How a Pair of Rivals Birthed Maine’s Archetypal Art Colony

Charles Herbert Woodbury and Hamilton Easter Field made Ogunquit a destination for aspiring artists but also began a feud.

Hamilton Easter Field, the libertine (left), and Charles Woodbury, the traditionalist (right).
Hamilton Easter Field, the libertine (left), and Charles Woodbury, the traditionalist (right).
By Will Grunewald
From our May 2023 issue

As the 19th century came to a close, Maine was on the cusp — or precipice, depending on perspective — of becoming Vacationland. From Kennebunkport to Moosehead Lake to Bar Harbor, rail service had opened the state to travelers to an unprecedented degree. Small, sleepy Ogunquit, however, remained largely untouched. The nearest train station was at York Beach, and from there, Ogunquit was a bumpy ride — seven miles over dirt roads, via horse-drawn carriage. Perkins Cove, a mile outside town, was especially rustic: cow pasture, fallow fields, a handful of fish shacks. When the painter Charles Herbert Woodbury first laid eyes on the cove, in 1889, he pronounced it an “artist’s paradise.”

Several years later, Woodbury bought five acres on the cove’s southern shore for $400. A highly regarded artist and art teacher in Boston, he opened the Ogunquit Summer School of Drawing and Painting in 1898. As many as a hundred students would arrive every summer, for a six-week course that cost all of $40 (not counting housing, which started at $8 a week), kicking off Ogunquit’s days as a hotbed of the arts. Under Woodbury’s tutelage, the prevailing sensibility was traditional. His students focused on landscapes, painting en plein air, in the representational mode of the great impressionists. He was wary of the avant-garde. “You can’t expect the public to understand your arbitrary symbols,” he preached.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the founding father of the Ogunquit colony would clash with Hamilton Easter Field, who first arrived at Perkins Cove one day in 1902, stepping from a carriage right across the road from where Woodbury’s students were working at their easels. Field, a staunch proponent of individual expressiveness and experimentalism, was an influential art critic in New York. He ran with vanguard modernists like John Marin, Marguerite and William Zorach, and Alfred Stieglitz, and he was no slouch as an artist himself. His great talent, though, was his eye for talent, and thanks to a family fortune from the manufacture of chinaware, he could support up-and-comers. On Perkins Cove, Field moved into a house in plain sight of Woodbury’s school, and, in 1911, opened the Summer School of Graphic Arts.

“All of a sudden, Hamilton Easter Field comes in, buys up all this property, and starts bringing up a bunch of Brooklynites,” Ogunquit Museum of American Art associate curator Devon Zimmerman says. “It’s such a Shakespearean thing in a funny way — these two camps of different ideologies, different dispositions, clustered around this small tidal basin.”

Woodbury’s students skewed female, many coming from well-heeled Boston families. They were known locally as the “Virginal Wayfarers,” a play on Marginal Way, the path from the cove into town. They mostly hewed to their teacher’s approach. Field’s students were livelier, louder, more willing to push artistic boundaries. They took their cues from diverse influences: American folk art, Cezanne, the Fauves, cubists. Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and Marsden Hartley paid visits. The same fissures running through the New York art world had stretched all the way to Ogunquit.

Woodbury was an apt representative of the old guard. A slight, angular man, he possessed an aura of Yankee propriety. Field was an obvious contrast. He had a high-pitched voice, he stuttered, and he was gay. They didn’t hit it off. “When you say ‘relationship,’ I don’t know if I’d say they had one,” Ogunquit Heritage Museum curator Charlotte Tragard says. “I’ve never seen anything about the two of them breaking bread and opening a bottle of wine and talking about brush strokes. They couldn’t have been more polar.”

The record is light on specifics about interactions between Woodbury and Field, although one particular provocation is recounted in a history of the Ogunquit art colony, A Century of Color: 1886–1896, by Louise Tragard (Charlotte’s sister). One summer, a nude model from Field’s school wrapped herself in a kimono, darted across a footbridge to Woodbury’s property, and sunbathed au naturel on the steps to his studio. Woodbury reportedly failed to find humor in the situation.

Over time, across the country, Field’s cohort proved the ascendant one, and many of his students — Niles Spencer, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Bernard Karfiol, among others — played important parts in the modernist movement. Another student, Lloyd Goodrich, went on to direct the Whitney Museum, in New York. But in Ogunquit, the art colony peaked and faded. Woodbury died in 1940, and his school closed. Field died in 1922, and his heir, the sculptor Robert Laurent, kept the school going until 1962. By then, artists were getting priced out of Ogunquit. Nowadays, the legacy of the art colony is well represented in the collection of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Fittingly, the museum, perched over the mouth of Perkins Cove, was founded by Henry Strater, a student of Hamilton Easter Field’s, on land that had belonged to Charles Woodbury.

HAMILTON EASTER FIELD (UNITED STATES, 1873–1922), SELF-PORTRAIT, CIRCA 1898, OIL ON PANEL, 24 X 18 INCHES. PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART, MAINE. HAMILTON EASTER FIELD ART FOUNDATION COLLECTION, GIFT OF BARN GALLERY ASSOCIATES, INC., OGUNQUIT, MAINE, 1979.13.15.; HERMANN MURPHY, PORTRAIT OF CHARLES WOODBURY, 1906, OIL ON CANVAS, GIFT OF THE ROWE COLLECTION, 2021.6.1

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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