Hawthorne Class Studio
If the Provincetown artists’ colony can be said to have a birthplace — that is, something more structural than the dunes and tidal flats and cape light — this is the place. It is the Class Studio built in 1907 by the painter Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930) to accommodate the growing number of students in his Cape Cod School of Art. Though his own house, at 9 Miller Hill Road, was intended for that purpose, the school quickly outgrew it. (Distinct properties now, the two were once part of a common parcel running from Bradford Street almost to the New Haven Railroad tracks.)
In Provincetown, Hawthorne’s most emblematic and best-known work is undoubtedly Crew of the Philomena Manta, which he painted in 1915 and 1916 in another studio, at the F. A. Days & Sons lumber yard, 24 Pearl Street, which became the Fine Arts Work Center. It has long been a highlight of any visit to Town Hall and is a centerpiece of the town’s art collection, which includes other evocative Hawthorne works like Fish Cleaners.
Hawthorne, who had studied under William Merritt Chase, was a far larger national figure in the decades immediately after his death than he is today, but his work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Trousseau), the Art Institute of Chicago (Selectmen of Provincetown) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (The Bowl). His legacy also endures through his students and his students’ students — like Franz Kline, for instance, whose studio was at 16 Mechanic Street. Kline’s link to Hawthorne is through Henry Hensche (1901-1992), who was an assistant to Hawthorne for three years. Edwin W. Dickinson (1891-1978) came to Provincetown in 1912 to study with Hawthorne. (All three — Hawthorne, Dicksinson and Hensche — are also associated with 44-46 Pearl Street.) Another student was Ross Moffett (1888-1971), of 296A Commercial Street, a painter whose sweeping mural of Provincetown greets visitors in the entry vestibule at Town Hall and whose minutely detailed account of the early years of the Provincetown Art Association, Art in Narrow Streets, is still in print. In one way or another, they dominated the Provincetown art scene for many years.
In Provincetown Painters, Dorothy Gees Seckler enumerated other artists who sank roots at the Cape end — or at least spent summers here — after studying with Hawthorne: Courtney Allen, Reeves Euler, Jerry Farnsworth, Joe Kaplan, Philip Malicoat, Bruce McKain, Helen Sawyer, Marjorie Windust and George Yater. In addition, she noted, Jack Tworkov, of 30 Commercial Street, had studied with Hawthorne in New York. To that list of students and instructors, the art dealer Julie Heller added John Noble, Richard Miller and Max Bohm, of 676 Commercial Street.
This was Hawthorne’s message to his students, as quoted in Hawthorne on Painting:
“You are here to represent by color, by separation of color, by exact matching of color, what you see, and thereby learn to see.
“Thank God in this time you are free — you have no public to please, no jury of artists, no one but me. You are not here to make pictures — do not worry about the drawing, make the thing as ugly as you like, but put down the colors, matching one against another.
“I don’t say much about drawing because I think drawing the form and painting are better separated. Realize that you haven’t yet the painting point of view — after you have got the spots of color true and in their proper relations you have something to draw with and you can then consider it.
“Remember no amount of good drawing will pull you out if your colors are not true. Get them true and you will be surprised how little else you will need.”
Houghton Cranford Smith (1887-1983) arrived at the Cape Cod School of Art in 1908, after the studio barn was completed. He shared the balcony in the building with his friend Oscar Gieberich (1886-1954). They both served as monitors, which meant taking care of the studio and the models, doing carpentry work, handling correspondence and supplying paints and canvas for Hawthorne’s portrait demonstrations. “I kept accounts of tuitions,” Smith recalled in The Provincetown I Remember, “bought his tobacco and newspapers on Sunday, prepared his canvases with his ‘Hawthorne medium’ (white zinc and chalk), or put on oilers and posed as a fisherman or held hands with a little Portuguese girl while he painted a thing I think he called Youth.” Smith also opened what he said was Provincetown’s first art supply store, in half of the space of Mr. Small’s big clothing store “on the corner where the tracks crossed main street.”
It was Smith’s job as monitor to set up the plein air painting classes for which Hawthorne was renowned. “I would pose the model on a sandy beach or on the end of a wharf, then tell Hawthorne where he could find us when he came to give us an outdoor criticism,” Smith recounted. “He was fascinated with the Portuguese types and the old seafaring men. So now there are many figure paintings of these people in Provincetown. He placed his easel next to the model, then in a thin green color blocked in a head. Over this he glazed or used tempera until the surfaces were the most beautiful enamel-like colors. Many times I have seen him start with an eye. He was so afraid of getting anything to look photographic that he purposely threw one eye higher than the other or took all expression out of a face. … When he painted a fish the colors were like sparkling jewels.”
His students were forced to concentrate on what Hawthorne called “the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another — the fundamental thing.” As his son, Joseph C. (Jo) Hawthorne, recounted: “The problems were presented in an inescapably direct way. For example, a model would be posed on the beach, and the students would work with putty knives so that they could not be tempted to indicate the details of the model’s face that they could not actually see under the hat in the blazing sunlight.” These faceless studies are referred to as “mudheads.” “He was most kind and generous to students,” the younger Hawthorne said, “even though he was not sparing of his criticism, especially when he thought the student had talent.”
Hawthorne died of heart disease in 1930, at the age of 53.
The barn did not go vacant too long. In 1934, newly arrived in Provincetown, Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) took the building over. Years later, Hofmann said that “it had been his destiny to fill the void” left by Hawthorne. One might say — in a very roundabout way — that the Class Studio was responsible for launching the career of Robert De Niro. It was here, at Hofmann’s school, that his father, the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert De Niro Sr. (1922-1993), met his mother, the painter and writer Virginia Admiral (1915-2000). Hoffman abruptly lost the lease to the barn in 1944. After a summer down the hill at Fritz Bultman’s studio, 8 Miller Hill Road, Hofmann purchased the house at 76 Commercial Street with which he’s most closely associated.
