Encircling Salem Artists

There’s been a lot of discoveries since I started this blog over a year ago, but one of the biggest has been a growing appreciation of the artistic environment which existed in Salem a century or so ago, well past what historians consider the city’s golden age.  Culturally speaking, Salem was vibrant not only in the 1790s, but also in the 1890s, when Frank Benson, Phillip Little, Ross Sterling Turner, Dwight Blaney, and John Leslie Breck were within its midst.  I’ve already written about Little and Benson, whose houses I can gaze upon from my bedroom window, but the other gentlemen are more recent discoveries.  Blaney, from an old Salem family (Blaney Street runs down to the Salem Ferry dock), was not only an artist but one of the first serious collectors of American antiques.  In many ways, he is a collecting link between several of these men:  Turner married his elder sister and lived in Salem, and both Blaney and Breck visited them often from their primary homes in the western suburbs of Boston.  Benson and Little were more grounded in Salem (though they summered in northern New England like all artists of means), Blaney seems to have been happily ensconced at both his main home in Weston and his summer house on Ironbound Island, off Mt. Desert in Maine (where he received many distinguished guests, including Breck and John Singer Sargent, and which you can read about here), but Turner and Breck seem like men of the world to me:  student days in Europe, considerable time at Giverny with Monet (Breck), long forays in Bermuda and Mexico (Turner).  They were both advocates of “modern” art, and seem to have been inspired by the cultural environment of greater Boston and the North Shore while at the same time occasionally at odds with it.

I found an interesting notice in the Boston Transcript from the spring of 1890, shortly after Breck had returned from Giverny to hold a one-man show at the St. Botolph Club through which Impressionism was introduced to Boston.  He had also formed a teaching studio with Turner in Salem (at the latter’s house on Bridge Street, a pretty busy thoroughfare now and then) and these developments apparently did not please the anonymous author of the “Fine Arts” column.

     Ross Turner and John Leslie Breck have returned to this country from foreign parts, and threaten to form a class for out-of-door work in painting at Salem during the month of June.  Mr. Turner will give instructions in watercolor work, and Mr. Breck in both oils and watercolors, as well as in drawing from models.  Mr. Breck is somewhat famous in a limited way as the only pupil of the impressionist Claude Monet, and we may as well be prepared for anything and everything when he lets loose a flock of sweet girl graduates, duly inoculated with the impressionistic visual virus, whose landscapes may blend the charms of amateurishness with those of other kinds of incoherence, “till all is blue”.

THE IMPRESSIONISTIC VISUAL VIRUS!  What a great line; it sounds very modern. What a reminder of how new (and apparently threatening)Impressionism was in the late nineteenth century–and also how conservative Boston was.  The reference to “sweet girl graduates” might be an allusion to Breck’s  romantic reputation, gained at Giverny.  No matter, both Turner and Breck seemed to prosper in the 1890s, both in and around Salem and beyond.  Here are some of my favorite works of both artists, representing careers that were both cut short:  Turner died in the Bahamas in 1915, “following a long illness”, while Breck died of asphyxiation in 1899–an apparent suicide–at age 39.

Ross Sterling Turner (1847-1915):  Street Scene in Munich, 1880 (Smithsonian Museum of American Art); The Old Manse (printed etching from Riverside Press’s Hawthorne Portfolio, 1884); Fairylands, Bermuda, 1890 (part of the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Exhibit “The Wonderful World of Watercolours”, closing today); Doorway of Henry Lee Higginson Estate (outside Boston), 1894; and his most popular work, A Garden is a Sea of Flowers, 1912 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899):  Willows (1888); Grey Day on the Charles (1894) and The Dragon in Winter, Essex (Massachusetts), 1896.  All accessed through the Smithsonian Institution Inventory of American Art and all in private collections.



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