A glimpse into the yard is all you need: this is Old Provincetown. Classic Provincetown. Bohemian Provincetown. Scintillating, eccentric, tatterdemalion, devil-may-care. And the visual clues like a dragon-like sculpture of lights lacing the foliage, serene Buddhas below, add to the aura that creative souls dwell within. And they certainly do. For nearly a half-century, 507 Commercial has been the home of one of the town’s most prolific artists, Pat de Groot. A Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant recipient, de Groot is known among other things for her series of cormorant portraits — they are nothing less than portraits — and for serenely small seascapes inspired by the limitless and ever-changing scene that greets her. In her words: “I want to grab a piece of all this, of this sacred place, and say something with paint about the sky and the sea and the horizon and how it affects me.”
De Groot is that precious and endangered species: the Provincetown character. “Conga-drum player, jazz devotee, Buddhist, de Groot also holds a black belt in kempo karate and has been a student of tai chi for a decade,” John Skoyles wrote in The Boston Globe in 2003. She and her husband, the painter Nanno de Groot, bought an undeveloped waterfront lot in 1961 from Sigrid Gudmunds (who also owned 500 Commercial, across the way) and began building. “I did the drawings for the house,” Pat told me in 2011. “This was designed specifically for artists to live and work in.” The double-gabled structure was completed in 1963.
“This is the best Grey Gardens-type house in Provincetown,” John Waters has said of 507 Commercial. He is a friend of Pat de Groot (they are both represented by the Albert Merola Gallery, as is Richard Baker, who once worked in the upstairs studio). And Waters also serves on the board of the Pat Hearn and Colin de Land Cancer Foundation, named for the New York art dealers who spent summers at 507 Commercial before they died, in their 40s.
Nanno de Groot, too, died quite young, at 50, after only a year of good health in which to enjoy his new house. He was born in the Netherlands in 1913 and began painting in 1937 when he was stationed with a shipping company in Bali. After serving in the Dutch merchant marine during World War II, de Groot moved to New York to become a full-time artist. He first came to Provincetown in 1956, renting Fritz Bultman’s studio on Miller Hill Road. Nanno and Pat were wed in 1958. (His previous wife, Elise Asher, later married Stanley Kunitz.)
Pat de Groot’s anthropomorphic marble headstone for her husband is the most distinctive grave marker in Town Cemetery. It was her first sculpture. “Nanno needed a gravestone,” she told me. “There was nothing out there.” Conrad Malicoat lent her tools, like a three-pound hammer, and built a stand. “I started chiseling,” she said, working from her own drawings.
Though she did not start painting in earnest until the 1970s, art had run through much of her life. After working for The Paris Review in her 20s, she apprenticed under the book designer Marshall Lee at the H. Wolf Book Manufacturing Company in New York and went on to books and book jackets for Farar, Straus and Giroux and Random House. After Nanno’s death she began drawing the birds outside her window, then the cormorants that assemble regularly and in great numbers on the harbor breakwater — paddling out by kayak to draw them from up close. “I was interested in the spirit of the bird,” she told me; a spirit she has certainly captured. Another significant series are the rhythmic seascapes. “Although modest in scale and subtle in their optical effects, Ms. de Groot’s oil-on-panel paintings exude a concentrated sense of spiritual and aesthetic purpose — part Zen, part American Transcendalist, part Modernist formalist,” Ken Johnson wrote in The New York Times in 2000, when de Groot had her first New York show at Pat Hearn’s gallery in Chelsea.
Hearn and her husband, Colin de Land, who was also an art dealer, spent summers at 507 Commercial, as has Waters. They were both significant figures in New York. Roberta Smith of The Times described Hearn as a “pioneer of the art scene in the East Village, SoHo and Chelsea” and de Land as a dealer “whose ambivalence about commercialism was reflected in an art gallery that sometimes resembled an anti-art gallery, if not a work of Conceptual Art.” Hearn died of cancer in Provincetown in 2000. Her husband died three years later, also of cancer. Waters, who was represented by de Lands’ American Fine Arts gallery, said he regards the big tree in the front yard of 507 Commercial as their unofficial memorial.