How a Small Coastal Town Transformed American Painting
When modernism clashed with tradition in Ogunquit, Maine
When one thinks of cities central to art history, America’s small coastal towns aren’t usually high on the list. Being a professional artist is hard enough in a metropolis, where you’ll generally find the most experienced teachers, the most lucrative gigs, and the wealthiest buyers. Ogunquit, Maine (population 892, as of the last census) is the great exception to this rule. Hidden in the history of “America’s Best Coastal Small Town” (as it was deemed by USA Today), is a long trail of exceptional artistry. In fact, since the late 19th century, the hamlet inspired the likes of Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Marsden Hartley, and George Bellows. But as any fan of seascapes knows, it’s rare to capture the ocean without some rough waters. The town’s collision of modernism and tradition is the very thing that helped it usher American painting into the 20th century.
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The town’s name comes from a Native American phrase meaning “beautiful place by the sea,” but until recently, the standard translation was the more insular-sounding “coastal lagoon.” Like many things about Ogunquit, this rebranding suggests a change in temperament—a little town ironing out its idiosyncrasies before opening its gates to tourists. Founded in 1641, what we now know as Ogunquit was, for centuries, a community of Maine-born, Maine-bred fishermen and shipbuilders. It wasn’t until 1888, with the construction of a bridge that linked the town’s long, skinny peninsula to the mainland, that it became an attractive destination for nonresidents.
But the town’s most historically consequential event started in 1896, when painter Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864–1940) purchased five acres of prime Ogunquit real estate. The 32-year-old had shown promise in his early years, attending MIT, and, at 19, becoming the youngest member of the prestigious Boston Art Club. Two years after he procured the land, in 1898, he would start his life’s project: the Ogunquit School. He would teach there on and off until his death in 1940.
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Today, paintings of pretty beaches are so strongly associated with kitsch that it can be hard to recognize how daring Woodbury and his students’ paintings of the Maine shoreline were. At a glance, Woodbury’s The Blue Cliff (1916) seems like something you’d find in a dentist’s office. But consider, more carefully, his decision to place small, humble human figures in the painting, the way he balances hot and cool colors, and the quick, nimble strokes that give the waves and rocks a touch of mystery. Woodbury’s motto, after all, was, “Paint in verbs, not nouns.”
Kitschy beach pictures are painted in nouns—they’re familiar, complacent, inert. Woodbury and his contemporaries painted Ogunquit in verbs. They were living in the golden age of American artist colonies—the age when talented, nature-smitten painters abandoned New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston for Provincetown, Massachusetts (colony established in 1899); Woodstock, New York (1902); and MacDowell, New York (1907). By the outbreak of World War I, Ogunquit had more than its share of artists: The Ogunquit School was still going strong, and Woodbury’s student, Hamilton Easter Field, had just opened the Ogunquit Summer School of Graphic Arts. (During the winter, idyllic landscapes were in short supply.)
At heart, Woodbury was a traditionalist, training his students to find new inspiration in the same timeless vistas. Field was a modernist. Studying the works of the early 20th-century painters who visited Ogunquit, you can sense the tug-of-war between these two impulses: on one hand, a desire to get away from it all, to go back to nature; on the other, a creeping sense of alienation that follows you wherever you go.
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In the summer of 1915, no less than three of America’s greatest painters were in Ogunquit: Robert Henri, George Bellows, and Leon Kroll. Henri, who probably mentored more great artists than anyone in American history, had invited his two best students to New England to enjoy the views and polish their techniques. The works they produced in Ogunquit were frequently beautiful but never tranquil. Bellows, who spent every summer from 1912 to 1919 in Maine, painted angry, frothing oceans with the same brutishness he’d later use to paint boxers. And Henri’s Laughing Gypsy Girl (1913), inspired by a child he encountered in Ogunquit, is a modernist nightmare on par with Munch’s The Scream: The girl, with her blood-red lips and vampirish teeth, seems to portend a terrifying future.
Henri and his disciples would convince dozens of other notable artists to visit Ogunquit. In his seascape The Dories, Ogunquit (1914), Edward Hopper established a visual template that he’d return to for the next 40 years: well-lit and brightly colored but strangely joyless, as if no matter what scenic destination he casts his eyes on, he brings his sadness with him.
Eventually, Ogunquit became a victim of its own success. Its painters’ favorite subjects—lighthouses, sailboats, harbors—became clichés, as they trickled down into postcards and motel rooms. The town continued to attract painters, but as its reputation ballooned, it lost some of the luster that made Woodbury and Henri fall in love with it. The mysterious lagoon became just another beautiful place by the sea.