Quickly following Hofmann was Morris Davidson (1898-1979), who had landed at Provincetown in 1919 to study with George Elmer Browne, then returned for his honeymoon in 1927. He and his wife Anne purchased the studio barn in 1944. “Their property included an early 19th-century Cape Cod-style house that had been dragged up from the town center,” their granddaughter, Lucinda Rosenfeld, wrote. She added that the house was one of those that had been floated over on scows from Long Point. The Morris Davidson School of Modern Painting (later to be called the Morris Davidson School of Contemporary Painting) was open for business. It was Davidson’s ghost that Michael Mazur discovered when he first visited the barn, looking for the spirits of Hawthorne and Hofmann. He and his wife, Gail Mazur, were staying at the Bultmans’ nearby when Michael decided to poke around the old barn. (“Essay on Studio Show by Michael Mazur,” The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 12 June 2008.)
“Inside the Miller Hill barn were some chairs, an old platform that I took to be a model’s stand and worktables; other than these, it was empty. I walked around, trying to imagine how it might have been to be a Hawthorne student there in the ’20s, or Hofmann’s student when he taught there. … The floor was caked with dust, and with each step, motes rose into the air, glinting in sunbeams from the large skylights. I thought of Mrs. Haversham’s rooms in the haunting film of Great Expectations. Ghosts, shadows of generations, or shades, as Dante’s dead are called — I tried to summon them. I couldn’t, of course. I suppose I had wanted to discover an earlier Provincetown, erase its newer features, and experience the splendid reality of its years as America’s premier art colony — all impossible.”
“As I poked around I noticed a sign about four feet long sticking out between a table and the wall. I pulled it out and realized that at least one other artist must have taught there as well. MORRIS DAVIDSON SCHOOL OF ART was painted in fairly crisp blue letters on a now-yellowed, white background. Morris Davidson, the same Morris Davidson I had studied with as a teen-ager, on West 57th Street in New York, a few doors up from the Art Students League. … I was meeting up with a real ghost from my own past that I could imagine: a dozen or so middle-aged women (probably much younger, but to a teen-ager?) at their easels, and me at mine, a still life of jugs and fruit before us, and a background of colored papers pasted into a pattern. … Suddenly the space meant something personal, resonant.”
Davidson’s school wound down in the 1970s. But even as he approached his 80th birthday, Davidson “was still painting his colorful, Cubist-inspired canvases each morning in the studio,” Rosenfeld wrote. He died in 1979, a year after the class studio was approved for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The next breath of artistic life at the old barn came 15 years later with the arrival of the Pop artist Peter Gee (1932-2005) and his wife, Olga Opsahl-Gee. She later recalled a “memorable chat on the front porch” with Jo Hawthorne, who said, “Why don’t you open the school again!” So they did, under the name Hawthorne School of Art, though there seemed to be no other direct connection than the building itself and a remark by Hawthorne’s son. The centerpiece of the Hawthorne School’s odds-and-ends curriculum was Gee’s color workshop. “This 10-day intensive deals with color, how you look at it, how it makes you feel and how it influences your life,” the school brochure informed prospective students. As The Provincetown Banner would later say, “Given Mr. Gee’s lifelong preoccupation with color, the preservation of Hawthorne’s barn and continuing its tradition was a perfect historical coordinate.” Gee’s death deprived the school of its principal draw, though it was still being nominally operated by Opsahl-Gee through the summer of 2008.
After that, she divided the school’s rattletrap dreamscape of a campus into three distinct parcels. All three were previously denominated 29 Miller Hill Road (which is why you’ll see some guidebooks refer the Class Studio as being at No. 29). Under the new regimen, the Class Studio became No. 25, the nearby Round Barn became No. 27 and the main house became No. 29.
The barn was purchased in 2009 by Joshua H. Prager of New York, a journalist and the author of The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World (2006). Together with Ricky Opaterny, a former Google manager, and Julia Glass, the author of Three Junes (2002), Prager laid out a very ambitious program — known as Twenty Summers, from the last line of Route Six by Stanley Kunitz — that would begin with a $450,000 renovation and winterization of the barn. From September through April, Twenty Summers would offer month-long residencies, sponsored at $20,000 each, to an artist, writer, photographer, architect, dancer, designer or musician. May was to be a month filled with public events.
It sounded like a tall order, and so it turned out to be — a bit too tall in the ravaged economy of the early 21st century, as the organizers tried to keep ahead of tax, insurance and mortgage bills while simultaneously giving birth to a new organization. As even well-established nonprofits struggled to tread water, an embryonic group faced especially high hurdles. In the summer of 2012, Prager reached a deal to sell the barn to Adam Moss and Daniel Kaizer, who already owned the abutting property at 29 Miller Hill Road. They, in turn, agreed to rent the barn to Twenty Summers for one month every year, allowing Prager to concentrate on programming and forgo the residencies. He sounded optimistic as he announced the sale: “There will be days when the townsfolk of Ptown paint in the barn. There will be lectures given by remarkable people that our Web site will beam to the world. There will be excitements in the barn, like NPR’s StoryCorps, which will enable the people of Ptown to record their life stories.” That is supposed to begin in earnest in 2014.
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-04-10
Morris Davidson School of Modern Painting
Hawthorne School of Art
Interim (Twenty Summers)