Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Island Sketching

Eric Hudson "Maud Knowlton and Alice Swett Sketching"  1905 Monhegan Museum

This is wonderful portrait of two artists whose work and lives have fallen into some obscurity.  Maud Briggs Knowlton (1870-1956) was a dynamic ground-breaker.  She and her friend Alice Swett were the first two women artists in the famous Monhegan Island (Maine) artist's colony. They painted at the turn of the 20th century on this island twelve miles off the coast of Maine, no easy journey, along with a dozen or so other hardy artist souls like William Trost Richards, Alfred Bricher and Eric Hudson who captured the two women at work in this charming plein air sketch.

Knowlton was a well-known Manchester, New Hampshire artist and educator. I don't know where she trained, perhaps at the Museum School in Boston, like her friend Swett, but she was a highly-respected teacher at the Manchester Institute of Art. She was also one of the very first female museum administrators in the United States. She was appointed to be the director of the Currier Gallery of Art, in Manchester New Hampshire, in 1929. As the museum's first director she is crediting with laying a strong foundation for the institution (which is alive and well today with the new name of the Currier Museum of Art.) Known for her excellent instincts and strong work ethic,

Maud Briggs Knowlton (director, 1929 - 46) faced a formidable challenge. With the exception of the Currier family portraits, a friend's bequest of unremarkable landscape and genre paintings, and Penelope Snow's gift of several panels of French wallpaper...there was neither art to fill the galleries nor an acquisition policy to guide the development of the collections. Wisely, Knowlton arranged a series of notable loan exhibitions from private and commercial sources, including a presentation of Rodin's work in 1931, until she and the trustees determined how best to proceed...
Knowlton's first purchase was Crest of the Wave, a bronze fountain sculpture by the American sculptor Harriet Frishmuth, a pupil of Rodin's....In a few bold moves, Knowlton...launched the American painting collection with the acquisition of John Singleton Copley's superb 1769 portrait of John Greene... In 1936, she bought the last portrait John Singer Sargent ever painted, an elegant likeness of the melancholy Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston... The next year she purchased Childe Hassam's luminous oil "The Goldfish Window", which delights Currier visitors today as much as it did fifty years ago."  ~Nancy Tieken, from the Introduction to American Art from the Currier Gallery of Art

Knowlton is known to have famously said, "One good canvas is worth a whole gallery of undistinguished paintings." 

Less information can be found about Alice Swett (1847-1916.)  Several decades older than her friend Knowlton with whom she took part in the early Monhegan Island art colony in the summers, she was known to have trained at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and was an exhibiting member of the Boston Art Club.

Eric Hudson (1864-1932) was an American artist known mainly for his striking maritime paintings. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he studied at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and also at the Académie Julian in Paris. He lived most of his adult life in New York City but maintained a summer home on Monhegan Island, where he was an integral member of the art colony there. His work is in many major collections in the US including the Monhegan Museum, the National Academy of Design and the Smithsonian Institution. 

Many thanks to two people for sending me this image, painter Alexandra Tyng, and writer Carl Little. This image appears in Little's beautiful book, The Art of Monhegan Island. n.b. In the book the painting is titled "Maude Knowlton and Alice Swett sketching", but as this is a mis-spelling of Knowlton's first name, a mistake probably made by Hudson,  I took the liberty of correcting it.


Alexandra Tyng said...

One of my favorite Monhegan paintings! I first saw it in Carl Little's book, The Art of Monhegan. It's curious why the work of these women is not more familiar to us today.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Thank you! yes, it does seem strange that these women are relatively unknown today, especially as Maud Knowlton in particular was a pioneer in the field of museum (!!!) administration. There are many factors responsible for why women who may have had distinguished careers in their lifetimes and left behind major monuments in the form of thriving museums (or actual monuments) are forgotten today but these reasons are part of a complex web...too intricate to unpick in a simple blog post as i am sure you would agree! In any case, thanks again!

Leslie said...

Just home from three days. Hope you had better weather! It was wonderful, even in the rain and wind.

Leslie said...

When I used to go in the fall, I'd stay in Jackie Hudson's studio on Deadman's Cove.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Wow, Leslie, that is so cool! I wonder if the Hudson house is still available for rent?!