Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Bringing the Colony to Light

by Alexander J. Noelle


"Yes, this 'Art Colony' -- as it is called -- is a little world of its own-distinct in nearly every way from the real and historic Provincetown, but vitalizing in an artistic way all that the old town stands for, and all that it has stood for since the first Pilgrim landed here, in 1620, and the compact for freedom and independence was signed in the cabin of the Mayflower in this harbor." [1]

Only seventeen years after the Provincetown Art Colony was officially founded, the Boston Globe art critic A. J. Philpott declared it the largest in the world. He also took note of many of the key elements that have kept the colony alive and thriving for more than a century. Primary among his observations was the unique atmosphere of independence: "Those old Pilgrims were the first to sense the spirit of freedom that floats over this part of Cape Cod, where one is conscious of the forces as well as the beauties of nature in the vast sea and boundless sky." Provincetown, he claimed, had an intangible yet natural energy that was intertwined with the environment. A magnet for "sensitive, creative minds," the tip of the Cape became "one of Nature's laboratories in which creative minds and artistic souls can work," and, thereby, a haven for artists of every kind, who "constitute a little world by themselves" where "imagination has full play."

This spirit of independence and freedom of expression -- for which Provincetown is still famous -- made the colony a crucible for virtually every major art movement from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. Creativity blossomed and artistic energy spread from artist to artist, teacher to student, and even from the colony to New York City and other metropolitan art centers. Philpott cited the Pilgrim Monument's stark contrast to the low-lying historic town as a metaphor for the colony's mind set: "Yet there is a certain harmony in the very incongruity of this tower, although it is devoid of a single suggestion that would in any way symbolize what the Pilgrim fathers stood for. They never copied anybody. They were original." People think differently in Provincetown -- it is a community of innovators, not followers. The status quo has been of little concern with regard to every aspect of life, from raising a replica of a twelfth-century Sienese tower in the midst of a historic New England fishing village, to embracing Abstract Expressionism and modernism before they became widely accepted. In addition to the artists who became fixtures on the Outer Cape, major internationally acclaimed figures, such as Willem de Kooning (see cat. no. 21) and Mark Rothko (see cat. no. 95), flocked to the small seaside town as well, drawn by its vitality and beauty. Provincetown has established itself as a community that has perpetually been on the cutting edge of the arts; in 1916 an admirer of the Modern School of Art, upon seeing a painting by one of the school's leaders, claimed, "That's a thousand years ahead of the times."

It is impossible to talk about the unique and inspiring aspects of Provincetown without mentioning the light. Philpot stated, "There is a distinctive quality in the light of the place at all times, so that nearly every phase of the weather has a particular color charm for the painter." In the works of Provincetown artists, both past and present, the influence of the natural illumination is ubiquitous. Moreover, as Philpott indicated, these artists draw powerful connections between color and light. The artist Hans Hofmann wrote, "In nature, light creates color; in painting, color creates light." Robert Motherwell had a scientific explanation for Provincetown's luminosity when describing his time at the Days Lumberyard Studios.

The barn was beautiful to behold then . . . windows on all sides, with the radiant summer light of Provincetown that rivals the Greek Islands, because, I have always supposed, like them. . . . Provincetown is on a narrow spit of land surrounded by the sea, which reflects light with a diffused brilliance that is subtly but crucially different from the dry, inland light . . . People tend to forget that Provincetown is (roughly) on the forty two degree meridian, as is Barcelona and Opporto and Cannes and Rome (almost exactly) and Macedonia and Istanbul and Peking (more or less), a distinctly warm southern light compared to Northern Europe, a light as seductive to painters in the Modernist tradition as geometry was to ancient Greek philosophers and musicians. [2]

Aptly, Motherwell linked Provincetown to European traditions, as many of the colony's historical figures and schools were deeply influenced by European art.

Philpott hinted at a split between the "historic town" and the perpetually developing art colony. This dual identity is a major topic in the nine essays that follow, which trace the history of Provincetown from 1899 to the present, as it grew from a quiet fishing village, to an art colony, to a major tourist destination. The artists, institutions, and arts advocates have maintained its status as the oldest continuous art colony but not without significant evolution, conflict, and dedication. As Philpott says, the complex relationship between the community and the colony was a "vitalizing" force that perpetuated "all that the old town stands for." Like an ocean itself, Provincetown experiences significant ebbs and flows of political strife, commercial development, and artistic development. These tides continually crash upon the colony, and, thanks to the unwavering commitment of Provincetown's supporters, serve to catalyze the next generation.

The New Britain Museum of American Art is proud to present "The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America's Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011)." As the world's first institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of American art, it is fitting that this extensive survey of work from America's oldest art colony is being presented at the Museum. Throughout the country, there are countless works in public and private collections that either depict or reference Provincetown; indeed, at times it seems like all roads lead to the small, vibrant seaside community. The exhibition will highlight the key role that Provincetown has played in the development of American art over the last century as well as its importance for generations to come.


1. A. J. Philpott, "Biggest Art Colony in the World at Provincetown," Boston Globe, August 27, 1916, cited here and ff.

2. Robert Motherwell, "Provincetown and Days Lumberyard: A Memoir," Days Lumberyard Studios: Provincetown, 1914-1971 (Provincetown: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1978), p. 16.


About the author

Alexander J. Noelle is Assistant Curator, New Britain Museum of American Art


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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