The Monhegan Museum of Art & History first opened its doors in 1968. “At that time, it was just a few rooms on the first floor of the lightkeeper’s house,” said Ed Deci, who has been the director of the museum since 1983.
This year, the museum – which has expanded over the years to include all of the buildings atop Monhegan Island’s Lighthouse Hill – is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is doing so with a comprehensive exhibit that opened Sunday, July 1 featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection “representing what the art colony has been” on Monhegan over the past 160 years, Deci said in a recent interview at the museum.
“This is a pretty big thing for us,” said Deci.
“The Monhegan Museum: Celebrating Fifty Years” features works by everyone from Aaron Draper Shattuck, who first climbed the hill up to the Monhegan lighthouse in June 1858, as Deci points out in his essay “One Hundred Sixty Years of Monhegan Island Art,” to such later luminaries as the late actor, comedian, and artist Zero Mostel, wood-assemblage artist Louise Nevelson, and painter Andrew Wyeth. There is one piece from each of the 79 featured artists.
Deci’s essay appears in the book “The Monhegan Museum: Celebrating Fifty Years 1968-2018,” an impressive 172-page hardbound commemorative book by Deci, Emily R. Grey, Jennifer G. Pye, and Robert L. Stahl, available for $40 in the museum’s shop and online at the museum’s website.
“The amazing thing about the Monhegan art colony is all of the schools, all of the art movements in America had representatives on Monhegan, from the Hudson River School in the mid-19th century to the Luminists, the Impressionists, the Ashcan School, the Regionalists, and so on,” said Deci. “We selected pieces to show that whole history that has been here.”
Walking through the building that houses the bulk of the exhibit – the white, wooden building that is a replica of the original assistant lightkeeper’s house – Deci pointed out some of the highlights in an exhibit filled with historical highlights.
Landscape painter Robert Van Vorst Sewell’s “At the Dock,” from 1916, features the island’s dock shortly after a boat has arrived from the mainland carrying people, suitcases, and so on, much the way such vessels as the Hardy Boat, based in New Harbor, carry people and their belongings to and from the island today.
Notable in Sewell’s slice-of-life piece is the horse and wagon waiting to carry unloaded goods in place of today’s pickup trucks. Other than that, and the period clothing, Sewell’s painting looks quite similar to contemporary Monhegan scenes, right down to the virtually ubiquitous artist painting at an easel. (Deci points out in the commemorative book that the artist pictured “is believed to be Sewell himself.”)
Deci paused to admire Jacqueline Hudson’s dramatic 1971 painting “Lobster Buoys.” “Jackie spent about 90 summers on Monhegan,” he said. “She was part of the original committee that started the museum. She’s very important.”
Eric Hudson’s oil painting “Maud Briggs Knowlton and Alice Swett,” circa 1900, captures the two painters seated outdoors before easels, protected from the sun by black umbrellas. Swett’s watercolor “Untitled (Chadwick House and Manana),” also circa 1900, and Knowlton’s undated “Flower Garden” are featured in the current show.
Charles Ebert’s circa-1914 painting “Grammy Richard’s House” is a pretty Impressionist piece featuring a Monhegan scene that shows how little has changed on the island over the decades. Mary Roberts Ebert, the wife of Charles Ebert, weighs in with “Village Lane,” a 1930 watercolor, another scenic look at the village of Monhegan.
Aldro T. Hibbard, who traveled to Monhegan from his home in Rockport, Mass. to paint, offers “Monhegan Harbor,” created during the 1930s.
Robert Henri, “an important teacher in American art at the turn of the century, the 1800s to 1900s,” as Deci described him, weighs in with “Cloudy Sunset,” a lovely coastal landscape painting. Students of Hibbard – Rockwell Kent, George Wesley Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Randall Davey, whom Deci described as “giants of American art” – also feature in the current show.
Across the lawn from the main portion of the current exhibit is the building where the post-World War II pieces are housed. Large portraits of former Monhegan lightkeeper Daniel Stevens and his wife – “Daniel Stevens,” by Alice Kent Stoddard, and “Marie Angelique Cannonier Stevens,” by Isabel Branson Cartwright – greet one upon entering the building, which was the couple’s home “for quite a number of years,” Deci pointed out.
Abstract painter Hans Moller’s “Homage to Vernon Burton,” a watercolor from 1968, is a visually entertaining, colorful piece depicting buildings and boats on the beach. Moller, Deci writes in “The Monhegan Museum,” “fled Germany in 1936 and settled in New York, where he successfully painted and sold his work for many years.”
Mostel’s “Harbor Reflections,” in the same room, is equally upbeat.
Charles E. Martin’s 1975 mixed media piece “Monhegan Harbor at Night” pictures a dimly lit post-sunset sky and a number of fishing boats in the harbor with their interior lights on. “Monhegan Moonlight,” a linoleum block print, heavy on the black, by Henry Kallem, is similarly moody.
Perusing “The Monhegan Museum: Celebrating Fifty Years,” which runs through Sunday, Sept. 30, is well worth doing at length for the insight it offers into the historical importance of many of the artists working on Monhegan and the evolution of the artists’ approach to the largely unchanging environment. The accompanying book provides a great deal of background information on the featured pieces and the artists who created them, as well as interesting historical information on the museum itself.
Coming up on Wednesday, July 18 from 1-3:30 p.m. is a walking tour led by Leith MacDonald to sites where various artists have painted. Go to monheganmuseum.org/50th-anniversary-events for details.
The Monhegan Museum of Art & History is located at 1 Lighthouse Hill Road, Monhegan. It is online at monheganmuseum.org and can be reached by phone at 596-7003. Museum hours in July and August are 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Hours in September are 1:30-3:30 daily.