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Fig. 1: Rowboat, ca. 1895, watercolor on paper, 14 x 10 inches sight. Private collection.

In the early twentieth century, women artists and art patrons played a significant role in the establishment and growth of an art colony on the picturesque island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Anne Ramsdell Congdon (1873–1958), a highly accomplished painter from New Hampshire, was among the enthusiastic and active members of the colony during its formative years. Her studio was located in the heart of the colony on Commercial Wharf (now called Swain’s Wharf), in one of the many cold-water fishing shacks that had been converted in the 1920s. She primarily worked en plein air and became known for her bold
renditions of Nantucket’s colorful and active waterfront and idyllic countryside.

Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, Anne was the daughter of Governor George A. and Eliza Wilson Ramsdell. She began her art studies at the young age of 7 and continued at a private school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Like many young women seeking a more complete art education in late-nineteenth-century America, she traveled to Paris, the established center for art training in Europe. She studied at the Academie Delecluse in 1891 and 1892 and spent her summer breaks touring and sketching in Europe. Upon returning to the United States, Congdon studied with Rhoda Holmes Nichols (1854–1938), a British watercolorist and one of William Merritt Chase’s (1849–1916) assistants at his summer school in Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, New York. Congdon also studied watercolor painting under the renowned impressionist Charles H. Woodbury (1864–1940) in Boston and in Perkins Cove, near Ogunquit, Maine.1 Congdon’s watercolors from this period are pastoral landscapes of rural New Hampshire painted with delic
ate washes of pale color (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Top Gale, Quaise, 1940, oil on board, 14 1/4 x 18 inches. Collection of Jane Richmond; photography by Terry Pommett.

Following her marriage in 1902 to Dr. Charles E. Congdon, a surgeon in Nashua and a Nantucket native, Anne began spending summers on Nantucket. For a short while she continued to paint small landscapes, as well as floral studies, in watercolor. Congdon put aside her artistic pursuits for over twenty years, however, in order to raise two sons and run an antiques shop in Nashua.

By 1926 Congdon had resumed painting on Nantucket and was taking classes with Frank Swift Chase (1886–1958), a landscape painter from Woodstock, New York, who was known as the dean of island painters and art teachers. Chase usually conducted his summer classes outdoors and encouraged his students not only to paint what they saw, but to respond personally to the island’s unique landscape. Unlike her watercolors, painted with a delicate touch and in muted hues, Congdon’s oils of Nantucket, under Chase’s tutelage, were painted with short, choppy strokes of pigment and were flooded with luminous color.

After Charles’s retirement in 1930, the Congdons moved to 5 Orange Street, Nantucket, year-round. Anne, who encouraged beginning artists and supported new exhibition opportunities, soon became more involved with the island’s thriving art colony, which by then was attracting “men and women of achievement in the artist world.”2 When her friend and fellow artist Maud Stumm (active 1870–1935) established the Sidewalk Art Shows, held in town each August for amateurs and professionals, Congdon contributed as many canvases as she could. Congdon also took part in shows at the Easy Street Gallery, where, from the 1920s through the 1940s, many island artists joined together to display their works of art.

Fig. 3: Nantucket, from Monomoy, 1949, oil on board, 24 x 29 inches. Collection of the Artists’ Association of Nantucket; photography by Terry Pommett.

Whether exhibiting on-island at the Easy Street Gallery or Annie Alden Folger’s Antique Shop on Union Street, or off-island in Nashua, Boston, and elsewhere, Congdon’s oil paintings received accolades from the press. A critic for the Boston Herald observed, “Her work is direct, facile and without mannerisms,” while others praised her paintings for their brilliant color and vigorous brushwork.3

On Nantucket, Congdon primarily painted scenes of boats tied up at the wharves in the harbor, landscapes that feature familiar landmarks such as Sankaty Head Lighthouse and the Old Mill, and seascapes with faraway vistas of the ocean or harbor. In some instances, she painted several versions of her favorite subjects. For example, in 1940 she painted two almost identical works of a farm called “Top Gale” in the seaside village of Quaise (Fig. 2). In the version owned by Nantucketer Jane Richmond, Congdon used thick strokes of paint to create a lively surface pattern that gives the appearance of a windblown landscape by the sea. In the foreground are the rich greens and reds of autumn, and in the background are the rustic farm buildings rendered as flat planes in muted hues. Richmond, whose hair salon on India Street was frequented by Congdon in the late 1940s and 1950s, was given Top Gale, Quaise as a wedding present from the artist in 1951; the painting remains a much-cherished item in her family’s collection.4

