The wrath of Hurricane Sandy made even the least likely beachgoers among us aware of the precious resource our coastline is. Thanks to the recovery, 2013 is expected to be a banner year at the Jersey shore.
But before packing the beach umbrella, sunblock, and UV protective hats, stop in at Morven Museum and Garden to see “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1871-1940.” Looking at painterly strokes of fishermen in their boats enduring stormy seas, lobstermen hauling in their traps, clammers digging into the rippled waters, and billowing sails making their way through churning surf is one way to experience the beach without mosquitoes, sticky sand, and ointment slathered on your skin. There are nearly 70 paintings, as well as photos, news clippings, and ephemera describing the era and the region.
The Jersey shore was home to artist colonies whose output rivaled that of the better-known colonies of Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, according to Jersey Shore impressionism expert Roy Pedersen, from whose collection the exhibition is largely drawn. (There are also loans from the Hunter Museum of Art, Phoenix Museum of Art, and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, as well as private collections).
Between 1880 and 1940, these artists lived in shore communities and produced works that contribute to the cultural heritage of New Jersey.
According to Pedersen, the greatest painting in 19th and 20th century America took place not in the cities, but in rural areas. “When the National Academy of Design rediscovered the Cos Cob School in Connecticut, one of the most celebrated was of a water scene. But it was actually painted in New Jersey.”
Pedersen knew the painting’s true origin because he grew up on the Jersey shore. Theodore Robinson’s “Boats at a Landing,” painted in 1894, is in Brick, where Pedersen goes to this day to walk his German Shepherd.
Artists flocked to the Manasquan River area in the late 19th century. Walt Whitman, who had struck up a friendship with Point Pleasant artist Carolyn Cook Sanborn and her husband, Nestor, visited the shore and wrote his poem “Patrolling Barnegat.”
“Whitman said what gives New Jersey its identity is the shore,” says Pedersen.
Winslow Homer painted “Long Branch,” which may have been the first American impressionist painting, after staying there in 1869. In 1888 Robert Louis Stevenson spent a month with his artist friends on the Manasquan before setting off for the South Seas. Referring to how Stevenson spent that summer, a writer first described it as an art colony.
The Manasquan Art Colony included Edward Boulton, Will Hicok Low, Thomas Eakins, and Carolyn Cook Sanborn. “It was a sophisticated colony, like Cos Cob and Bucks County, producing great work,” says Metedeconk native Petersen, who summered in Point Pleasant.
“The quality of light where the beach and the shore meet has been a natural subject for painters,” says Pedersen, author of “The Fascination of Sun and Shore: Painters of the Jersey Shore” (Down the Shore Publishing, 2013). “In the 1880s and 1890s, Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh weren’t in Paris, they were in Brittany and Normandy and other seaside rural communities. That is the context that New Jersey can be seen in — what Brittany and Normandy are to Paris, New Jersey is to New York and Philadelphia, a great place to take advantage of the quality of light.”
These artists who were drawn to the light and water showed their work at such esteemed venues as the Paris Salon, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Paris Exposition, the National Academy of Design, Art Institute of Chicago, and Society of Independent Artists.
These painters settling at the Jersey shore had the best training from the best teachers in Europe and America. “They were sophisticated artists who believed impressionist art could be made and would flourish,” says Pedersen. “They were bohemian, not the carriage set of Long Branch and Spring Lake. They sought a simpler, rural life among fishermen and sophisticated artists with whom they could have friendships.”
Hugh Campbell (1905-1997), for example, was a self-taught artist who lived in an unheated shack used for housing canoes on Rancocas Creek. “He practiced yoga and Buddhism and lived an ascetic life and produced a wonderful body of painting,” says Pedersen. “He was a great eccentric who never strived for wealth, fame, or traditional success. He published a book of poetry, ‘Knock Vigorously to Be Heard: Reflections of a Yoga-Trained Artist’ in 1966.”
Pedersen knew the first time he saw an Edward Boulton painting — in 1982, when the Asbury Park Press ran a photo of Boulton’s “Skinning Eels,” a painting of two men in top hats sitting on a sandy bank, cutting up their slithery prey — he had to see more. “It is in the style of Eakins, with fine detail and a gauzy background,” he says.
Boulton was a student of Thomas Eakins, and when Eakins was thrown out of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for his use of live nude models, Boulton formed a group of Eakins followers to found the Art Students League.
Boulton’s daughter, a writer, married playwright Eugene O’Neill. Their children included Oona O’Neill, who married Charlie Chaplin.
