What Was the Art Colony?

Maine’s towering role in American art owes, in part, to enclaves of artists gathering in out-of-the-way places. With the days of the rusticators long gone, how is the tradition holding up?

skowhegan school
Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture
By Brian Kevin
From our May 2023 issue

The Art Colony Walking Tour brochure they hand out at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art explains things succinctly. “Since the 1890s,” it reads, “Ogunquit has been a destination for artists who sought the camaraderie of fellow artists and relief from the summer heat of the big city.” Camaraderie and relief: a couple of time-honored reasons that an artist — anyone, really — might spend a summer or a lifetime in Maine. Follow the self-guided tour around Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove and you’ll stroll past the seaside studio that Massachusetts painter Charles Woodbury built in 1898, a fledgling art school in the midst of what had been, until then, a scatter of fishing shacks. You’ll cross the footbridge to the shingled T-shirt shop that used to be Brooklyn painter and critic Hamilton Easter Field’s art school, established 13 years after Woodbury’s. You’ll walk past the icehouse that Field built for local fishermen, which became a summer rental in the 1940s, a hotspot for mid-century Ogunquit artists that hosted, as the brochure says, “infamous summer parties and artists’ balls.” Today, it’s a gift shop selling pottery and cobble-rock knickknacks and coasters that say things like, “The answer may not be at the beach, but at least we should check.”

Ogunquit is one of two Maine locales instantly associated with the epithet “art colony.” The other is the island of Monhegan, which, like Ogunquit, began receiving a trickle of itinerant artists in the later 19th century, mostly from the metros of the East, which by the 1920s had become a flood. Both hosted, at one point or another, Robert Henri, George Bellows, Margaret Jordan Patterson, Edward Hopper, and other bigwigs. In both places, the archetype of the plein air painter, seated at an easel overlooking the sea, is baked into the local DNA (and is still a common sight). But Monhegan and Ogunquit are far from the only Maine towns to have hosted robust communities of from-away artists looking for camaraderie and relief: In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Commonwealth Art Colony attracted budding artists, musicians, and teachers to Boothbay Harbor. Around the same time, a coterie of American modernists gathered at the tips of Georgetown and Phippsburg, a spot branded “Seguinland” by turn-of-the-century tourism flacks. Lincolnville in the 1950s enticed a clutch of post-war figurative artists away from New York. Eastport in the 1970s welcomed a wave of bohemian creatives drawn by the promise of cooperative studios in an old sardine cannery. 

All these places and more have, at one time or another, been characterized as carrying on Maine’s tradition of art colonies. But today, among artists, scholars, and others, the phrase itself is ambiguous at best — and contentious at worst.

“The term ‘art colony’ has become a descriptive but somewhat vague notion in the American language,” art historian Steve Shipp writes in a 1996 survey of historical American artist communities. The concept emerged from Europe in the 19th century, mostly France, where young artists, romanticizing pastoral landscapes and peasant life, fled the increasingly crowded cities in summer, posting up in tribes in unsuspecting villages, where locals tolerated them enough to pocket their francs. American artists who’d studied on the Continent — like Woodbury, Field, and early Monhegan booster Henri — adapted the model. 

Charles Woodbury, father of Ogunquit’s art colony, in 1891; costumed for a “masquerade” at Boothbay Harbor’s Commonwealth Art Colony, in 1915; a Commonwealth class portrait. Top of page: Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture cofounder Sidney Simon critiquing student work in 1946. Courtesy of the Monhegan Museum of Art and the Boothbay Region Historical Society.

“The idea of Maine as a place for creatives is a very modern one, and art colonies in general are a response to the conditions of modernity,” explains Thomas Denenberg, former chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art, now the director of Vermont’s Shelburne Museum. “You get them when all of a sudden you have cities and people start fleeing for the country. And Maine is kind of the perfect geography.”

Not least, Denenberg says, because so many young American painters idolized 19th-century heavyweights like Frederic Edwin Church and Winslow Homer, who’d made their reputations painting the rugged Maine coast. “Maine is where artists go to test themselves,” Denenberg says. “You know, if you’re gonna be a macho painter, you go stick your easel right on the littoral.”

