In the early years of the 20th century, the Cornish Artists Colony was one of the more popular places for creative fine art activity in the eastern United States. Between 1895 and 1925, nearly 100 artists, sculptors, writers, designers, and well-known politicians chose Cornish as the area where they wanted to live, either full time or during the summer months. The natural beauty of Cornish was what originally attracted its many settlers. With views across the Connecticut River Valley to Mount Ascutney in Vermont, the idyllic rolling-hill scenery resembled an Italian landscape. Countless paintings, sculptures, writings, as well as gardens from the Cornish Colony live on, continuing to plant seeds of inspiration.
The name Cornish, although referencing the town in New Hampshire, is more reflective of a state of mind and a sense of beautiful place rather than a solid geographical location. The Colony was in fact spread out over Windsor, Vermont, as well as the villages of Plainfield and Cornish in New Hampshire. Windsor was the mailing address for the entire area and the arrival point of most of the colonists, who usually came from New York City, which was a grueling nine-hour train ride.
Members of the colony in some ways epitomized the American Renaissance in their attempts to recreate the ideals of a past golden age. This golden age vision could describe the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the first artist resident of the Colony, and Herbert Adams, as well as the paintings by George de Forest Brush, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Henry O. Walker, Henry B. Fuller, and Kenyon Cox.
Herbert Adams (1858-1945), Winston Churchill, William Howard Hart (1863-1937), Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), the Shipmans, the Manships, and the Zorachs all lived in Plainfield. Ellen Shipman had calling cards that read: "Geographically in Plainfield, Socially in Cornish."
Cornish was the primary gathering spot and was considered one of the most beautifully gardened villages in the United States. The gardens were designed, created, and maintained by the artists, which made them even more appealing to the public. Edith Bolling Galt, the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, wrote in her book, My Memoir: "Cornish is a charming spot, a mecca for artists and cultivated people, the chief rivalry among these delightful folk seemed to be who could make the loveliest garden. there seems to be about it all a halo of gorgeous colors from the flowers."
The migration of distinguished creative persons to the area of Cornish began in 1885, when Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) moved there at the insistence of his friend and patron Charles Cotesworth Beaman, an influential New York and Washington lawyer. Beaman had systematically acquired hundreds of acres in Cornish with the idea of bringing artists, sculptors and other politicians to form the core of an interesting and invigorating summer colony. Reportedly Saint Gaudens was also interested in coming to the Cornish area because he thought he could find Lincolnesque-type men who could serve as models for his sculpture of the Standing Lincoln, which he completed in 1877, and which now marks the entrance to Lincoln Park in Chicago.
Upon his arrival, Saint-Gaudens rented a former inn, Huggins Folly, from his friend Charles Beaman, and eventually converted the old inn to a summer studio and house. It is now part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic site, property that in 1965 became a part of The National Park Service.
An elaborate bronze statue with a Civil War theme, The Shaw Memorial, by Saint-Gaudens is on display at the Cornish property, a version of a memorial to the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. Immortalized today by the film, Glory, the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth was renowned in its own era for bravery and sacrifice during the Civil War. After the war, a group of Bostonians raised funds to commission a monument in honor of the regiment and its contribution to the war for emancipation. Saint-Gaudens was selected to create the tribute in the form of a colossal relief sculpture that today exists in several versions: Saint-Gaudens’ full-scale plaster work, comprising twenty-one pieces and cast in bronze, stands on the Boston Common. The castings from the original made up a later version in France. Another, with slight variations in details, eventually found its way to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, which had become a museum dedicated to his work. A restored plaster cast is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Some of the artists who came shortly after Saint Gaudens were his friends: Thomas Dewing (1851-1938) and Maria Dewing (1845-1927), Henry Walker (1843-1929), and the architect, etcher, and landscape painter Charles Platt (1861-1933). It was shortly after his arrival in Cornish that Thomas W. Dewing developed his very personal form of aestheticism in the portrayal of elegant women, singly or in groups, shown in refined interiors. The Cornish environment especially influenced the development of what Dewing termed his decorations, in which long-limbed, thin-boned ladies were absorbed in atmospheric, green toned landscapes. Until 1905 Dewing and his wife remained in Doveridge, the cottage they purchased in 1887, from Charles Beaman. Of Thomas Dewing, Alma Gilbert-Smith, Director of the Cornish Museum, wrote: . . .it is an undeniable fact that Dewing was considered the most serious and respected of all the artists who worked and lived here (Cornish Art of the Past Century: Art for Arts Sake).
