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Warm Winds :
Connecticut Artists in the Tropics

August 2 through October 5, 2008

Visit the Calendar for related programs.

August 8, 2008 Members enjoyed a wonderful summer party and a chance to view the exhibition.  

The tropics have lured American artists since the nineteenth century. Among the best known are Frederic E. Church (a Connecticut native) and the master watercolorist Winslow Homer. Both traveled south in search of unusual scenery, which they found in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Florida, and Bermuda. Much admired for their renderings of lush vegetation and ravishing colors, the oils and watercolors by Church and Homer inspired Connecticut’s American Impressionists to visit the same locations.

The experience of painting outdoors in Lyme encouraged a number of the colony’s artists to travel to the warmer climates of Bermuda, the Caribbean, or Florida, where they could work en plein air year round. From the ’teens to the 1940s, Harry Hoffman, Charles and Mary Ebert, Will Howe Foote, Clark Voorhees, and William Chadwick all ventured south, often in each other’s company. The brilliant sunlight, fresh colors, and tropical way of life they encountered prompted these artists to re-calibrate the Impressionist palette and to experiment with greater use of the white surfaces of their canvas or paper. The necessity of traveling light meant that artists often worked in less formal media while in the tropics, producing drawings and paintings that were smaller and less finished than their Connecticut plein air pieces. North American artists were also attracted by what they felt were the tropics’ simpler way of life, unburdened by the stresses of modern urban life. They recorded the distinctive places and people they met as tourists, soaking up their new environment and acquainting themselves with local cultures flavored by a combination of European colonial influences and African or indigenous groups. In the 1930s, Connecticut artists developed a particular interest in portraiture, recording the likenesses and employments of island inhabitants in the spirit of Social Realism. Other painters went even further afield, delving below the ocean’s surface to study the tropics’ unusual plants and animals.

Mary Roberts Ebert (1873-1956)
Pink Houses, Bermuda, Watercolor on paper
Florence Griswold Museum,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Bartels

Harry L. Hoffman (1871-1964)
A Coral Cave, Oil on Canvas
Florence Griswold Museum, Goift of Carolyn Zeleny

Artists Chet Reneson and Judy Cotton
Photo by Amy Barry
Warm Winds highlights Connecticut artists’ longstanding love of the tropics, an affection that endures to this day. Contemporary artists Judy Cotton and Chet Reneson have painted in the region for decades. Although both artists’ oeuvres encompass a wide range of subjects, the tropics have offered each of them a place to try new things. Like Frederic Church before her, who sought respite in Jamaica for his health, Cotton has found inspiration in the tropics’ restorative power, while Reneson’s experiments with color pay tribute to Winslow Homer’s renowned watercolors of the Bahamas.

 

England in the Sun

At the turn of the twentieth century, Bermuda became an important destination for tourists seeking social life in its resorts or the health benefits of its mild climate. Bermuda’s position in the Gulf Stream ensured temperate weather year-round. Although ocean travel to the islands could be rough—Mark Twain famously declared, “Bermuda is heaven but you have to go through hell to get there”—passengers alighting found azure seas and distinctive architecture in an outpost of the British Empire. By the 1920s, the Bahamas had joined Bermuda as a popular port for cruise ship travelers, who saw both countries as endearingly old fashioned in an era of urban skyscrapers.

Whitewashed cottages with ridged roofs designed to collect rainwater charmed American artists, who contrasted them in their paintings with the deep greens of Bermuda’s pines and the sallow tones of the islands’ limestone terrain. Likewise, in the Bahamas, artists attempted to record the characteristic island light as it played over the pastel-hued buildings on the Nassau waterfront. The quaint “foreignness” of these Bermudan and Bahamian landscapes helped them stand out from more familiar New England subjects when they were exhibited at the Lyme Art Association in the 1920s and 1930s. Responding to these tropical scenes, critics remarked that they “have a brilliance and a clarity entirely distinctive from the softer and more subtle colors” expected in Impressionist landscapes painted in Connecticut.

Charles and Mary Roberts Ebert, Will Howe Foote, and other artists from Old Lyme occasionally traveled to the islands together, stopping not only in Bermuda but also in the Bahamas. Intrigued by the islands’ offerings, artists such as William Chadwick and Clark Voorhees visited Bermuda repeatedly, and Voorhees even purchased a home that became his base for exploring the countryside by bicycle.

