Beacon for art on Cape

Two shows hail historic Provincetown colony

‘‘Girl With Parasol’’ by Charles W. Hawthorne, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, in Connecticut. ‘‘Girl With Parasol’’ by Charles W. Hawthorne, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, in Connecticut.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2011

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NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - For decades, artists have visited Provincetown to take advantage of the magnificent light and extraordinary community there. The light is generous, thrown down by the sun and tossed up by dunes and water.

“The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011)’’ at the New Britain Museum of American Art delves thoroughly into Provincetown’s rich history as an art colony. It follows the June publication of Deborah Forman’s two-volume history, “Perspectives on the Provincetown Art Colony.’’ A corollary show at the Cape Cod Museum of Art piggybacks on Forman’s book and borrows its title.

“Tides’’ curator Alexander Noelle has organized an exhibit rich with context. Some of the greatest painting talent of the 20th century funneled into the little seaside town every summer. The impressive list - Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb - is supplemented by shorter stays from artists such as Willem de Kooning, Charles Demuth, and Edward Hopper, all of whom have works here. The Provincetown art scene became a microcosm of the fractious, fertile path of American art history in the 20th century, and “Tides’’ maps that path better than any exhibit I have yet seen.

“Tides’’ begins with the arrival in Provincetown in 1899 of Charles W. Hawthorne, a painter who had studied with American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, and had examined the work of Dutch Old Masters. His paintings and his pedagogy combined elements of both. He made somber, delicate portraits in dark tones of the locals. “The Fisher Boy’’ (1908) and “The Fishwife’’ (1925) capture the earnest features of people at work, pale against brooding backgrounds. As you might imagine, Hawthorne developed a notable talent for painting fish.

But he also savored brilliant tones, broad gestures, and contrasts of color. Hawthorne taught gaggles of painters, mostly women, out on the beach and on the pier. He urged them to work quickly, painting what he called “mudheads,’’ bright figures with shadowed faces. One of his own mudheads, “Girl With Parasol’’ (circa 1920) is a fleet, breezy composition of forms shaped entirely by their sunny hues.

While Hawthorne reigned, peripatetic painters such as Childe Hassam and Demuth dallied in Provincetown. Demuth’s “Landscape #4’’ (1914) is a wild, Fauvist-inspired image of dunes splashed with lurid colors: purples and strawberries and livid blues. Here’s where we begin to see modernism sneaking toward the colony.

Two great artists of their time, Ross Moffett and Blanche Lazell, were Provincetown mainstays. Moffett’s “Prison Riot’’ and Lazell’s “Shell,’’ both painted in 1930, unceremoniously kick the viewer out of the fiction of representation squarely into the fracturing world of modernism. The Provincetown Art Association had split in 1927, when the modernists led by Moffett complained they were not properly represented in the annual show. The association’s solution was to stage two shows, one more traditional, the other for modernists.

Moffett strove to integrate the figure into modernist scenes. “Prison Riot’’ depicts an epic, sinuous pileup of men wrestling in the center of a prison yard, boxy and jagged with planes and angles. Lazell’s “Shell’’ is a remarkable piece, a Cubist still life rotating asymmetrically around a central flower and shell, with patterns referencing a domestic interior among the shards of planes that keep the eye roving restlessly.

Hofmann, whose teaching helped spawn the abstract expressionist movement, opened his school in Provincetown in 1935, in the same barn on Miller Hill Road where Hawthorne had taught. He had a garish, Fauvist taste for color, and he taught a “push-pull’’ approach that, like cubism, favored tension among volumes and forms. You can see it in his tilt-a-whirl canvas “Push and Pull III’’ (1950) in which layered shards in yellow, fuchsia, and blue lean and tug across the picture plane, exaggerated by diagrammatic pen marks.

His students, such as George McNeil and Lee Krasner, helped stage the freefall into abstract expressionism that followed. A remarkable charcoal “Study’’ (1939) by Krasner exemplifies Hofmann’s approach to teaching - build out of abstract forms, constantly revising - and Krasner’s sharp talent.

Hofmann stopped teaching in 1958 to be a full-time artist. The next year, Tirca Cohen opened a satellite to her New York Tirca Karlis Gallery in Provincetown, and showed artists such as Avery and Gottlieb. Avery’s moodily luminous woodblock print “Night’’ (1953) and his 1947 painting of his daughter, “March on the Beach’’ underline the artist’s pared-down focus on simple form and eye-smacking color juxtapositions.

In the 1960s and 1970s, other artists were putting down roots. The Fine Arts Work Center opened in 1968, offering residencies. Long Point Gallery, a cooperative space, opened in 1977. Motherwell helped spearhead both. Tirca Karlis and Long Point are long gone, but other distinguished galleries have opened in their stead, and FAWC remains a force.

“Perspectives on the Provincetown Art Colony,’’ hung in a dense, salon style in Dennis, covers the same cast of characters. It’s in roughly chronological order, but compared with “Tides,’’ it is slapdash - although with several gems to see. Henry Hensche followed Hawthorne as a teacher of representational art, and his “Portrait of Christopher Hyland’’ (1968), an impressionist canvas in limey tones, with the sun full on Hyland’s red hair and white tux, has a masterful frisson. Hofmann acolyte Paul Resika grew to apply his lessons about form and color to serene, atmospheric seascapes buzzing with warm tones, such as “Provincetown Lights,’’ (1994) here, and “Fanfare’’ (1989) in New Britain.

In the late 20th century, Provincetown’s importance in the art world subsided. Part of that had to do with real estate; artists couldn’t compete financially with people buying summer homes on the tip of the Cape. Even so, art and artists are steadfast there. The final portion of “Tides’’ includes Jack Pierson’s 2003 “Self-Portrait #6,’’ a photo of a hunky guy (not Pierson - this was a series of portraits titled “self-portrait’’) grinning at the edge of a pool. Pierson is a conceptual photographer with an international following. And John Dowd, who makes quiet scenes of Cape light illuminating its architecture that recall Edward Hopper, has a substantive career.

Most of the artists in Provincetown now have more modest careers; they are not Rothko or Avery. Some may achieve greatness later. But the art world is more globalized than ever, and more conceptual. It’s less focused on painting, color, and light - what drew the artists to Provincetown in the first place.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

THE TIDES OF PROVINCETOWN: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011)

At: New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, Conn., through Oct. 16. 860-229-0257,


At: Cape Cod Museum of Art, 60 Hope Lane, Dennis, through Aug. 7. 508-385-4477,