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 Walter Cole Brigham  (1870 - 1941)

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Lived/Active: New York/Maryland      Known for: landscape, marine and floral painting, mosaics

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Ad Code: 4
Walter Cole Brigham
from Auction House Records.
Tulip Beds
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Shelter Island Historical Society & Museum:
Walter Cole Brigham was born in 1870. His family lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and summered on Shelter Island, on the East End of Long Island, New York. Brigham attended Johns Hopkins University, and studied painting at the Maryland Institute of Art & Design, and under Andre Castaigne. Between 1894 and 1898, he studied at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, Sindons Mowbray, Kenyon Cox and Douglas Volk.

In 1898, he embarked for Italy to pursue his artistic interests and budding career as a painter. In 1899, the Brigham family relocated permanently to Shelter Island, and became owner-operators of the Greenport Basin and Construction Company, now known as the Greenport Shipyard, on Long Island’s North Fork.

On his return from Europe that year, Walter Cole Brigham established the Harbor Villa art studio on Shelter Island, next door to the family home. At the turn of the 20th century, Shelter Island was a flourishing summer resort and port of call for day steamers and private yachts. The Brigham studio and tearoom were strategically located between two lavish summer hotels, and near Station #5 of the prestigious New York Yacht Club, so Brigham found many customers for his art, and held sketching classes in his studio.

Living on the island of his boyhood summers, Brigham’s imagination was captured by the beauty and abundance of the seashore's shells and stones. He filled his workshop with art nouveau jewelry, lampshades, fire screens and mosaics made from seashells, translucent stones and brightly colored glass that he collected, assembled with special durable cement still touted today as a family secret. Thus Brigham became known as the originator and premier practitioner of marine mosaic art.

He also continued to work in oils and watercolor, painting the beautiful and familiar Shelter Island scenes loved by so many. In 1901, he received a major commission from William Gillette, the famous actor, to produce decorative windows for Gillette's splendid houseboat, Aunt Polly, and another in 1902 from F. M. Smith, for windows for his yacht, the Hauoli.

Between 1903 and 1915, he produced several important mosaic memorial and ecclesiastical windows. Brigham described his marine mosaics as 'the consecration of common things…from fields, the beach and the sea'. A "New York Times" reporter of the day wrote that Brigham's work 'only demonstrated …that the common things, the real things of life, when placed harmoniously together are the most beautiful and by far transcend the artificial.'

The same could be said of his paintings, which are light- and color-filled scenes of local and natural beauty. In 1911, Brigham married Jeannette Lawson, daughter of the general manager of the grand Shelter Island hotel, The Manhanset House, which had burned to the ground in a spectacular fire only the year before. To support his growing family and supplement his income from his mosaics and painting, Brigham turned to insurance as a career, and by 1915 had less time to devote to his artistic pursuits.

By 1926, the Brigham family home was closed and later sold. Its large studio first became the well-known Offshore Club, and is now the site of the swimming pool of the Dering Harbor Inn. After that time, he painted an occasional painting on commission or for pleasure, concentrating mainly on his family responsibilities. For a time in 1934-1935, in the worst of the Depression, he wintered with his family in Topeka, Kansas where his wife's sister lived.

Back on Shelter Island, he resumed painting for enjoyment, and once again sold his work to the tourist trade. Most of the paintings done by Brigham during these later years are miniatures, some as small as 2" by 2".

Walter Cole Brigham died in 1941 at age 71, and was buried in a family plot in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Between 1900 and 1915, at the height of his full-time artistic activity, Brigham’s marine mosaics and paintings appeared in group exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia's American Art Society (where he received a silver medal), the New York Athletic Club, the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and in one-man shows at the Architectural League in New York, the Toledo Museum of Art, Marshall Field's in Chicago, and the Powell Gallery, New York City.

In 1935, he exhibited at the 60th Anniversary Exhibition of the Art Students League.Most of Brigham's marine mosaics and paintings vanished from Shelter Island with yachtsmen and seasonal visitors, who carried them away to their permanent homes. Notable exceptions among the marine mosaics are three fine memorial windows located at the Union Chapel in the Grove and St Mary's Episcopal Church on Shelter Island. Three other windows are on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Tuller School in North Haven, New York, and in a private collection in Florida.

His paintings and smaller marine mosaics are found today in many private collections on Long Island, in homes along the eastern seaboard and elsewhere, and at the Shelter Island Historical Society and Museum.

Prepared by the Shelter Island Historical Society, with the kind assistance of Walter Lawson Brigham. April, 2002

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