One week from today, the NBMAA will open its newest exhibition The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011). With the installation well under way, we have stopped to consider one seemingly elemental, though crucial question that quietly lurks behind the very title of the show. That question of course being, “Well, what exactly is an art colony?” The short answer is simply that an art colony is a community where artists of all kinds congregate to live, learn, and practice. A kind of getaway destination for “long-term professional development.” Today, art colonies are vigorously sought after and provide an opportunity for artists to share and evolve their ideas, away from general distractions of the everyday.
The idea of spending time in pursuit of creative endeavors in one locale has a rich history stemming from European tradition. Particularly in the mid-nineteenth century, when rapid industrialization and urbanization began to sweep and transform the cultural landscape, many artists sought to flee the dizzying “modernization” of cities in favor of quieter, country life. Both Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) took refuge in rural settings, Monet spending much of his time in Giverny and Millet in Barbizon.
At the turn of the twentieth century, art colonies began to spring up across the Atlantic. Two well-known settlements in America are the MacDowell Colony located in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. The MacDowell colony was established in 1907 by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife. As a hub for all types of artists, the MacDowell colony proposed to be America’s first officially planned art colony and and claims Milton Avery, Leonard Bernstein, and Spalding Gray among its visitors. The establishment is still active today, promoting creativity through enriching programs and a bucolic setting. Yaddo offers a very similar experience to that of MacDowell, but the colony itself is even older. Founded by Spencer Trask and his wife in 1900, the 400 acre estate was established by the couple upon the untimely death of their four children. The couple decided to create a culturally rich site to which artists flocked. Yaddo has been visited by artists such as Langston Hughes, Truman Capote, and also Milton Avery and continues to remain an active settlement today.
Both settlements were financially supported and specifically organized as havens for artists from the onset. What is significant about them (and many other functioning art colonies) is the organizational and formal aspect of their daily activities and functions. The locales were intentionally created to attract artists who needed a respite from daily life. While these sites are unique for their continued desire to remain inspiring and accommodating, they are very different from the Provincetown art colony.
The Provincetown art colony finds its beginning in the efforts of Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930). Hawthorne began the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, attracting students to his summer classes to study methods of painting and drawing. Largely popular, the summer school was continued by Hawthorne’s student and assistant Henry Hensche (1901-1992). This commitment to artistic training and the freedom to pursue an individual form of expression has been fostered in Provincetown to the present day. During the mid-twentieth century, artists flocked to the Cape to take part in its lively and thriving community complete with seaside bungalows, artist studios, and influential galleries.
The differences between Provincetown and the MacDowell and Yaddo art colonies are in their origin and growth. While both the MacDowell and Yaddo communities were sites specifically cultivated as artist settlements, Provincetown’s reputation as a hub of artistic activity began as a site for plein air education and organically grew into a locale rich in history, where locals, tourists, and artists live side by side.
Is it possible for two types of settings – a secluded, heavily financed settlement and an eclectic, ever evolving community of artists and viewers – to have the same function? Can there be a clear definition of an art colony, or does it remain a loose term describing the congregation of creative endeavors?
Be sure to see The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America’s Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011) on view at the NBMAA from July 15 – October 16, 2011. Please see our Calendar for a list of related events!