The Making of an Unprecedented Edmund Tarbell Art Exhibit
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
While the rest of us hibernate by the fire, binge-watching Netflix, a small team of art lovers are frantically counting down to March 4. That’s when the doors fling open on the biggest collection of paintings by New Castle artist Edmund C. Tarbell. (Click on title to read more)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written the day before the tragic fire of January 2016 in which the historic Edmund Tarbell House in New Castle, NH was consumed by fire.
Edmund who? Arguably the most successful and influential painter in seacoast history, Tarbell is defined by his Boston connection. Locals may be unaware that the famed creator of the “Boston School” of Impressionist painting, summered in New Castle for three decades, racing his family and drawing inspiration from the Piscataqua region.
An unprecedented 57 works by Tarbell are wending their way toward Discover Portsmouth for the historic exhibition. Treasured works by Tarbell will soon arrive from as far away as Michigan, St. Louis, and Houston, via a professional art transportation company. They will be combined with local works owned by the Tarbell family, many never exhibited before.
“I can’t say it’s well in hand, but close,” says Jeremy Fogg, curator of Illuminating Tarbell, the most ambitious exhibit at the city’s welcome center to date. Discover Portsmouth is opening early in March, well ahead of the spring season, especially for this show.
Fogg was a bit calmer this week on learning that the 72-page catalogue for the show is running off the presses.
“I’m new at this,” says Fogg, a former computer nerd. ”I started typing code in college,” he says, “and I hated it.” Fogg went off to London and toured museums. Returning to the University of NH, he swapped his major to art history and architecture. He eventually found his calling restoring old paintings. Fogg began work eleven years ago at Anthony Moore Painting Conservation in York, Maine.
It all started, he says, with a visit to the shop by historian Richard Candee. Fogg showed the emeritus professor from Boston University a few rarely seen Tarbell family paintings. “We should do a little show,” Candee said. “Why don’t you put something together?”
And what began as a quick sidebar display and a small pamphlet, blossomed into a color catalogue and a mind-boggling museum-quality display that will fill two floors in the Academy Gallery at DPC.
Fogg says he became “not quite obsessed” with the fine artwork and legend of Tarbell, as he began to restore the cache of family paintings. There were also rare personal items from Tarbell’s old New Castle studio.
“We learned a lot more about [Tarbell] by handling the artifacts.Tarbell bought quality canvases, paints, stretcher bars. It’s amazing. The paintings look as if they were just put away a couple of years ago, instead of a century or more.”
In 1938 Tarbell was preparing a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. On August 1, 1938 the Portsmouth Herald announced that Edmund C. Tarbell, “one of America’s greatest artists, died at his home in New Castle this morning after a short illness. With his death the nation loses an outstanding artist, whose paintings have gained him world-wide fame.”
Modernism took over and Tarbell’s use of bright color, natural and domestic subjects, Impressionist brushwork, and a strong classic use of light became old-fashioned. Interest in his work and the Boston School was rekindled in the late 20th century. A 2001 exhibit of 43 Tarbell paintings at the Currier Gallery in Manchester took four years to assemble.
With a number of Tarbell family paintings in hand, and with support from the nonprofit Tarbell Charitable Trust, Jeremy Fogg began assembling a show. He sent out “tons of blind letters” to museums and private owners asking to borrow paintings. The fact that Fogg is an art conservator with an established company, he says, gave him a foot in the door and seemed to set lenders at ease.
Funds from the Tarbell Charitable Trust made the catalogue, created by Phineas Press, possible. It was an astounding bit of luck, Fogg notes, that the new curator at The Portsmouth Historical Society is Gerry Ward, who has long worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where Tarbell’s art school gained fame. Ward described his detailed research on the new catalog as “Tarbelling."
And there is another, even more flash of serendipity behind the upcoming exhibit. It began when painter Alastair Dacey rented an apartment in what was the Tarbell summer residence in New Castle. Dacey, who had trained as a Boston School artist, found himself haunting the home of the master.
Dacey too thought it might be time for another Tarbell exhibit, but his idea was different. Why not arrange a show of living artists who continue to paint in the style inspired by Tarbell? In search of an exhibit space, Dacey met with the former director at Discover Portsmouth.
“Oh that’s really funny,” the director said. “We’ve been approached by Jeremy Fogg foo. You guys should talk.”
And talk they did. They decided to put Fogg’s historical exhibit of Tarbell’s work on the bottom floor of the Academy Gallery. Dacey would then assemble the work of six contemporary artists on the second floor of the restored 1810 brick building that has served as a school and public library.
“The idea of coming up with a show of this scale was ridiculous to start with,” Dacey says. “But it’s happening. I think it’s a testimony to just how much there is going on here in Portsmouth.”
Members of the Boston School were trying to establish a “safe haven” and a marketplace locally, Dacey says. Tarbell and other American Impressionists, hoped to free themselves from the big art market dominated by New York City. In a sense, the upstairs gallery at DPC is a similar revolution, transported north to Portsmouth.
But the Boston School style, Dacey says, is not the same as French Impressionism with spots of bright colors (think pixels on your TV set) that blur as one approaches the painting. The Boston style was a hybrid, he says, of Impressionism, plus Modernism, blended with an academic love of drawing classical figures. The Boston School artists were not true Impressionists, Dacey notes, because “they were too good at drawing.”
The Boston subject matter was more modern. Tarbell painted friends, clients, animals, scenery, objects -- all highly recognizable, skilled, even photographic-like reproductions. They paid great attention to the use of light, the time of day. It was “the reawakening of realism,” at the turn of the 20th century, Dacey says. And it’s happening again at the dawn of the 21st century.
“The Boston School is definitely alive,” Alastair Dacey says. He and his companion artists are proof of that. And that is what he intends to prove with his portion of the Illuminating Tarbell show.
These six artists, Dacey adds, share a common bond with their mentor Tarbell. “It’s all about being humble in the face of Nature, about listening to Nature, and seeing Nature as the core of your work.” There is a lot of creativity involved in painting what is realistic, the artist/curator says. Dacey hopes that message will shine through.
But the clock is ticking. And the two curators are facing a different set of complex problems.
“Jeremy has to find the work, woo the collectors, handle the insurance and shipping,” Dacey says. “I had to deal with weaving a narrative that connects to Portsmouth and connects the different artists upstairs to Tarbell downstairs.”
Despite the cold and snow, Discover Portsmouth is a humming beehive this winter. The increasingly youthful, predominantly female work force, according to a staff member, are “eating, sleeping, and breathing Tarbell.”
A top-notch roster of art experts will present related lectures in March, April, and May. A re-creation of Tarbell’s New Castle studio, featuring items he owned and used, is under construction.
Exhibit coordinator Richard Candee notes with pride the 2016 improvements to the Academy Gallery. A $10,000 “Moose plate” grant from the State of NH will help renovate the original glass windows in the historic building. UV filters, more security cameras, and improved locks and alarms are being installed. And there are more exciting Tarbell secrets and discoveries, Candee hints, that will soon be revealed.
Tarbell hasn’t worked since 1938. But back in York, Maine, Jeremy Fogg is busily, meticulously restoring the last of the Tarbell works for the show.
And how about the paintings for the upstairs gallery? Alastair Dacey pauses. ”Well, they’re still painting them now. They’re still wet.’ But have faith. They will be done and in place when the doors open, he says, and a new age of Tarbell will be born.
Copyright © 2016 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders.
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