How Provincetown Became a Radical Art Haven

Alina Cohen
Jul 22, 2019 10:10PM
George Tooker and Paul Cadmus, Provincetown, ca. 1945
Keith de Lellis Gallery

The light and natural, coastal beauty of Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, has inspired artists for over a century. “Provincetown is a place of contrasts: a rugged, rural site with a vibrant town center, it simultaneously provides artists with opportunities for both solitude and socializing,” wrote Melissa Renn in an essay for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, adding that its “free and open atmosphere” is what distinguishes it from other New England sites in the area. Away from the bustle and big-city concerns of Boston and New York, artists have established studios and influential schools in Provincetown. The town’s bohemian legacy continues today, especially through its vibrant queer community and a generous artist residency program.

Charles Webster Hawthorne
At the Beach, 1898
Bakker Gallery

In the early 1900s, E. Ambrose Webster and Charles W. Hawthorne each opened an art school in Provincetown. Webster was known for brushy, Fauvist-inspired landscapes, while Hawthorne painted portraits—and lots of fish. Hawthorne, whose teachings focused on color and light, gradually amassed around 100 pupils. (When Hawthorne died, in 1930, his student Henry Hensche ensured that his teacher’s legacy would live on by establishing the Cape Cod School of Art.) Webster’s school took inspiration from European modernists and enjoyed a more radical reputation. His own paintings featured trees with bright yellow haloes and orange crags protruding from the ocean; he espoused a similarly inventive approach to color in his courses.

Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, July 1950. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York.

Yet the area was hardly the exuberant destination it is today. In 1900, the town was still recovering from a major 1898 storm. The Portland Gale had drowned an entire steamer and its crew, maimed almost half of the town’s docks, and devastated its fishing industry. The population hovered at only around 5,000.

Provincetown eventually recovered and began to transform from a fishing and whaling village to a tourist destination. Hawthorne co-founded the Provincetown Art Association in 1914, just two years before the Boston Globe proclaimed the area to be “the biggest art colony in the world.” During this period, artists Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis both passed through.

Provincetown welcomed artists working in disparate modes. Photographer Walker Evans shot the shingles and steeples of the local architecture. Playwright Eugene O’Neill helped establish a troupe, the Provincetown Players, which drew many performing artists to its stage.

A group of printmakers, meanwhile, developed a new aesthetic strategy while staying in Provincetown. Instead of the Japanese ukiyo-e method, which required different blocks for each color, the Provincetown Printers—a colony of artists including Ethel Mars, Ada Gilmore, and Maud Hunt Squire—employed just one woodblock, with thin grooves between segments, to produce delicate white lines between shapes. The group—which boasted a predominantly female roster that was rare for the time—exhibited in Webster’s studio and in New York. While the individual artists involved didn’t become household names, the group’s process still influences American printmaking.

In 1934, the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann opened his own summer art school in Hawthorne’s barn, creating a link between the deceased portraitist and a new generation of avant-garde painters. Hofmann’s acolytes are well known: Lee Krasner trailed him from New York to Provincetown in 1938, and Myron Stout followed in 1946. Robert Motherwell first ventured to the area in the 1940s, eventually making it his summer home in the mid-1950s. While other artists in his circle preferred East Hampton, Motherwell enjoyed the small town’s accessibility and lack of concern for status that he found in Provincetown.

Helen Frankenthaler, who later married Motherwell, began studying with Hofmann in 1950. From 1960 to 1968, she spent her summers with her husband, painting in Provincetown. A forthcoming show at the Parrish Art Museum will exhibit the signature “soak-stained” work she made during these summers. One canvas, Provincetown Window (1963–64), explicitly links the color, light, and landscape of the area to her painting practice. A wavy blue border, which simultaneously evokes the ocean and a window’s edge, encloses rounded yellow, green, and blue forms that convey a lush, abstracted landscape.

According to the Parrish’s chief curator Alicia Longwell, Frankenthaler and Motherwell balanced their time in the studio with “cultivating the art world” in Provincetown, entertaining extensively throughout their time together there. Around the time Frankenthaler stopped venturing to the Cape, a group of writers and artists, including Stout and Josephine and Salvatore Del Deo, established the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC), which still stands today—just a short walk from the beach and local lobster-roll stands. Each year, FAWC offers housing and a stipend to a new group of fellows who live at the center and make work from the studios. Despite rising real-estate costs, FAWC guarantees that Provincetown’s legacy of artmaking continues, as does its bohemian community.

An aura of openness—towards bohemian lifestyles and fluid sexual preferences—has always defined Provincetown. No artists better exemplify that freedom than Margaret French, Jared French, and Paul Cadmus—collectively known as the photography collective PaJaMa—who summered at the beach in 1947. The Frenches were married, while Jared also carried on an affair with Cadmus. As such artists discovered a sense of possibility in the region, a growing queer community found acceptance and pride. Throughout the 1970s, gay and lesbian festivals drove tourism and turned the region into a queer mecca. Drag shows—an art form in itself—still abound.

Helen Frankenthaler
Cool Summer, 1962

Visitors come and go, but the sea breeze–infused inspiration of the Cape persists. As Christine M. McCarthy, CEO of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, recently told me, “The magic of the landscape and the light draws you into this exquisite sliver of sand, and whether you are a year-rounder, visitor, or second homeowner, the possibility of artistic immersion is at its height.”

Alina Cohen