Inspired by God: The Artists of Mount Monadnock, 1888-1950 (article continues below)
By Edie Clark
Copyright © Edie Clark 2008
The Dublin Art Colony, which was not called such until much more recently, began in the personage of one artist, Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) who came to Dublin in 1888 and whose artistic passion, eccentricity and magnetic personality subsequently attracted such a constellation of artists that the term came into being as a matter of convenience, nearly one hundred years later, in an effort to celebrate the deep artistic heritage of this small New Hampshire village. This whirl of artistic activity lasted for about sixty years, though many of the artists' descendants still reside in the area. The Friends of the Dublin Art Colony was founded in 1995 by a group of enthusiastic residents who not only wanted to celebrate this heritage but also to acknowledge the ongoing creative force that continues to exist in Dublin and in the surrounding towns. In 2007, the group changed its name to Monadnock Art / Friends of the Dublin Art Colony. The mission of this group is to celebrate the past as well as the future of the work of the many artists who currently live and work in the shadow of the small but powerful Mount Monadnock.
At the end of the 19th century, Dublin was not the typical New Hampshire farm community. To the contrary, there was great natural beauty which had originally been put on the map by such luminaries as Thoreau and Emerson, who both made pilgrimages to Dublin and wrote of its magical quality. Dublin had the mystical Mount Monadnock as a backdrop and its lake, once known as Monadnock Lake and now known as Dublin Lake, reflected the mountain's iconic profile. Many wealthy summer residents, prominent in government and business, lived in grand, elegantly designed summer homes hidden discreetly around the lake.
Abbott Thayer was the son of a horse-and-buggy doctor in Keene, New Hampshire. Thayer was an Emersonian Transcendentalist and originally came to Dublin at the behest of Mary Amory Greene, a Dublin summer resident and one of his more ardent admirers. Greene, step-daughter of Mrs. John Singleton Copley Greene, was herself a wealthy philanthropist who took art classes from Thayer. The story goes that her affection for Thayer and his work reached such a point that, tired of taking the train from Harrisville to Keene, she built him a summer house – below Monadnock and above Dublin Lake – so he would be closer to her.
Richard Meryman, Jr., the son of the Dublin artist of the same name, has described Thayer as “a needy genius, catnip to the protective instincts of some women.” As well, he says, he was “an Olympic class eccentric.” No doubt. He moved his wife and children into the uninsulated summer house that Mary Greene built for him and took up year-round residence. In the era of tuberculosis, Thayer believed in the healing power of fresh air. Summer and winter, he and his family slept outdoors in lean-to's which were open to the elements on one side. During the cold months, they wrapped in bearskins and claimed no discomfort.
Above all, he was a mesmerizing teacher who attracted artists of all kinds to Dublin where they sat at his feet and became swept up in his passions. He believed his art was “dictation from God.” His mission was perfect beauty and Mount Monadnock was totem. Aside from his powerful, mystical paintings of angels and the mountain, Thayer is well-known as the designer of camouflage, now used by virtually every soldier on earth, and as the first conservationist. His foresighted and strident efforts to save Mount Monadnock from development started a movement that has succeeded in creating a mountain free of lights at night, cell towers or any structure whatsoever within a goodly distance of its circumference. For that alone, he should be celebrated, however, it is for his art and his force-of-nature personality for which he is best remembered.
Many of the artists that comprise the group of artists who congregated in Dublin at that time came there either to study with Thayer or to be with him. George de Forest Brush (1855-1941) met Thayer at the National Academy of Design in New York City and they connected again in Paris. A friendship grew that led Brush to Dublin, in 1898, where he eventually settled and worked for the rest of his life, dying there in 1941. Brush, remembered as a warm, gentle and theatrical man, spent time in the 1880s in the American West, painting Indians on their reservations. This imbued him with lifelong sympathy and compassion for these native Americans. In his later years, he worked mostly in portraits. His work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the MFA in Boston and at the Freer in Washington D.C., where Abbott Thayer's work is on display as well.
Others of Thayer's disciples included Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), one of the great American Impressionists. Before moving on to the New Hampshire seacoast where he painted mostly outdoors, landscapes and marines, Benson spent four or five summers in Dublin, working under Thayer's influence, painting ethereal, idealized portraits of women. He also painted the mountain and the lake. Muralist and painter Barry Faulkner (1881-1966), a cousin of Abbott Thayer's, also grew up in Keene but had to go to New York to study under Thayer, who was more than thirty years his senior. He also studied there under George de Forest Brush so these strong ties to Dublin eventually led him there. His studies in Italy brought him his first mural commission which began his distinguished career. His mosaic murals enhance such buildings as the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, the John Hancock Building in Boston, the National Archives in Washington D.C. as well as several state capitol buildings.