In the mid-1940s, Congdon was a frequent exhibitor at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries on Straight Wharf and became an early member of the Artists’ Association of Nantucket, exhibiting in their annual shows beginning in 1946. Around 1949 Congdon donated a painting to the association for its permanent collection of original works by Nantucket artists. Titled Nantucket, from Monomoy and dated 1949, this work portrays the tall beach grass, scrub oaks, and other low vegetation of the wind-buffeted stretch of land known as Monomoy, with a distant view of the sparkling blue harbor and the town’s skyline (Fig. 3). Typical of her late style, the scene is painted on a large canvas with loose, free, and expressive strokes of paint and vibrant, sometimes exaggerated colors. The many areas of heavy impasto and the wet-into-wet painting technique create a sense of movement and texture on the surface. As one local critic aptly explained, Congdon’s paintings of this period are “vigorously brushed” and “full of the air of Nantucket.”5

Fig. 4: The Beach at the Creeks, 1949,
oil on board, 18 x 22 inches. Collection of the Egan Foundation, Nantucket, Massachusetts; photography by Terry Pommett.

Another lovely example of Congdon’s late style is the 1949 painting The Beach at the Creeks, now a part of the Egan Foundation Collection on Nantucket (Fig. 4). In this work Congdon portrays the bright greens and yellows of the beach grass and seaweed, the vivid aqua and lavender of the sea, and the soft beige of the small patches of sand at the Creeks (off Washington Street). In the distance, the distinctive tan and gray historic houses and buildings of town and the eighteenth-century windmill on Mill Hill are visible. The Beach at the Creeks is one of the few instances when Congdon included figures; discernible in the lower center of the scene are two men who appear to be digging for clams or quahogs. Her brushwork in this painting as well as the rich, bold colors of her palette are reminiscent of the style of Charles Woodbury, her early teacher. A master colorist, he used thick diagonals and choppy strokes of paint to execute dynamic coastal scenes. He believed that “color was one of the most universal sources of emotion.”6

Like Woodbury, Congdon deserves recognition as a brilliant colorist. She also merits acclaim for her lively renditions of Nantucket Island and her native New Hampshire, as they are colorful records of her time and place. The fresh and spontaneous appearance of her work is due to the fact that Congdon painted her scenes in one sitting and did not labor over them or rework them in her studio. When a friend asked her how long she worked on a painting, Congdon replied, “If it’s not good in one day, it won’t ever be!”7

Margaret Moore Booker is the Associate Director and Curator of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies at the Coffin School on Nantucket, Massachusetts. She is also the author of Nantucket Spirit: The Art and Life of Elizabeth R. Coffin (Nantucket: Mill Hill Press,
May 2001).

  1. Biographical information on Congdon was drawn from this author’s entry on the artist in Picturing Nantucket: An Art History of the Island with Paintings from the Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association (Nantucket, Mass.: Nantucket Historical Association, 2000), pp. 87–91.
  2. “‘Real Artists’ Paradise Found on Nantucket Island,” Boston Herald, reprinted in Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror (22 September 1923).
  3. “Nashua Library has Exhibit of Mrs. Congdon’s Paintings,” Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror (8 May 1937).
  4. The other version of Top Gale, Quaise is in the Nantucket Historical Association Collection; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert D. Congdon.
  5. Mary Turlay Robinson, “Interesting Features of Easy Street Gallery Exhibition,” Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror (7 August 1943).
  6. Vose Galleries of Boston, Inc., exhibition catalogue, George L. Noyes, Charles H. Woodbury (Exhibition dates: July 10–August 31, 1987).
  7. Louise Stark in “Anne Ramsdell Congdon,” Historic Nantucket (Nantucket Historical Association: April 1959), p. 16.

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