Art Is Upon the Town: A Retrospective Exhibition

by Willa T. Schuster


In 1928 a Massachusetts newspaper used James Whistler's words, "Art is Upon the Town," to describe the activities surrounding artists active in the small seacoast village of Mystic, Connecticut. An industrious group of painters and sculptors worked with supportive townspeople, busily soliciting funds to build a gallery suitable for housing the exhibitions and activities of their recently incorporated Mystic Art Association. Mystic's fervor for the proposed project reflects the preeminence the arts historically enjoyed in this community.

"Art is upon the town" -- the words seem doubly prophetic as once again excitement mounts for the Mystic Art Association Retrospective Exhibition that commenced on March 28, 1996. This highly anticipated show celebrates the area's rich artistic heritage, from late nineteenth century to the 1960s, and provides an opportunity to present a broad perspective of work. A special effort has been made to include art that has not been recently exhibited in Mystic and to display works created by members of the early art colony, founded by Charles H. Davis in 1892.

Davis' legacy is well-established in American art. Today, his works reside in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. He was drawn to the area by its natural beauty and environment, especially conducive to artistic interpretation.

Massachusetts-born, but schooled abroad in the techniques of nineteenth-century French landscape painters, Davis infused his paintings with poetic vision, native light, color, and the natural world. Not long after his arrival, Davis was joined by fellow American artists, many newly returned from study abroad and anxious to explore the roles of natural light and landscape. Mystic's artistic appeal became widely recognized; by the 1930s, the village flourished as center for the arts.

Among early artists working and/or exhibiting here were Herbert M. Stoops, J. Eliot Enneking, Lester Boronda, Kenneth and Gladys Bates, George Albert Thompson, Robert Brackman, Julian Alden Weir, Harve Stein, Reynolds Beal, Henry Ward Ranger, Carl Lawless, Nat Little, Emil Carlsen, George Victor Grinnell, and Yngve E. Soderberg. Many formed the art colony's early nucleus, incorporated as the Society of Mystic Artists in 1926. By 1930, it was the Mystic Art Association.

The show's earliest painting, Julian Alden Weir's Young Carpenter in His Workshop is a strong representation of his premature painting style. His early portrait and figure paintings, notably dramatic and dark, were heavy on form. This painting was completed before the art colony came into existence and before Impressionism influenced his style. Weir, who became one of America's best known impressionists, often exhibited in the early Mystic Art Association shows.

Of particular significance to the Mystic community is Henry Ward Ranger's Mason's Island Oak. Its subject, a stand of oaks, the pride of local residents, was lost to the hurricane of '38. Ranger is known for his complementary use of rich color, light, and shade to elevate natural landscapes to poetic, almost idyllic, levels. He lived in Noank from the early 1900s on, and built a home and a studio there, often visited by fellow New York artists Reynolds and Gifford Beal, David Birdsey Walkley, and Joseph Eliot Enneking, who also showed at the Association.

Ranger and Davis were both elected to the National Academy of Design in 1906. Each profoundly influenced the development of American art. During a 1928 Mystic exhibition, a writer referred to Davis as "the foster father of all these artists and the guiding spirit of the exhibition."[1] Five of his paintings are in the current retrospective; together, they clearly illustrate the artist's stylistic progression.

Retrospective exhibitions, traditionally presented by the Mystic Art Association at intervals throughout its eighty-six year history, have played an essential role in keeping the Association's historical legacy alive. Building on its strong foundation, the Association is positioned to move boldly into the next century, with a vision of innovation and new opportunities in the arts. Maintaining and building a comprehensive permanent collection of regional art, as well as archives pertinent to the area's artistic history, are major components of this mission. Another major exhibition Year 2000, Our Second Century is already in the planning stages; it will endeavor to create the best of the Broadway School exhibitions. Once again, "art is upon the town"!


1 A Time to Remember, Mystic Art Association,1976.


About the author

Willa T. Schuster holds a B.A. in philosophy from Connecticut College, where she was elected Phi Beta Kappa. She is a native of Mystic Connecticut, and she serves on various committees at the Mystic Arts Center (formerly the Mystic Art Association). She has published extensively in periodicals of that region.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 20, 2009.

This article appeared in the April - May 1996 issue of American Art Review and pertains to The Mystic Art Association Retrospective Exhibition, which was on view at the Mystic Art Association March 28 - April 27, 1996.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Mystic Arts Center, 9 Water Street, Mystic, CT 06355 or:


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