When Oona O’Neill Chaplin moved to Switzerland, a sheriff helped her sell the family house. Pedersen learned her father’s painting, “Skinning Eels,” had wound up in the hands of the sheriff’s son. Pedersen tracked him to a bed and breakfast in Guatemala, only to learn the sheriff’s son had donated the painting to Connecticut College, which has a Eugene O’Neill collection. Pedersen was able to acquire it from Connecticut College since it didn’t fit the mission of the collection.
Among the other artists Pedersen tells stories about, as if they were family, are Ida and daughter Clara Stroud. Ida Wells was born in New Orleans and grew up at the height of the women’s suffrage movement. When her young husband died suddenly, she moved north to study with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League and at Pratt. She went on to teach at Pratt, then the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and the Summer School of Art at Syracuse University.
Clara also studied at Pratt and designed covers for Gustav Stickley’s Craftsmen magazine. In 1920 Clara and her husband bought one of the oldest houses in Point Pleasant, where she formed the Stroud Studio and held exhibitions and classes, often accompanied by her mother.
Several years later, the couple divorced, and Ida began spending summers with her daughter at the shore house.
Prior to the time of Ida and Clara Stroud, landscape had been the domain of men while women painted still life. “The Strouds painted with a high-key palette,” says Pedersen, which was part of the Japanese influence. Ida painted posters, using the flat style she had learned from Arthur Dow.
The paintings employ the wild colors of the fauvists — the early 20th-century group of modern artists that emphasized strong color. The paintings are filled with rainbow-colored houses on piers over deep blue water with wavy black shadows — a blue so deep it could only exist in the painter’s palette. The water is flat with no waves or whitecaps. Turquoise and lavender houses with purple roofs are tucked at the end of a tangerine-colored road, against a cobalt sky.
“(James) Whistler said the finest work of art is accomplished with the minimum number of strokes,” says Pedersen. “It makes what’s on the paper all the stronger. Matisse said a painting is done when you can’t take anything else away from it. These paintings have that kind of minimalism to them.”
Pedersen took an unusual path toward becoming a Jersey shore art historian. His father, who worked in printing and binding, loved boating and looking around at boatyards. He had a small cabin cruiser from which he went blue fishing and other small boats for exploring the marsh. “My favorite paintings are of the marshes,” says Pedersen. “The past is the present. It colors how you feel about things. Knowing the art of a region, you begin to see through the eyes of the painter, and it enriches the pleasure of seeing and experiencing an area where you live.”
His mother, who studied economics at Douglass College, had grown up in Newark where a doctor prescribed daily walks at the shore for health. She encouraged Roy to be an architect. He studied psychology at Brown University in the 1960s but frequently attended lectures and exhibits at nearby Rhode Island School of Design. He earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of New Hampshire in 1973. Working as a psychological consultant at Rahway State Prison, he says he saw some of the best theater of his life.
A Gestalt therapist asked him to be a partner in a new gallery of Haitian art in New Hope, and though the gallery failed instantly, it succeeded in showing Pedersen what he loved most, meeting painters and looking at art. “It was the late 1970s, and the question of what I wanted to do in life was over.”
Pedersen is credited with discovering the New Hope Modernists who had long been overshadowed by the Bucks County Impressionists. That culminated in a 1994 exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. “But no one was interested in Jersey artists. New Jersey is the only important maritime state that doesn’t have a maritime museum.”
Pedersen saw a great opportunity to buy undervalued paintings and play a role in New Jersey history.
“I became a demon. I love this (type of) painting and researched and looked for connections 365 days a year. It’s like discovering a great ancient city, and a simple shovel allows you to dig and see it. The sense of discovery is terrific.”
Pedersen’s research methods include talking to historical societies and pursuing families. Sometimes family members come forward and seek his ear, tapping into the skills he honed as a psychologist.
So why are the New Jersey painters underappreciated? “I don’t know why New Jersey didn’t get off the starting blocks when the interest in regional painting soared in the 1980s,” says Pedersen. “But Morven, with its interest in regional painting, is stepping in. People think of impressionist art being made long ago, far away — the conventional wisdom is that regional art is second rate. But nothing is more transformational on the citizens of a region as its art. It changes the way you see and think because it is the landscape you know and you feel a connection to the artist and subject — that’s as powerful an experience as you can get looking at art. No one went to the Jersey shore to be forgotten — the artists felt the subject matter and qualities made it worthwhile to paint.”
Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1871-1940, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opening reception (with donations accepted for Hurricane Sandy relief), Thursday, April 25, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., free. Through Saturday, September 8, Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5-$6. www.morven.org or 609-924-8144.