Places like Ogunquit and Monhegan played a key role in what Denenberg calls “the construction of the mythic New England, of New England as a therapeutic environment.” Maine became known as “a place where artists retreat to solitude and communion with the natural world,” says former PMA curator Diana Greenwold, now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. “That was the way of selling Maine to rusticators, as a place where you go to get away.”

Susan Danly — then with the Portland Museum of Art, now an independent curator — worked with Denenberg on a 2009 PMA exhibition exploring this idea: The Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England focused on Ogunquit, Monhegan, and Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut. She has since curated exhibits on the “Maine moderns” of Seguinland — including Marsden Hartley and William and Marguerite Zorach — and on the “Slab City” artists of the 1950s and ’60s — Lois Dodd, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, Bernard Langlais, and others — who converged in Lincolnville, near a road with that name. But while all these artists answered the call of the coast, Danly is among those hesitant to characterize the latter two as art colonies. To her, the phrase implies generations of artists coming and going, whereas Seguinland and Slab City, she says, “were moments that were not sustained, formed by deep personal relationships among the artists,” many of whom put down permanent roots in Maine. 

For independent curator and arts writer Carl Little, “art colony” is a tricky label, insufficient even for Monhegan. “Both an art colony and an art community, I would call it,” he says. “Ogunquit was a place you went for a couple of weeks or months in the summer to paint or go to a school. But on Monhegan, artists like Rockwell Kent, Andrew Winter, Jay Connaway, and others all ended up buying places and living there year-round — it’s where you have some of the first great paintings of Maine in winter.”

Of course, it’s harder to buy a place on Monhegan these days, particularly on most artists’ incomes. Or, for that matter, to find a cheap seasonal rental within an easel’s swing of Ogunquit. Or to buy a midcoast farmhouse for $1,200 — the equivalent of $18,000 today — which is what Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, and Jean Cohen paid for their place on Slab City Road, in 1954. The rising cost of rusticating was one reason that artists in the later 20th century started to answer the call of the coast differently. 

Artists visiting Monhegan in the late 19th century included Sears Gallagher (left) and Frank Myrick (right), photographed here in 1890.

“In the 1850s, in France, it really was a bunch of guys getting out to the woods of Fontainebleau or to Brittany — more ad hoc,” Denenberg says. “But that whole 1890s ‘we’re off to the country to study with a charismatic guy’ model becomes something else by the 1950s, something more institutionalized.” 

Enter the contemporary arts residency — for which the term “art colony” was once used more or less interchangeably. Pianist Marian MacDowell and her husband, composer Edward MacDowell, founded what’s considered to be the country’s first such program, then known as the MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire, in 1907. Unlike in Ogunquit and Monhegan, where artists showed up uninvited, stayed in boarding houses, and commingled with fishermen, MacDowell was intended as a set-apart sanctuary for small, select groups (admitted, at first, by invitation and, later, by application). “Apart from being founded in a spirit of back-to-nature idealism,” art historian Michael Jacobs writes, “places such as . . . the MacDowell Colony, with their institutional and monastic character, had virtually nothing in common with” the 19th-century French model.

The first MacDowell-ish residencies took root in Maine mid-century and have since thrived. The Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, founded in 1946, is one of the country’s most esteemed, with more than 2,000 annual applicants vying for 65 private studios and cottage quarters on a former farm in Madison. Maine-dwelling artists introduced to the state via Skowhegan include Alex Katz and the late David Driskell, Robert Indiana, and Ashley Bryan. In 1950, a group of Maine craftspeople established Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, today on Deer Isle, which a recent PMA exhibit credited with nothing less than having “transformed art, craft, and design in the 20th century.” Artists come by the hundreds each summer for short residencies, workshops, and more.