Rockwell Kent(1882-1971) was an apprentice to Thayer for two summers, 1903 and 1904. Kent went on to paint wild landscapes at the ends of the earth – Greenland and Tierra del Fuego – and is associated with the artists of Monhegan as well as other art communities. He never resided in Dublin but he returned often to visit Thayer. One of Kent's best known paintings, of the mountain and a shadowed Dublin Lake, is in the permanent collection at Smith College. A socialist and member of the Communist Party, Kent was sufficiently outraged by the way he was treated during the McCarthy investigations that he donated a large portion of his art “to the people of the Soviet Union” where much of it is now on display at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Until recently, these paintings were not available for viewing.
Another who came to the mountain and stayed was Richard Meryman (1882-1963). A native of Chelsea, Massachusetts, Meryman, who had studied under Frank W. Benson and Edmond C. Tarbell at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, came to Dublin in 1906 to work as a copyist for Thayer. Since Thayer believed his work to be God-given passages, he feared his own meddling and therefore employed copyists like Meryman to preserve the work at certain points. He used these copies to accelerate the work. He feared that God might abandon him at any moment and then the painting would be spoiled. So Meryman and others (including Alexander James) were there, essentially, to save Thayer from himself. Eventually gaining stature on his own as a landscape and portrait artist, Meryman became a part of Thayer's inner circle and, in 1935, settled in Dublin, where his family still maintains the home Meryman bought at auction in 1924 for back taxes. His impressionistic renditions of the mountain are highly collectible, as are his portraits, many of them commissioned by summer residents.
Alexander James (1890-1946) was a student not only of Thayer's and but also of Frank Benson. James was born in Cambridge into an intellectually rich heritage: his father was William James, the Harvard philosopher and his uncle was Henry James, the novelist. In spite of this heavy intellectual background, Alec, as he was known, was more inclined toward art, which, after some consternation in the family, he was allowed to pursue. He first came to Dublin at the age of 17 to study under Thayer and for seven years, he divided his time between Boston and Dublin. His early work as a portrait artist caught the attention of John Singer Sargent who became a lifelong friend. James did some landscapes but he put most of his energy into portraits. In 1919, James moved with his growing family to Dublin. But there was really to be no “home” for Alec as he left his family frequently, or took them with him, as the case required, to such diverse landscapes as California, France, and the apparently very alluring Richmond, New Hampshire, just twenty-three miles from Dublin but very far in the character of its people, whose faces he committed to canvas in abundance. In Richmond, he bought an old farm in the so-called Polecat district and went there to live, without his family. Some say it was here he was happiest. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his elite upbringing, James was drawn to the faces of the common man and delighted in their presence around him. He returned to Dublin and had a studio constructed behind their big brick house in Dublin. The studio was completed in October and James died the following February. On the day of Alexander James' funeral, all work was suspended in Dublin, the stores closed. Crowds came from all over to attend the service at the Dublin church. Those who could not get into the church, stood outside in the snow.
Like Thayer, Alexander James also attracted students and nurtured their careers. He met the Russian artist Gouri Ivanov-Rinov (1902-1966), who came to study with James and eventually built a house of rammed earth on a piece of property in Dublin that was given to him by the James family. He lived there with his wife Muriel for the rest of his life. He painted religious icons as skillfully as he painted landscapes, some of them local, some from other locales. Onni Saari (1920-1992), the son of the gardener at the MacVeagh estate in Dublin, caught James' attention as well as Barry Faulkner's and the two of them sponsored an art show for Saari when he was 18. He went on to New York where he spent his career, mostly as a graphic artist, producing book jackets and covers for LPs. At his death, Saari left hundreds of canvases, which he had kept hoarded in his mother's barn in Harrisville, none of which he felt were good enough to sell. However, strong sales at a show staged in Harrisville after his death proved him wrong.
A strong bond was formed between James and Albert Quigley (1891-1961) who lived in neighboring Nelson. Theirs was a long friendship of mutual admiration. Ostensibly, Quigley made frames for James' portraits. His frames were highly desired. But Quigley was also a wonderful painter in his own right. Like the good folks of Richmond, Quigley was of the earth and not to the manor born. He lived right off the Nelson town green in a tumble-down house where he raised his family, clearing off the kitchen table in order to paint and trading his paintings for groceries and odd jobs that he needed done. He painted portraits and landscapes, evocative of the Depression, a time when the New England landscape showed its bones. The multi-talented Quig, as he was known, was also a well-known fiddler and played Monday nights for the Nelson dances.