The Dewings were followed by others including Stephen Parrish (1846-1938), a principal figure in the American etching revival, and later noted as the leading landscape painter of Cornish. He began summering there in 1891, and became a year round resident after 1894. He commissioned Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre to build Northcote, his estate in Cornish, and he developed gardens on his property, which were to become nationally famous. Later, his son, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) also purchased land in Plainfield in 1898, following the urgings of his father, and there pursued the golden age ideals of some of the earlier members of the colony. Maxfield Parrish became one of the Cornish colonys most famous artists, and some of his works, such as Daybreak, have sold for over four million dollars. His accomplishments included a series of sixteen murals for the Curtis Publishing Company, and the North Wall Panel mural for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s reception room in her Long Island mansion. The North Wall Panel is unique because it features many of Parrish’s Cornish friends and neighbors including his wife Lydia and his alleged mistress Susan Lewin who was his long-time model. Others in the mural are Parrish himself, hiding sheepishly behind Lewin’s skirts, Mrs. Winston Churchill, and Mrs. Herbert Adams.
From the early group who either built their homes themselves or had them built, the Colony began to flourish. George de Forest Brush (1855-1941) was a principal figure there before moving to Dublin, New Hampshire. He began spending summers in Cornish in 1892, shortly after he turned from the Indian subject matter on which his reputation was based, and changed to themes of mother and child, emulating his friend Abbott Handerson Thayer in an updating of Renaissance subjects and aesthetics. Often the landscape backgrounds in his mother and child subjects are of the Connecticut River where it flows between Cornish and Windsor, Vermont.
Some of the more noted sculptors who followed Saint Gaudens were Herbert Adams, Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), his wife, Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1963) Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937), Paul Manship (1885-1966), and William Zorach (1887-1966). French, well remembered for his famous Concord, Massachusetts Minute Man and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, was instrumental in having Saint-Gaudens work first accepted in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Fraser, who started his career as an assistant in Saint-Gaudens studio, is best known for his western sculpture, End of the Trail. A much less well-known fact about Fraser is that in 1913, he created the U.S. Buffalo nickel, the most reproduced sculpture in the history of art. It remained in circulation until 1938. Prometheus by Paul Manship is a focal point of Rockefeller Center in New York City, and Spirit of the Dance by William Zorach is a feature of Radio City Music Hall.
Many of the painters of the Cornish Colony have distinguished reputations, but it was not a teaching colony; there was no plan or systematic recruitment to the Colony; it just happened. Distinguished painters who followed the Dewings included Henry O. Walker, who was known for his Library of Congress murals and his earning of a medal for his painting Gift Bearer at the Chicagos Columbian Exposition of 1893. Ironically Saint Gaudens was the creator of the medal. Other arrivals were Edith Prellwitz (1865-1944) and her husband, Henry Prellwitz (1865-1940), William Henry Hyde (1856-1943), William Howard Hart (1863-1937), Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), John White Alexander (1856-1915), Stephen and Maxfield Parrish, and Willard Metcalf (1858-1925).
Metcalf met Stephen Parrish the first winter Metcalf had visited Cornish, in 1909. Although he was never a prolonged resident, Willard Metcalf visited the colony repeatedly through 1921, attracted particularly to the silence and solitude of the snow-covered mountains during the winter season. He shied away from any specific local association, and plied his artistry throughout New England.