Smaller-scale residency programs have proliferated also — including a juried one on Monhegan, founded in 1989, which houses visiting artists in an apartment and studio above a gift shop. “Everybody realized that an artist couldn’t afford to rent anything anymore,” says Danly, who sits on the program’s board. In the last few decades, she says, she’s seen a “mini explosion” of such residencies in Maine. “People want to come here, but they do need some sort of outside support that residency programs can supply. It’s really important for keeping the Maine art scene active and alive.”

“I believe that Maine has more summer-residency programs — and I think you could easily say per capita — than any other state,” says Donna McNeil, a former director of the Maine Arts Commission who now runs Rockland’s arts-focused Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. The tally, McNeil points out, includes programs for visual artists as well as writers, composers, musicians, theater artists, and others (sometimes under one roof, as at Ellis-Beauregard’s residency), and the vocabulary surrounding them can be inexact. “A colony is certainly a different thing from a residency,” she says, “and then places like Skowhegan and Haystack are more like schools. So it gets really blurry.”

Haystack residents picnicking in Camden in 1955, when the school was in its original Montville location.

Red Grooms’s 1964 painting Slab City Rendezvous depicts Mimi Gross, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, and others in Lincolnville.

Neither is every Maine residency a bucolic retreat, per se. Ellis-Beauregard is currently building a new facility for its residency smack in the middle of Rockland. Monson has hosted artists right downtown since 2018, part of an economic-development strategy for the Appalachian Trail town, supported by Maine’s charitable Libra Foundation. “The studios are all on Main Street,” says Monson Arts senior advisor Stuart Kestenbaum, who also directed the much more isolated Haystack from 1988 to 2015. “So there are logging trucks going by. The residents are around in the community, they get to know people.” Both Ellis-Beauregard and Monson’s programs are year-round — an indicator that contemporary residencies are about a lot more than escaping summer in the city. 

“A difference from when those first artists came to Maine and stayed for a couple of months is that now the residencies are almost part of a progression,” Kestenbaum says. “You get a degree, get your MFA, and then you do residencies. You find people who move from residency to residency for years. It’s kind of like going to Europe with a backpack, and I think that’s new since the ’80s.” 

“Even 20 or 40 years ago, you could get together with a bunch of friends, if you were a New Yorker, and go buy something wonderful in the hinterlands and set up shop,” says Marc Mewshaw, executive director of Lovell’s Hewnoaks residency. “In the absence of that option, another way to reproduce that sense of community is to seek out these residencies.” Hewnoaks, which brings artists in all disciplines to a set of humble cabins on Kezar Lake, was initially established in 2013 as Hewnoaks Artist Colony, but the program is one of many in the arts world to have ceased using “colony” in recent years, on account of its unsavory imperialist connotations. Among the earliest renouncers was what’s now simply called MacDowell, which made headlines when it nixed the nebulous term, in 2020. 

“Obviously when ‘colony’ was first being used as a term of art, there were two meanings,” Mewshaw says. “It can be pretty benign — a group of folks establishing a community — but it can also refer to the seizure of land and violent exploitation and subjugation.” For an organization that “believes really strongly in pluralism and uplifting voices that have traditionally been left out of the canon,” he says, abandoning “colony” simply felt consistent with core values. 

Nevertheless, he recognizes a through line from the old days of easels at Perkins Cove and Monhegan cliffs. “That sense, in the 1900s, of rusticating to the coast, of leaving the heat and clamor and noisiness of the city, I think that’s still very much valid and probably even more so now,” Mewshaw says. And the clamor, in a sense, has only gotten louder, encompassing social media, incessant news cycles, pandemic anxiety, and more. 

Hewnoaks’s original owners, artists Douglas and Marion Volk, understood their peers’ need for camaraderie and relief. They were contemporaries of Woodbury and Field and Henri, and in the early 20th century, they opened their Kezar Lake summer home to artist friends and students who also made pilgrimages to places like Ogunquit and Monhegan. So what would the Volks make of Hewnoaks today? “They would probably be perplexed by how formalized these kinds of spaces have gotten,” Mewshaw says, “but I think they’d be pretty damn satisfied to know this was their legacy.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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