Peter Cook didn’t always want to be a painter — originally he wanted to be an architect. In his junior year at Princeton, in the winter of 1936, Cook attended the senior prom, changing the course of his life forever and opening the door to a life as an artist. At the dance Peter Cook met Joan Folinsbee, not yet 17 and the daughter of the eminent New Hope Impressionist John Folinsbee. Cook courted Joan over the coming months and visited her often at her family’s home in New Hope, spending long hours with Folinsbee in his studio. It was there that Cook began to paint, under the encouragement and tutelage of Folinsbee.
“Peter Cook: A Journey in Light,” opens Saturday, October 14, at the Gratz Gallery in New Hope. The exhibit chronicles the life of the painter in a collection that includes more than 100 paintings spanning five decades in New Hope, Pennsylvania; Kingston, New Jersey; on Montsweag Bay in Maine, and and various destinations throughout the world.
Born in New York in 1915, Peter Geoffrey Cook moved as a boy to Kingston, New Jersey, where his family’s large stone house commanded several hundred acres of woodland, pasture and farmland. As with the other three boys in his family, he attended boarding school at St. Mark’s in Southborough, Massachusetts. From there he went to Princeton University, where he distinguished himself as a hockey player and as a student.
Cook recalled the moment of his “conversion” from architect to artist in his writings, which are quoted in the thorough catalog for the show, from which much of the material in this article was drawn:
“I had always liked drawing and had done a considerable amount in architecture school, but oils were a different story. The results of my first effort were nauseating (I have proof); but Jack was so encouraging that within a week I had bought a set of oils of my own, and he had a new driver and companion on his sketching trips. He taught me the works: how to mix colors, how to pick out a subject from the vast panorama of a valley, what to look for, what to leave out. I soon found myself drifting away from architecture into painting.”
After graduating in 1937 with a degree in architecture Cook went on to study at the National Academy of Design in New York under Gifford Beal and Leon Kroll, among others, and at the Art Students League with Arthur Lee. In 1938, he married Joan Folinsbee. Cook was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship in 1939; and when World War II cut short his European tour, he returned to study in New York. After a winter teaching in Clearwater, Florida, he went back to New Jersey, to his father’s property in Kingston, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. Joan lives there to this day, in the old converted stone horse barn where they raised their four children.
From 1940, through World War II and into the mid-1950s Cook worked the farm on the New Jersey property, growing wheat, oats, corn, and alfalfa and raising a few hundred chickens and turkeys. In 1944 Cook accepted the full-time help of a man named George Washington Trotman, a deaf man who showed up one day seeking employment on the farm. Depicted in Cook’s canvases on occasion, Trotman worked the farm for 20 years, until Cook stopped the farming operation and painted, thereafter, just about every remaining day of his life.
During Cook’s farming years he played his clarinet, joined in on productions for the Princeton Community Players, skated, coached hockey at the university, and of course, he painted. Cook painted the New Jersey farmlands, capturing a now largely developed countryside. A landscape painter to be sure, his main income was derived as a portraitist through the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, as the farm was essentially a break-even venture and, although he regularly exhibited in Princeton, and occasionally in Bucks County, sales of his landscapes were relatively few.
During his lifetime, Cook was known primarily for his portrait work. He painted hundreds of portraits, many of them through Portraits, Incorporated, in New York; he painted children, friends, college presidents, and a Secretary of State.
Beginning in 1950 Cook and his family, Joan’s sister’s family, as well as the Folinsbees summered in Maine, near Bath and Wiscasset. There, he and John Folinsbee shared a studio. Sometimes with Folinsbee and often alone, Cook spent many hours on the water, taking sailing trips to Penobscot Bay and points further Down East, and the shoreline near Montsweag Bay. In 1953 Cook took his family to Italy for a year of in-residence study in the Tuscan hills outside of Florence, and at age 55 returned (while his son John was living and working in Milan), and then visited again another decade later.
Cook visited Alaska to see his daughter Paula in 1976, the Dominican Republic in 1979, and Greece in 1984. He took a couple of trips to Ireland in the 1980s with Paula and her husband, David Sculley. While son Stephen was a doctor in the United States Navy, he spent a couple of weeks recording daily routines on board the enormous aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Eisenhower.
Cook joined John Folinsbee as an artist member of the Century Association in 1943, and was elected to the National Academy in 1966. In addition to the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, Cook won many awards for his figure, landscape and portrait paintings, including First Prize, Montclair Art Museum; Bronze Medal, National Arts Club; Ogunquit Art Center Marine Prize; and the Century Association Medal of Honor. He taught art classes in New York, New Hope, and Princeton. He had one-man shows in Boston, Richmond, Palm Beach, Chattanooga, Minneapolis, and Princeton.
A retrospective of his work was exhibited at the Century Association in New York in December, 1992, months after his death. Cook’s paintings are among the collections of Princeton, Bradley, Rutgers and Temple universities, the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Navy.
In the foreword of the exhibition catalog, Cook’s son writes of his father’s life journey:
“Near the end of his career, in the last 10 or 12 years of his life, his paintings display a markedly different quality from his earlier work. Things often look less finished, there’s less paint on the board in some areas, trees and rocks are sketchier and often much more backlit. In fact, he’s clearly more and more concerned with light. In his last painting, turned out in a couple of hours in June of 1992, there’s a blast of light on water that is as dazzling, as blinding as anything he ever did. For my money, it’s an emblem of the ‘world full of hope’ that defines Peter Cook the artist and Peter Cook the man.”
Peter Cook: A Journey in Light,” opening reception, Saturday, October 14, 6 to 9 p.m., Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, 30 West Bridge Street in New Hope. On view through Sunday, November 26. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. Call 215-862-4300 or visit www.gratzgallery.com.