This scenic isle: A generation of artists view Conanicut
They come in summer and in winter, the roadside painters, trying to capture the essence of this island in watercolor and oil, in pencil and gouache. They are the artists who not only observe the island from Beavertail to the Windmill, but help us to see it as well. They’re part of a long tradition, too. As a matter of fact, Jamestown was a real mecca for artists over 100 years ago, between the Civil War and World War I.
Conanicut Island really captured the notice of American artists after the Civil War. Some of them drifted to Jamestown to rent or build homes and studios to escape ever increasing Newport distractions. Artists and writers were both seduced and seductive as they described Jamestown in glowing terms.
“Conanicut, a long island, brown in the noon light, now softened into wonderful shades of amethyst and violet. . . .” wrote Laura E. Richards in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1892.
Edith Wharton captured the island with her description, “shores of Conanicut faint in the sunset haze,” in “The Age of Innocence.” And writer Thomas W. Higginson lyricized over the “soft low hills of Conanicut” and wrote, “the cloud shadows rest softly on Conanicut.” And, again, “Little shreds of mist had been lying all day, with a shy and guilty look, on the hills of Conanicut.”
The Boston Globe wrote of painter Mary Mason Brooks in 1915, “She painted a number of pictures in and around Jamestown in which she keenly felt the color richness and the light. In fact, this quality of luminosity seems to have been dominant in her.”
Today, we still see these same sights. We still experience the same light. We have only to notice them.
Certainly the best known artist on Jamestown during this time was landscape painter William Trost Richards. He lived here, worked here, and was, at one point, afraid that his wife would think he loved nature here more than he loved her. Though he painted all over the world, his miniatures and full size canvases captured the essence of this island at the end of the last century. He called it, “a mine of wonderful beauty, entirely unworked” in a letter to a friend.
He wasn’t a quick sketch artist. In order to get to the truth of a scene, he often stood for days in a particular spot, and even, at times, in the surf to understand the action of waves. It’s said that once, when he was painting near his house at Jamestown, he was caught by a tidal wave that nearly washed him out to sea.
He repeatedly drew Mackerel Cove, which in the days before the 1938 Hurricane was a rich, deep, sand strand that connected both parts of the island. His 1877 oil miniature captures the moody openness of the cove from Fox Hill. It features a low sun partially covered by clouds and looks as it must have during colonial times, with a few sailboats drifting.
His real love was the sea, though, and in his painting of the breakers near the Dumplings, he caught the swell and crash of the white-veined green waves.
He built his summer house Gray Cliff out by the Dumplings over the distinctive white quartz streak in the island’s coast, and many of his finest canvases were painted in the area. The pictures he did of his home are all that are left of it, standing on its rocky promontory, its colors blending into the earth around it. When Gray Cliff was commandeered and destroyed to build Ft. Wetherill in 1899, he moved to his town home in Newport.
But all of the island was his fair game, from his sunny “Daisy Field, Conanicut” to his straightforward studies of “An Old House on Conanicut Island” that catches a colonial era farmhouse in the sun with birds and tangled trees around it. In 1882, just after he moved to Gray Cliff, he drew a particularly fascinating view called “The Road Through the Moor, Conanicut Island” that shows a dirt road winding through high hills with a raven floating above it. It reminds the viewer of the highlands of Scotland.
Richards wasn’t alone here, though. 1885 was a hot year for artists on this island. In addition to the endless “Sunday painters” who crowded the cliffs and fields, there were the professionals.
James Brade Sword rented the Town Hall, and as the gossip columnist of the Century Illustrated magazine put it, “fitted it up as a most interesting atelier.”It was here, no doubt, that he did his portrait painting, since he was well known for both that and landscapes. Some of these first, like “Boy with a Cigar,” were very amusing.
He was, of course, known to the town and seemed a safe bet to them, since he had bought a house at 8 Newport Street two years earlier, after falling in love with the island on a sketching trip. On that first trip, he painted a small watercolor of the Weeden Farmhouse, which is now at the Jamestown Historical Society.
And Walter Satterlee, a figure painter who specialized in depicting people in colonial dress and exotic Arabian costumes, was not far away, painting in his summer studio. But he also painted the occasional landscape, and the clouds and light of Conanicut were not out of bounds for him.
John Austin Sands Monks had a studio on the north end of the island around the same time. Best known for his studies of sheep (he actually raised the wooly creatures), one of his smaller canvases captures a flock of them crossing a footbridge over the Great Creek while the windmill stands in the background. Today, his elaborately framed large painting of a flock of sheep grazing in the shade beyond a farmhouse graces the wall of Town Hall, a fitting tribute to the animals that once formed the economic base for the island’s economy.
A naval officer by the name of Admiral Charles Henry Davis, II came to the island later on, though he surely knew he would when he went to the Naval Academy in Newport in 1861. He served in the Spanish American War, and when he retired in 1907, he took up painting — specializing in maritime watercolors. By 1914, he stayed at Bramble Hill on the island to spend the summer painting. Two of his paintings, “Old Windmill” and “Narragansett Bay Oyster Company,” belong to the island’s historical society.
Davis was proud of the fact that he had never had a teacher, as he said that art teachers destroyed their students’ individual visions. “If a man is in earnest, he can get along better without a teacher,” he once told a reporter.
Though the generations between the Civil War and WWI opened Jamestown to the art world, they’re followed today by many “plein air” artists who work in a variety of media and schools. All of them help us to appreciate this island more and to see the beauty that surrounds us more clearly.