Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan

Gertrude Monaghan (1887–1962) and Hanna Monaghan (1889-1972)

These two intrepid and eccentric sisters, descendants of a long line of staunch Pennsylvania Quakers, resolved at an early age to devote their lives to the arts. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and affiliated their whole lives with the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, the sisters experienced an early conversion akin to a religious awakening, as Hanna recalls in her spiritual autobiography, Greater Light on Nantucket: “Something happened in this Quaker household. A virus struck under the pseudonym of ART. How it entered this sanctuary and hit two who came from a long line of Quaker martyrs cannot be explained. Thereafter these two victims live for nothing but art.”

The Monaghan sisters discovered Nantucket in the early 1920s, after completing an impressive and varied art education that included attendance at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, traveling fellowships, and residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough,New Hampshire. At the behest of their friend, the illustrator and muralist Violet Oakley (1874–1961), they journeyed to Nantucket, and were among the first tenants of Florence Lang’s waterfront studios (first Sail Loft on Commercial Wharf, and later Barnsite at the foot of Main Street). In addition to exhibiting at the Candle House Studio, they showed regularly at the Easy Street Gallery and became staunch members of the Art Colony.

Interior of Greater Light from an inside balcony.
Interior of Greater Light from an inside balcony.

After living in studio apartments for several summers, the Monaghans turned their eyes upon a decrepit eighteenth-century cow and pig barn on Howard Street owned by the Main Street grocer William Holland. Under the suspicious eyes of neighbors, they proceeded to convert the falling-down structure into Greater Light, a summer residence and temple to the arts, decorated with a motley collection of architectural fragments, decorative embellishments, and—their masterstroke—a beautiful garden, at once inviting and enclosed, centered around a balcony and patio that were the setting for dramatic performances, readings, musical recitals—in short, anything that furthered the spirit of the arts. Hannah describes a typical afternoon: “I see Gertrude with me on our patio in a warm summer afternoon. She is drawing with a few deft strokes our greyhound curled up in the sun on the soft green turf.”

Portrait of Gertrude Monaghan holding an artist's palette.
Portrait of Gertrude Monaghan holding an artist’s palette. P16956

Hanna Monaghan poses in harem pants
Hanna Monaghan poses in harem pants PH37-n60

Many of Gertrude’s paintings (she was drawn primarily to visual art, while Hanna’s talents led her to focus on writing and acting) were undertaken on trips abroad and feature scenes from Morocco, Portugal, and Spain. Her Nantucket work consists primarily of drawings and sketches, especially of interior details of Greater Light. In addition to being regular supporters of and exhibitors at the Easy Street Gallery, the Monaghans also participated in most major public art events, such as the Nantucket Civic League’s craft shows, and also offered up Greater Light for exhibitions and gatherings, hosting an exhibition of the works of their friend R. Howard James in 1937. It has been said of Greater Light that it itself was a work of art. The same might be said of these two devotees of the arts, whose greatest achievement may have been to “live artistically” in every aspect of their lives.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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