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Russell Cheney - A New England Master: Northern New England Paintings 1910-45

June 1 - September 6, 2008


Two interlocking exhibits in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, explore the paintings of Russell Cheney (1881-1945) through his views of northern New England -- landscapes, portraits, and still life studies -- including many newly discovered works. (right: Russell Cheney, Kittery Point, 1927, Private Collection)

The youngest of eleven children in a family of well-to-do silk manufacturers, Russell Cheney graduated from Yale in 1904. Over the next decade he studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Academie Julian in Paris. Upon his return home, he created an elaborate painting studio in the former stable of his family home in South Manchester, Connecticut and began to exhibit his work.

From 1910 to 1915 Cheney summered at York Harbor, "painting out of doors at York and Ogunquit, Maine" and studying with Charles Woodbury. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1916, Cheney spent much of World War I in Colorado's Cragmor Sanatorium for his health and began to paint Western landscapes.

Between 1916 and 1921 he also visited friends Charles and Evelyn Macdonald to paint at Red Echo Farm in Topsham, Vermont. A recently discovered cache of oil studies and exhibited paintings of the area show this to have been a productive period. The similarity of Cheney's own photographs of Red Echo Farm and surrounding areas of Topsham to several of his Vermont paintings suggests that he used his plein air oil studies in conjunction with photographs to complete finished works in his Connecticut studio.

From 1922 until his death in 1945 Cheney was represented in New York City by several leading dealers in succession -- Babcock, Montross, and Ferargil galleries -- mounting solo exhibitions every year or two. In 1925 he showed the work of several years painting in Europe, but by 1927 he had not only changed from his early impressionism into a modernism increasingly concentrated on the New England landscape.

Cheney came back to summer and paint in Maine, renting in Kittery from 1927, where he and Harvard professor F.O. Matthiessen ("Matty") settled permanently beside the Piscataqua River in 1930. As one contemporary noted, "Of the little village of Kittery, Maine, he has made some of his best paintings." Here the nationally known artist, then turning 50, established a garden, orchard, and new studio where he continued to paint landscapes up and down both sides of the river until his death in 1945. (left: Russell Cheney, From Peirce's Island, 1939, Collection of J.W. P. Frost)

Critic T. H. Parker described the artist's new work, "in which Fords, houses, lunch-wagons and lampposts have no value pictorially, but resolve themselves into... line, mass, plane and rhythm, which combines into compact, unified and emphatic design." Cheney's regional landscapes "extract the essence of the scene by contrasting the typical cubes of New England buildings with the rolling land." His landscapes of small-town New Castle, New Hampshire, reflect the unchanging character of the New England village, while his paintings of riverfront Portsmouth, New Hampshire capture the historic city during the Great Depression, often painting the same scene in multiple seasons.

While he continued to exhibit regularly in New York and Boston, during the 1930s he also found local venues to show and sell his views of the landmarks, streetscapes and riverfront of Portsmouth. The local newspaper noted that he "has in many of his paintings the weather-beaten coloring and plain old buildings with a simple church tower looming in the background or ancient roofs with steep gable ends."

Dorothy Adlow, art critic for the Christian Science Monitor, later called him "a New England artist who enjoyed the exhilarating influence of modern French painting... a modern American romantic. The imagery that captured his interest was imbued with a zestful vivacity" that made Cheney a "New England and American master."

"The pictures he has made of Kittery Point and the vicinity fairly breathe the spirit of the old town," claimed reporter Horace Mitchell in 1928. "Kittery Point is the most paintable place I have ever seen," the artist responded. " I wonder why more painters do not come here? The village is still unspoiled by the summer visitor and represents a perfect goldmine of subjects."

Dozens of his Kittery pictures -- still life studies with flowers, portraits of friends, workers, and the many cats he sketched and painted around his home, as critics noted, "are charming and very French in character." Indeed, many domestic interiors, filled with fruit, vegetables, flowers and objets d'art show his love of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Utrillo, Monet, and Manet "not because he was a kind of plagiarist, but because he recognized and admired what the new French art had to offer."

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