Tracing my Tracks

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.

Old Creek Salem 1886

Woodbury Derby Wharf 1889

Woodbury Old Salem 1889

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!

Woodbury Newburyport

Woodbury Bridge at York Harbor 1919

Woodbury New Bridge 1925 BPL

Woodbury elephant BPL

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.

Woodbury July Century Magazine 1890s

Woodbury Exhibition catalog 1890s

Woodbury poster 1890s

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.

Woodbury High Seas Bonhams

Woodbury Sunken Ledges 1933 Watercolor MFA

Woodbury Victory Parade Boston 1919

Woodbury 1921 Sargent National Portrait Gallery

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.

10 responses to “Tracing my Tracks

  • michellenmoon

    Wonderful and interesting.

  • markd60

    I especially like the wave painting.

  • nelsondionne

    The more I look into Salem history, the more amazed by the scope & variety of what is found. This is truly a special place !

  • Matt

    Is it me, or does Woodbury look like Tim Lutts.

    • daseger

      He looks very familiar to me–I’ve been searching my brain since I saw this portrait for just who he reminds me of–but it is not Tim Lutts. So sorry, Matt, but it is you.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I love the drawing of the Portsmouth bridge. I gazed upon that view many a time, with the spire of old St. John’s Church off to the right. I think the bridge was built just after World War I, so it really was a “new bridge” when Woodbury drew it.

    He appears to have been very versatile.

    • daseger

      I know; that’s my favorite as well. I loved that bridge (built in 1914, I believe)–it had a really nice scale. And I attended St. John’s as a child–a really beautiful church that is thankfully still there.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        St. John’s may be Portsmouth’s most beautiful church. I would often take a quick tour whenever I was walking around downtown.

        I believe it has one of the few exant copies of the so-called Vinegar Bible, from 1717, and worth many thousands of dollars.

  • Charles

    I’m almost certain the Victory Parade scene shows the corner of Arlington and Boylston, with the Public Garden and the William Ellery Channing Memorial visible. The Four Seasons is now along that stretch of Boylston Street. It’s a very Childe Hassam inspired painting, appropriate given that Hassam was a Boston (Dorchester) native.

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