At Cornish, some modernist painters and sculptors of the early 20th century were more diverse in styles than the older members, and, many of them lived in Plainfield House, which was owned by miniaturist painter Lucia Fairchild Fuller (1870-1924). Paul Manship was there during the summers of 1915, 1916, 1917, and again in 1927. William and Marguerite Zorach became residents from 1918, and during that time, one of Williams earliest works, First Steps, was completed. In 1922 in Cornish, painter Marguerite Zorach did her famous embroidery, The Family Supper, with a number of Cornish buildings depicted in the background. Paul St. Gaudens (1900-1954), the son of Annetta St. Gaudens (1869-1943) and Louis St. Gaudens, (1854-1913) fired some of his first pottery in a kiln he shared at Plainfield House with William Zorach. Others among this diverse 20th century group were Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), and Florence Shinn (1869-1940) and her husband Everett Shinn (1876-1953), known for his illustrations, urban genre, and murals.
Frederic Remington, best remembered for his action-packed western theme paintings and sculptures, may seem an unlikely candidate for the relatively serene pace of the Cornish Colony. Aware of the incongruity of his time at Cornish with his public persona, he said that it was not the landscape that held him there but the fellowship of the community. It is said Remington almost bought land on Prospect Hill but then decided against it.
Some arrivals, known for accomplishments other than fine art, were nationally known figures such as author Winston Churchill, who wrote novels and had the same name as the famous British Prime Minister. He arrived in 1898 and commissioned Charles Platt to design ‘Harlakenden House’, one of the Colony’s most elaborate houses, and one especially distinguished because it became the summer White House of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, 1914, and 1915. His first wife, painter Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914), had introduced Wilson to the Colony. Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic, first came to the colony in 1893 and commissioned Platt to design a house for him. Poets Percy Mackaye, William Vaughn Moody, and Witter Bynner also lived at the Colony. MacKaye and his wife were known as chickadees because, like these birds, they did not flee during the winter. Ethel Barrymore spent the summer of 1906 at the Colony, and her arrival and ensuing distractions caused quite a sensation including a railroad wreck. During her visit, Kenyon Cox, with an affinity for allegorical subjects and a verbally aggressive disdain of modernism, had Barrymore pose with great dignity for Justice, a mural for the Essex County Court House in Newark, New Jersey.
Many women, with a variety of talents and reasons for being in Cornish, were associated with the Colony. Most of them were spouses or relatives of male professionals, and many of them were highly accomplished themselves as painters, sculptors, writers, designers, and/or activists. Alma Gilbert, Director of the Cornish Museum, wrote in her 2002 exhibition catalogue, The Women of the Cornish Colony: Juggling their roles not only as artists but many times as models, spouses, mothers, lovers, muses, diarists, and writers as well as bread winners, they broke ground for women everywhere with their accomplishments (sometimes only grudgingly accorded to them, or denied altogether by their better known male counterparts in the colony).
At the Colony, female painters and sculptors were both prominent and lesser known nationally. These women artists were Marguerite Zorach, Louise Cox, Maria Dewing, Lucia Fuller, Frances Grimes, (1869-1963) Elsie Hering (1872-1923), Frances Houston (1851-1906), Edith Prellwitz, Annetta St. Gaudens (1869-1943), Florence Shinn (1869-1940), Helen Mears (1873-1916) Anne Bogardus Parrish (1878-1966), Laura Gardin Fraser, Ellen Axon Wilson, and Bessie Vonnoh (1872-1955).
Others of the Cornish Colony women were not artists but were there as wives or relatives of male artists, and many of these women found a role in the community. Rose Nichols, a cousin of Augusta Saint-Gaudens spent her summers at Cornish, where her home became a showplace of her interest in horticulture and landscape architecture. Adeline Adams, wife of Herbert Adams, did significant writing on sculpture, and Lydia Parrish, wife of Maxfield Parrish, became noted for her skills with African-American music.
