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The Dowager’s Diary: Week Seventy-Seven

August 3 -10, 1916 

It was August 3, 1916 and Kate Roosevelt was aghast! While visiting the Shippen side of the family that included her niece, Ruth and husband, Theodore Steinway, at their summer get-away called Long Pond near Plymouth, Massachusetts, she took an “all day expedition in the motor to Provincetown.” She described the seaside village located at the tip of Cape Cod as “a quaint, old place infested with men and women (posers) who think they are artists.” That was the tart-tongued Kate Roosevelt I had come to know and love, slinging out one of her signature sentences, seared with scarring sarcasm and it wasn’t the first time she had inserted herself  in the role of art critic. In 1913, after attending the Armory Art Show in New York City she wrote in her diary, “The most arrant nuisance ever perpetuated on a long-suffering people.” Not one to mince words, she was at it again in 1916, the year after what the Boston Globe referred to as the “world’s largest art colony” when she belittled the artists whose works were displayed throughout the village of Provincetown, “Their brilliantly colored paintings make lively additions to the old streets of the place. The artists are quite harmless. Saw an exhibit of frightful artwork in Town Hall.” After reading Kate Roosevelt’s diary entry, I began to wonder if she had wandered into an unsavory section of town with criminals and degenerates lining the streets. Quite the contrary, the place she was describing was a Mecca for well-bred artists seeking a new path to creativity. I couldn’t imagine anyone being fearful of Norman Rockwell, who spent a summer studying there.

2. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, provincetown, marguerite zorach, smithsonian

Marguerite Zorach, the Modern Artist

The pieces of artwork she described as “frightful” at the Provincetown Exhibit might have included the work of Marguerite Zorach, who studied in France at the salon of Gertrude Stein and at the studio of Pablo Picasso while perfecting her talent for drawing nudes.

Nineteen-sixteen was the year of Kate Roosevelt’s re-awakening to the world of avant-garde art. It was also the year that the Boston Globe declared that in Provincetown, “There were more than six hundred in the colony from all sections of the United States including painters, sculptures, etchers, actors, musicians, playwrights and a choice assortment of professional models.” I was wondering if these models were what Kate had referred to in her diary as “posers?”

If so, they had all come to the right place. The artist E. Ambrose Webster who sought sunlit places compared the brightness of Provincetown to the “Light of Venice, St. Ives in Cornwall and the Greek Islands.”

3. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, provincetown, charles w. hawthorne, the red bow, brooklyn museum online collection

“The Red Bow” by Charles Webster Hawthorne

Ambrose studied under Charles Hawthorne who founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899 as a summer school for painters. In 1900, Ambrose was so enchanted by the atmosphere of Provincetown he purchased a pretty white house at 180 Bradford Street, situated on a hill overlooking the bay.  It was often used as a backdrop in his paintings.

As more and more creative-types flocked to the small fishing village, Provincetown became a refuge for artists and expatriates fleeing war-torn Europe, many dabbling in a technique of painting perfected by Claude Monet, using a mesmerizing mixture of light and color called Impressionism. It was the first outdoor summer art school devoted to this explosive combination.

4. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, provincetown, provincetown theater, carl van vechten photo, loc

Provincetown Players Theater

The artist Charles Webster Hawthorne set up his studio and taught en plein air painting to disciples who flocked to the docks to capture the infusion of light and the kaleidoscope of color that bounced off the water in the harbor. His painting “The Nude” was part of the Town Hall Exhibit that Kate Roosevelt deemed “frightful.”

An early modern artist named Blanche Lazzell took one of Hawthorne’s early morning classes and decided to make Provincetown her home. Unfortunately for Lazzell, it might have been one of her creations that made Kate Roosevelt cringe at the 1916 Provincetown Exhibit. An early modernist artist and cubist, Lazzell also experimented in Japanese white-line woodcuts using wood blocks to make abstract prints.

Kate never mentioned the onslaught of actors and playwrights that were also “infesting” Provincetown, but they were there in 1916, too.

4. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, provincetown, george elmer browne, artist, smithsonian institution

George Elmer Browne

That was the year Eugene O’Neill produced his first play, not in New York City, but in the village of Provincetown. Opening night saw the Provincetown Players perform Bound East for Cardiff in a shingled shack teetering on stilts at the end of Lewis’ Wharf.  The play is credited as the start of the modern American Theater.

In addition to a make-shift theater the wharf was home to the “Beachcombers,” founded by a group of male artists, playwrights and actors who called Provincetown home, some for only a season and for others year-round. Like a boys’ summer camp, the club “promoted good fellowship among men who are engaged in the practice of the fine arts.” When it was founded in 1916, on Knowles’ Wharf at the end of Bangs Street, its officers were given maritime titles. Fist Mate was George Elmer Browne and First Second Mate was Charles Webster Hawthorne, who unlike Kate Roosevelt considered themselves to be artists as did the rest of the world.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Charles Hawthorne’s art class on wharf in Provincetown
Public Domain

Photo Two:
Marguerite Zorach, the Modern Artist
Smithsonian Institute

Photo Three:
The Red Bow by Charles Webster Hawthorne
The Brooklyn Museum Online Collection

Photo Four:
Provincetown Players Theater
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
George Elmer Browne

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The Dowager’s Diary: Week Seventy-Seven


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