Local Culture

Beginning in the 1930s, Connecticut artists increasingly portrayed the people they encountered during their trips to the tropics. Unlike the previous generation of painters who had focused largely on architecture and natural features in places like Bermuda, those who ventured south during the Depression opened their eyes to the men and women around them, many of who lived in poverty. This shift coincided with the emergence in the United States of art movements such as social realism and regionalism, which placed a new importance on the depiction of ordinary people, daily life, and local character. In the words of Lyme Art Colony painter Charles Vezin, these Connecticut artists in the tropics were pursuing “the American scene though not necessarily American scenery.” In keeping with their adoption of a more contemporary subject matter, Lyme Art Colony painters modified their impressionist brushwork in favor of larger areas of flat color and a bolder use of outline. Artists, often with backgrounds in journalism or illustration, depicted laborers toiling in the fishing and sugar industries. Painters such as Abram Poole also took as their subjects the men and women who worked in the tropics’ most rapidly developing business—tourism. Although sensitively done, these portraits nevertheless fail to truly personalize the black islanders depicted, a reflection of the cultural and economic distance maintained between them and white American tourists.

The Natural World

The beaches and oceans of the tropics provided Connecticut painters with striking subject matter. Inspired by recent movies showing undersea life in the Bahamas, and intrigued by the exotic beauty of what he saw on film, Harry Hoffman first traveled to Nassau during the winter of 1916 to study the area’s coral reefs. Peering through a bucket with a glass bottom, he was able to see the technicolor realm of fish and coral just below the waves.  Hoffman created an utterly original vision of the tropics defined by his scientific curiosity. The glimpse he provides of aquatic life also reveals the appeal of warm, tropical waters to sportsmen, among whom the artists themselves often numbered.

Artists such as William Chadwick and Clark Voorhees were drawn as well to the unusual terrain of Bermuda, with its porous limestone sculpted by sea and wind. These painters made the intricate coastline, especially that of the South Shore, a frequent subject. Their attention to the play of light over the unusual rock formations recalls Claude Monet’s daring depictions of the seaside cliffs at Etretat in Normandy.

Contemporary Visions: Chet Reneson

Best known for his large watercolors of fishing and hunting in the cold, gray climate of New England and Canada, Chet Reneson believes that his art comes alive in the Caribbean. Painting Bahamian subjects in watercolor enables him to experiment with color as he pushes himself to capture the tropical palette. In his early Bahamian paintings from the 1970s and ’80s, the artist used a range of cool blues for the sea and sky. By studying the Caribbean watercolors of Winslow Homer, as well as the writings of nineteenth-century color theorist M. E. Chevreul, Reneson gradually taught himself to enliven his blue pigments by pairing them with complimentary oranges and reds. The contrast between these colors raises the temperature of the paintings, enveloping the viewer in tropical warmth.

Artist Chet Reneson at work.
The artist and his family. Granddaughter Olivia, who inspired Chet to paint small watercolors outdoors during family vacations in the Bahamas.
Chet Reneson (b. 1934)
On the Flats , 1976, Watercolorc on paper
Collection of Chet and Penny Reneson
Chet Reneson (b. 1934)
Rachel and Friends , 2005, Watercolorc on paper
Collection of Chet and Penny Reneson

Reneson has been visiting the Bahamas for three decades, much of it on Great Exuma. During that time, the islands have undergone considerable changes. Hurricanes have swept away some of the places he once painted, and tourism has reshaped the island’s economy and society. Using photographs and his own memories, he continues to paint the Bahamas as he first knew them and as he sees them on annual trips each spring. For him, each painting recalls a story—an expedition with a great bone-fishing guide, or an encounter with a shy child—reflecting his fascination with the people he has met in the Bahamas over the years, and his ongoing interest in their daily lives.

Contemporary Visions: Judy Cotton

Each motif in Judy Cotton’s work provides a memento of an encounter with nature, a souvenir of a sight or sensation. The Australian-born artist, who now lives in Connecticut, has visited Virgin Gorda, the Cayman Islands, Nevis, and other tropical locales. She spent an especially significant time in the Caribbean when she was recuperating from a debilitating bout with Lyme Disease. Traveling to the tropics for one’s health is an age-old tradition, and Cotton revived herself there by drawing. Unable to walk, she floated in the water, leading to a series of depictions of swimmers and sea life. Her technique allows viewers to make this journey with her.

Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing, Judy Cotton, Museum Director Jeff Andersen, and Bob Webster.
Judy Cotton (b. 1941)
Ray, 2004, Encaustic and arcrylic on paper
Collection of Judy Cotton and Yale Kneeland
Judy Cotton (b. 1941)
Swimmer, 1996, Charcoal and chalk on paper
Collection of Judy Cotton and Yale Kneeland

In her charcoals of stingrays, she draws and re-draws the diaphanous creatures, erasing earlier lines or adding gouache to create a sense of how effortlessly the animals move. She sometimes renders the rays with a single contour reminiscent of Asian ink scrolls, providing a quiet contrast to the visual clamor of the tropics. Cotton’s use of encaustic (warm wax mixed with resin and pigment) adds a jolt of color and substance to the stingrays and their watery environment—an immersion in pure blue. At other times, she sets color aside—a rare gesture for an artist in the tropics; especially intriguing in this regard are her watercolors of plants painted on mylar, in which the pigment ebbs and pools in a range from gray to black, capturing sunlight’s dappled nuances.