Of the varying lives of the women, Alma Gilbert wrote:
Many of the womens faces and figures are seen as models not only for their husbands but also for other major artists. Lydia Parrish, Lucia Fuller, Maria Oakey Dewing, Edith Prellwitz, Florence Shinn, Adeline Pond Adams, Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Marguerite Zorach posed for their husbands work. . . .The women of the colony were also sought and admired for their beauty by other artists outside of their immediate circle. John Singer Sargent painted Lucia Fuller as well as Bessie Potter Vonnoh. . . .William Howard Hart executed several paintings of Adeline Pond Adams whom he loved and admired from afar.
Since Maxfield Parrish is still considered the most reproduced artist in the history of art, it is important to recognize the women from Cornish who modeled and appeared in his works. Their faces, their beauty, their special auras helped rocket his art into immortality. His own wife, Lydia as well as some of his friends including Mrs. Churchill, Lucia Fuller, Marion MacKaye and Adeline Pond Adams are shown in the spectacular murals that he created for the residence of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, was often a summer visitor in Cornish, In the early twenties, she posed for some of his most imposing and important works such as ‘Daybreak’, ‘Interlude’, and ‘Canyon’. . . . the Cornish women artists also faced the problem of the artistic temperament of the husbands that needed special care. Some of the women of the colony suffered from the infidelity and alcohol abuse of their spouses. Since the names of their spouses were well known, many times the press trumpeted the infidelities or indiscretions in print. . . .Many of the married female artists, writers and sculptors subjugated their career to those of their male counterparts and their egos.
The wife of George de Forest Brush had a special challenge because her husband, known for his "modern madonnas," or nude portraits, usually with her as the model, also loved to paint Indians and was much attracted to Indian lore. When the couple first came to Cornish in 1887, they lived in a tepee set up in Saint-Gaudens’ field near Blow-Me-Down Brook. Saint Gaudens later told the story of a party he and his friends held in the tepee when the Brushes were absent: "after having eaten all that was proper and drunk much more than was necessary, we danced in glee round the tent in which blazed the bivouac fire. Before long, the tepee went the way of all things."
Much camaraderie existed at the Colony. Most of the residents worked long days and then frequently participated in evening entertainments.
Maxfield Parrish had the longest residency at the Colony, and had easy rapport with his neighbors. One of his best friends was George Ruggles, a skillful carpenter who built The Woodchuck Hole, a studio for financially strapped artists, and also built Parrishs own home. Parrish was not much interested in public attention and hated posing for photographers. Outspoken, he was once overheard remarking to his father at a performance by Isadora Duncan who was past her dancing prime, that her knees were cracking something awful, ringing out like pistol shots.
By 1912, the original Cornish art colony had largely dispersed. The Brushes and the Dewings had departed earlier, and Saint-Gaudens had died in 1907. After the end of World War I, the Cornish Colony could no longer justifiably be called a colony. James Atkinson, author of the essay in the book The Cornish Colony: One-Hundred Year Celebration Exhibit, concluded: the widely variant styles the Colonists practiced suggests, it probably never was an art colony but rather a community of congenial people. An though most of them had died by 1918, that congeniality survives today among a number of local artists committed to the art spirit.
The above essay is a compilation of books and essays sent by Alma-Gilbert Smith, Director of the Cornish Museum and the Cornish Colony Gallery.
Alma Gilbert-Smith. The Women of the Cornish Colony. Exhibition Catalogue for 2002. Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum.
Alma Gilbert-Smith. Cornish Art of the Past Century: Art for Arts Sake. Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum, 2001.
Judith Tankard and Alma Gilbert-Smith. A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony. Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum.
James B. Atkinson, Ph.D. and Alma Gilbert-Smith, The Cornish Colony: One Hundred Year Celebration Exhibit, 1898-1998. Alma Gilbert, Inc., Plainfield, New Hampshire.
Virginia Reed Colby and James B. Atkinson, PhD. Footprints of the Past, Images of Cornish, New Hampshire & The Cornish Colony. New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire, 1996. Atkinson is the President of the Cornish Historical Society, and a member of the board of directors of the Cornish Colony Museum.
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