Martha Silsbee – Watercolor Artist (1859 – 1928)

By Rusty Bastedo
Martha Silsbee was an American watercolor and pastel artist who lived in Dublin in the early part of the 20th century. Though not as well known as the others, Silsbee was associated with the Dublin Art Colony through her teacher, Frank W. Benson. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, she was one of four children. Her great grandfather had been “confidential agent” to Elias Harkett Derby, the first American millionaire. Her grandfather and father were important merchants and investors in shipping.

Martha Silsbee left Salem in the early 1880s to move to Boston. She exhibited three watercolors in the Boston Art Club’s 1885 annual show but did not enroll at the Museum of Fine Arts School of Drawing and Painting until 1892. After 1890, the school was led by Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank W. Benson. Both were trained in Paris and shared a vision of producing students who fused knowledge of traditional curriculum with their own unique exploration of color and light. Martha Silsbee’s watercolors and pastels reflect the excitement communicated by Tarbell and Benson.

There is no indication in Museum School records that Silsbee took more than general courses at the school in 1892, but in 1910-1911 she enrolled at the school again, specifically to study drawing and painting in Life classes.

In 1917, she exhibited a “canvas” in a Vose Galleries exhibition called Works of Women Painters. Her preferred mediums were pastels and watercolors but she may also have done some work in oils. She was active in the Boston arts scene and exhibited frequently at Boston art galleries as well as annual exhibits in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Although Silsbee’s pastels and watercolors are few in number, her sensitivity to color and line are evident. Her subject matter is conventional but her skill as an artist is apparent.

Martha Silsbee kept a Boston winter address and a space at Fenway galleries. Beginning in 1912, however, she listed herself as a summer resident of Dublin, where she remodeled an 1840s farmhouse into an Italian villa. She soon occupied this sparsely furnished house year round, along with two chicken incubators that she kept in her studio. She lived frugally, raising chickens to feed her guests (she could not eat her own chickens).

As late as 1927, a year before her death, Miss Silsbee had a solo exhibition at Doll and Richards — a prominent Boston art gallery. At the time of her death, the contents of her studio listed 20 framed paintings and numerous unfinished works. Two servants were recognized in her will but the bulk of her estate went to charity. The house stood empty for several years but was eventually purchased by Robb and Trix (Thorne) Sagendorph, who named the house Thornehill. It was in this house that the Sagendorphs first started publishing Yankee magazine in 1935. Thornehill’s present owners are Linda and Russell Bastedo.