Like Thayer, Joseph Lindon Smith (1863-1950) came to Dublin as a result of a gift of land from Mrs. John Singleton Copley Greene. The land, known as Loon Point, was given to his parents and this point of land, which juts out into Dublin Lake, became a kind of stage on which Joseph Lindon Smith played out his fantasies, staging pageants and hosting parties. Smith was a landscape and portrait artist who, in his early years, was a scout who traveled Europe for Isabella Stewart Gardner, buying art for her now-famous museum collection. On a chance trip to Egypt, he discovered what would become his life work: copying hundreds of Egyptian wall paintings. At a time when photographic reproduction was not possible, Smith's paintings became the only way these ancient treasures could be viewed by a wider audience. He often went inside the tombs just after they had been opened, when the colors were vivid, not yet faded by the outside elements. Smith gained an international reputation painting copies of the interiors of the tombs and temples of Egypt, a solitary, exacting task. But at home, he revealed a great sense of fun and a love of children that was borne out in the pageants he staged at his lakeside “Teatro Bambino,” where elaborate plays were acted by children and adults throughout the summer. At Loon Point, he built what became known as “the Big House,” a vast, tall structure, something like an Italian villa, lush with gardens and statuary. On the “Chinese Porch,” which stretched near the water, celebrities such as poet Amy Lowell, Mark Twain, Amelia Earhart, novelist John P. Marquand, artist John Singer Sargent and a host of others, including, of course, the core group of Dublin artists, gathered for evening galas.
While these vestiges of the Gilded Age were played out on one side of Dublin, another artist was at work on the far side of town, a section of town that eventually (and perhaps symbolically) seceded from Dublin to become Harrisville. William Preston Phelps (1848-1923), whose lifespan was nearly exactly the same as Abbott Thayer's, was born in the house where his family had farmed since the 1700s. The Dublin farm, with its unobstructed view of Mount Monadnock, was poor but proud. As a boy, Preston, as he was known by family and friends, loved the animals and the hills all around the farm. He especially loved the mountain. As a young man, he showed artistic talent and so, at the age of 14, he was sent away to earn a wage, to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was apprenticed to a sign painter. There his art grew from elaborate and meticulous signage – scrollwork and elliptical scenes painted on carriage doors – to local landscapes which he leaned in the store windows for sale. Local businessmen, recognizing his talent, pooled money to send him to Europe to study. From there, his art and his reputation spread. He studied with several masters and then traveled throughout Europe with his friend Willard Metcalf. He eventually returned to the family farm in Dublin (which by then had become Chesham). Though he had traveled widely and is said to have been the first to ever paint the Grand Canyon, Phelps' heart lay with the mountain. In his last twenty-five years, he painted the mountain from every aspect. However, after the death, first of his son and then of his wife, he lost the farm to debt and all of his paintings were auctioned off on a sultry August day in 1921. A despondent Phelps was committed to the state hospital in Concord, where he died in 1923. His paintings have been exhibited widely and are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as museums in Lowell and throughout New Hampshire.
While students came from far and near to study with Phelps, just as they came to study with Thayer, there is no evidence that Phelps and Thayer ever met. Living only two or three miles apart and working as they were in apposition to each other, they surely must have been aware of each other if not perhaps in silent conversation over their views of art. The works of William Preston Phelps are of cows in the field, pigs in the barnyard, horses shank-deep in mud at the sugar house, all the many gritty scenes of a working farm, as well as his nearly obsessive treatments of the mountain whose power lay claim to both men. Thayer's ethereal angels and the representations of the mountain that make it seem larger than life are in sharp contrast, as are the lives and works of the exuberant group of diverse artists who congregated around Thayer in Dublin. The existence of all of them together at this seminal time in the history of this small New Hampshire town is strong evidence that more than just an interest in art was in the air. The mystical beauty and magnetic pull of the area, first recognized by Emerson and Thoreau, must have been at work then and remains to this day, as new artists continue to flourish in the shadow of this strangely renowned and much beloved mountain.
- Hyman, Tom, Village on a Hill: A History of Dublin, New Hampshire 1752-2000,
Peter Randall, Publisher, 2002
- Meryman, Richard S., Jr., The Dublin Lake Club: A Centennial History,
Dublin Lake Club, 2001
- Meryman, Richard S., Jr., A talk about Abbott Thayer given at the Dublin Public Library on June 21, 2006
- Smith, Corinna Lindon, Interesting People: Eighty Years with the Great and Near-Great, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962
- Smith, Joseph Lindon, Tombs, Temples and Ancient Art, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956
- Conversation with Richard S. Meryman, Jr.
- Dublin Historical Society, Dublin, NH