Not being a local historian or an art historian, one of the consistent pleasures of writing (and curating) this blog has been the discovery of local artists: I knew of a few well-known Salem painters like Frank Benson before I started blogging, but had no idea there was such a dynamic artistic community on the North Shore during his time, before and after. The vitality of the early twentieth century is particularly notable, given the long-held view that Salem’s “golden age” was a century before. One artist from this era was Charles H. Woodbury (1864-1940), who led his long and productive life in the same general setting that I seem to be living mine, painting scenes that are both familiar and not-so-familiar to me. He was born just south of Salem in Lynn, painted scenes all along the North Shore of Massachusetts into southern Maine (where I was brought up), where he ran a popular and influential art school in Ogunquit (where I held all my summer jobs).
I’m always looking around for Salem scenes, and after I found a few of Woodbury’s etchings of Salem, a search began that opened up his whole world (also my world, a century ago). It wasn’t a difficult search, as the Boston Public Library has a large collection of Woodbury’s prints, many of which it has digitized, and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art has also embraced him: there is a general recognition that Woodbury’s long-running (1898-1940) summer school of painting established the village as one of the preeminent art colonies on the east coast.
Charles H. Woodbury, Old Creek, Salem (MIT Museum Collections), Derby Wharf, Salem (Northeast Auctions Archive), and Old Salem, Boston Public Library, all dated 1889.
Woodbury entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an engineering student but also took courses with Ross. S. Turner, a Salem-based artist who was an instructor in architecture, and after his graduation in 1886 he became a full-time artist and educator, working in all mediums and teaching at Wellesley, Dartmouth, and the Art Institute of Chicago in addition to his summer school. He was also an author, an illustrator, and a commercial artist, producing beautiful posters for various periodicals and the government during World War I. While he is generally identified as a marine or shore artist, I love his images of the built environment: he seems to be trying to capture the old wharves, bridges and buildings, before they disappear, but he also recorded the “new”: a particularly poignant images below is that of the New Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which was torn down just last year. He clearly loved animals, and drew many dogs in detail, cats in considerably less detail, and even elephants!
Charles H. Woodbury, Newburyport Wharves (1889), York Harbor Bridge (1919), the “New Bridge” at Portsmouth (1925), and Elephant (1889), all Boston Public Library.
A comparison of Woodbury’s oeuvre with the bare details of his timeline leaves one with the impression of a very busy man: it is difficult to see how he juggled painting and teaching and what appears to have been a steady stream of commercial commissions. From the 1890s through World War I, he produced lots of ephemeral images–posters, exhibition programs, magazine covers–which fortunately have proved to be not-so-ephemeral.
Charles Woodbury’s posters from the later 1890s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Woodbury’s oil and watercolor paintings predominately feature coastal and ocean scenes: there are many subtle images of rolling and crashing waves, sea spray, the meeting of ocean and rock, crests: the movement of water. There are also landscapes, of Ogunquit, the Netherlands, and the Caribbean, where he spent considerable time. Again, given my preference for the built landscape and local scenes, I think my favorite Woodbury oil (so far) is Victory Parade, Boston 1919, which displays a bright April morning in Boston on Tremont Street (???), and the celebration of the end of the Great War. I am almost embarrassed to be discovering Woodbury just now, as from all I’ve seen and read he was quite eminent in his own time. Certainly the fact that he was a subject of a portrait by John Singer Sargent is a testament to his artistic reputation, or at the very least their personal relationship.
Charles H. Woodbury, High Seas and Sunken Ledges, both 1930s, Bonhams Auction Archives and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Victory Parade, April 25, 1919, Boston, Private Collection; Portrait of Charles H. Woodbury by John Singer Sargent, 1921, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.