Not for William F. Halsall (1841-1919) would any chicken-coop garret suffice as a painting studio. No; Halsall, an English marine painter of the old school, needed the space to create vast canvases, the equivalent of Cinemascope in their day. And so he set up shop around 1899 in what had been a short-lived shirt factory. He was the first of several important artists to work here, followed by Ross E. Moffett (1888-1971), Charles Anton Kaeselau (1889-1972) and — perhaps most importantly because he is the most undeservedly overlooked, Niles Spencer (1893-1952) — a precisionist and modernist whose work is an appealing mix of Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis. In addition, the old shirt factory was the home in the 1930s of the Artists’ Lithograph Printing Studio.
The Old Shirt Factory was, in other words, one of the most important art studios in Provincetown history. As a shirt factory? Not so much. It seems to have been in business quite briefly, in the 1880s and 1890s. A notice in The Advocate of 29 June 1899 said simply, “With regret we note that the shirt factory closed yesterday, it being unable to carry on business.” The date is interesting because it coincides with the time that the battleship Oregon, the “Bulldog of the Navy,” had seized America’s popular imagination. Launched in San Francisco in 1893, she was in service in the Pacific in February 1898 when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, offering the United States its rationale for declaring war on Spain. The Oregon was ordered almost immediately to proceed to the Atlantic theater — no easy feat before the Panama Canal. She left San Francisco on 19 March and was pummeled by a terrible storm as she navigated the Strait of Magellan, but managed to arrive at Jupiter Inlet, Fla., on 24 May; 14,500 miles in 66 days, with only five stops for coal. It was an astonishing achievement in naval prowess but also a potent reminder that if America were to play a commanding role on the world stage, it had to be able to move its warships from one coast to another in less than two months’ time.
The spectacle of the mighty ship steaming toward its rendezvous with the Spanish fleet must have seemed perfect to Halsall, who had himself served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. The well-known photograph by John R. Smith at the top of this entry shows Halsall in the Old Shirt Factory with his painting of the Oregon. In Art in Narrow Streets, Moffett described it as a “30-foot canvas of the spectacular voyage around the Horn,” but the painting is self-evidently not 30 feet wide. (Just turn Halsall 90 degrees in your mind’s eye and use him as a ruler. Even allowing for perspective, that canvas isn’t any wider than 20 feet.) And though my command of South American geography isn’t all it should be, I don’t think you can transit the Strait of Magellan and round Cape Horn. At least not if you’re in a hurry. Be that as it may, we’ll depend on Moffet to note the painting’s importance, and its creator’s growing irrelevance in the 20th century:
This picture remained fresh in the minds of local people in 1914 [when Halsall was among the founders of Art Association]. Confirmed as he was in a school that predated even Impressionism, Halsall naturally did not like art that savored of modernism, and he once said of a landscape by Oliver Chaffee, ‘It has neither the anatomy of color nor the grammar of drawing.’ This remark we, being young, bandied among ourselves, thinking it very funny and old-hatish.
Just one year after the old hat had shuffled off the stage, Moffett took over the studio space, with his wife, the artist Dorothy Lake Gregory (1893-1975). Josephine C. Del Deo described it as “their real abode” in her monograph Figures in a Landscape: The Life and Times of the American Painter, Ross Moffett, 1888-1971. “This large factory space was ideal for a painting studio and Ross and Dorothy spent most of their waking hours in its vast interior,” Del Deo wrote. “Upon leaving their rooming house at first light, they would go directly to the Portuguese Bakery to buy a loaf of fresh bread and then head off to the studio where they breakfasted on Portuguese bread toasted on top of an old wood laundry stove.” She continued: “The painting which richly memorializes this moment in their lives is Winter From the Shirt Factory Studio, painted in 1920 and now owned by the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The formal structure of this painting is a stylization, which does not preclude a kind of romantic isolation, a soft wintry solitude against which the dark, obtrusive shapes of houses shunt compositionally against one another in balanced tension.”
I must confess that the artist whose tenure at the Old Shirt Factory most fascinates me is Niles Spencer, who painted in Provincetown from 1923 to 1930, of whom I knew nothing until writing this entry. I felt an immediate kinship because his works combine elements of two of my very favorite painters, Sheeler and Davis, and — strangely sentimental as this sounds — Spencer’s life and mine overlap by five days. I was born Saturday, 10 May 1952. He died Thursday, 15 May 1952. The New York Times described him in its obituary as “a leading member of the precisionist school, concerned with industrial architecture.” His academic credentials were impeccable: the Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Students League. He studied under George Bellows and Robert Henri. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has four of his works, including Provincetown Corner and Universalist Church, Provincetown. The Museum of Modern Art has three of his works. So how could I have been so ignorant? An intriguing clue comes from Wendy Jeffers in her biography on Grove Art Online: “A reticent and introspective man, he did not promote his art and had only two one-man exhibitions in his lifetime.” I like him even more.
What may have been the Old Shirt Factory’s last major artistic incarnation came in 1932 when John Gregory (1903-1992) and Bert Warner established the Artists’ Lithograph Printing Studio. “Our eyes roved around the studio with its interesting display of lithograph prints, the large press and stones in their various stages of being treated,” The Advocate reported in the manner of Talk of the Town. (“Second Demonstration in Old Shirt Factory Studio,” 4 August 1932.) ¶ Posted 2012-12-01