: Elizabeth Oldham
Research Support: Susan DuPree