Colony in Rock
Posted on September 27, 2019
“the windblown ocean plain stretched dark as indigo to a horizon knife-sharp against the golden lower sky from gold became the imperceptible gradations of emerald, and the emerald became colbalt; and the colbalt, a deep purple at the zenith-often so dark, that zenith sky, that one could see the moon by day and almost, one imagined, stars.” Rockwell Kent
We have always been drawn to Maine for its natural beauty and for its authenticity. Here, you can see fisherman, artists, boat builders and summer families play out traditions that have been in play for generations- in a cycle of life that has changed little over hundreds of years.
Of course over time, the small seaside villages along Coastal Route 1 have become quite gentrified. The old amber varnished walls of smoky pubs, once festooned with pieces of sailing ships, harpoons and old black & white photos of the sea captains whose tales have long been lost, have been stripped, sheet-rocked and filled with t-shirts and decorative pillows printed with whales and anchors. Wine shops, modern art galleries and micro-breweries have all but replaced the town taverns and coffee shops where the fisherman once gathered, and million dollar yachts have long since supplanted the grimy old working boats.
However, if one wishes to find the real Maine, it is still out there among its many islands and 3478 miles of coiled coastline. Much of what we know of authentic coastal Maine, that seminal view of America’s maritime history; the fishermen, the lobster boats, the wooden boat builders and the artist, have retreated to the very tips of the long finger-like peninsulas and to outer islands far at sea.
Today, we seek such a place, Monhegan Island- the “Rock Colony”. We leave the tourist filled sidewalks of Camden and drive for almost an hour down a finger of land stretching well into the Atlantic to Port Clyde, a small picturesque fishing village that has served as the summer home of generations of America’s first family of art–the Wyeth Family.
N.C. Wyeth, perhaps best known for his romantic illustrations in books such as Treasure Island, Robin Hood & Last of the Mohichans, first painted Port Clyde’s bustling and industrious shoreline in the 1930’s, breaking from the commercialism of illustrations and discovering himself as a real artist.
We board the morning mail boat and head out to sea; past the lobster boats and small islands; one, Benner Island is the summer home of artist Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth and grand-son of N.C..
As the sea roughens, our eyes meet as we notice for the first time the sea-sickness bags and the brass grab bars along the wooden walls of the boat. Two cold and wet passengers burst wide-eyed into the cabin after the first wave tops the bow with such force it knocks one of them to the deck. As we spy the island on the horizon, the intercom croaks on to warn of the poor souls that have slipped and fallen on the slippery cliffs of the island, “No one has survived the surf below.”
I’ve waited for sometime to make this journey to Monhegan (Algonquin for out-to-sea island), a small rock jutting from the sea an hour’s boat ride from the mainland, for this remote island is known as one of America’s first and most important art colonies, responsible for launching the careers of so many influential American artists.
Monhegan was once a pirate’s haven before being caught between New England and New France during King William’s War and the French & Indian War. After being burned and abandoned by the French, President James Monroe built a lighthouse on the island in 1824 and by the mid-1800’s artists had discovered it for its rugged, picturesque beauty and for it’s cultural symbolism. By the 1890’s it had already become well known as an art colony.
“It is timeless, populated by hardy individuals seemingly immune to the vicissitudes of change. It is literally on the verge of a sublime and capricious ocean. The New England Coast is as much cultural construction as natural phenomenon.”
First to stay on the island in the late 1800’s were artists such as Sears Gallagher and Samuel Triscott. Then, at the turn of the century in 1903, a onetime student of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a teacher at the New York School of Art and member of the Ashcan School of American Realism, Robert Henri discovered the island on a trip to Boothbay.
“It’s a wonderful place to paint-so much in such a small place one could hardly believe it. I’m already wondering if it may not be possible to have a summer studio here.”
Henri had his wish, and went on to urge other New York artists, including his students, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and George Bellows to follow. Upon arrival Kent wrote Henri, “This place is even more wonderful and beautiful than you told me it was.”
This is where the young Rockwell Kent and George Bellows found their philosophical and artistic bearing, testing technique, style and even new color theories in painting after painting of the Island’s rustic fishing village life, scenic wildlands and “fearsome geography”. Kent established the Monhegan Summer School of Art and eventually built a house for himself, then his mother. It was here, on Monhegan where Kent launched his career as an influential American artist.
Of Kent’s work- “The paint is laid on by an athlete of the brush, Dissonances are dared that make you pull up your coat collar.” The New York Sun
Other great American artists would follow- N.C. Wyeth, and later, Andrew and his son, Jamie. To know the art of the island is to know the history of American art. The summers spent on the coast of Maine and Monhegan with his grandfather and father would affect Jamie Wyeth deeply, but no deeper than his admiration for Rockwell Kent.
“As a child, I dreamed of living aboard a ship completely surrounded by the sea.” Jamie Wyeth
Jamie and his father, Andrew, would walk the island, avoiding the grand landscapes of their hero artists, opting instead for vignettes of island life. Jamie Wyeth would eventually come to own the cottage by the sea that Kent built for his own mother. He could now dwell in the home of an artist that he believed “best knew the sea.”
The year round population of 68 blooms to about 250 residents in the summer. There are currently 19 artist’s studios on the island, not to mention the many pilgrims who come every season to capture the magical light and to measure themselves in their knowing of composition, color and space to those who came before.
Yet many, such as myself, simply come to follow in the footsteps of those great artists who have inspired so many since–to understand what they saw; to see, to know, and to capture a glimpse of beauty through their eyes.
After hiking the (barely a square mile) island and seeking out familiar scenes of the sea bleached village, Little White Head, Black Head, and the Cathedral Woods we sit on the porch of the historic Monhegan Inn, eating an apple and taking in the view of the small harbor sheltered in the shadow of Manana Island; the bells of four goats as they make their way across its steep green slope drift across the water. Ten miles out to sea with no cars, no appointments and no sense of time, the peace is almost overwhelming.
We wait for the afternoon mail boat to return to take us back to reality, but the spirit of the place, that ideal American life among the sea captured by the brushes of so many important artists, will remain to be captured by many more.