William Edwin Atwood (1864-1933) was a respected American painter of landscapes — primarily of New England but most notably of Bermuda —and a major patron of the arts whose efforts in furtherance of the careers of Cape Ann’s (Massachusetts) artists, as well as philanthropic endeavors on behalf of the veterans and refugees of the First World War, had a consequential impact on a great many lives in the early years of the twentieth century.
Born in the small town of Killingly, Connecticut, on the state’s eastern border with Rhode Island, Atwood presumably decided at an early age to lead an extremely private life, as scant information exists in the historical record as to his personal narrative; factually, it is known that he rose to prominence and wealth in the world of textile manufacturing, and that he and his wife Emmeline lived in New York City, spending their summers first on Lake Chebacco in eastern Massachusetts and then in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a historic fishing village and artists’ colony located on Cape Ann, a rocky promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean on the northeastern tip of the state. Gloucester, initially settled in 1623 by an expedition from Dorchester, England, that was chartered by King James I, is acknowledged to be one of the first settlements in what would later become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, its original founding predating the settlements of both Salem (1626) and Boston (1630). At some point Atwood — perhaps motivated by the picturesque surroundings of his summertime retreats — decided to take up painting as a recreational pastime, becoming a student of his friend, the famed modernist painter E. Ambrose Webster of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Atwood’s natural talent for painting was such that he gained membership to Webster’s inner circle, accompanying him on several painting excursions, one of which earned mention in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, whose edition of January 6, 1918, noted that “Mr Webster (Ambrose) is spending the month of January in Boston, and will go to Charleston, South Carolina, in February and March, taking with him a few pupils in landscape painting, including Mr. Atwood of Gloucester, Massachusetts.” But it was in 1920 that Atwood embarked on perhaps the most fateful trip he would make in Webster’s company, joining him on a sojourn to the island of Bermuda, familiar terrain for Webster but what is recorded as Atwood’s first and only visit to the island. The three compositions Atwood is known to have produced while there — Poinciana House, Tropical Garden in Bermuda, and Pink House/Tropical Landscape — are considered by many to be museum-quality pieces, closely reflecting the influence of his mentor (particularly Webster’s Bermuda Garden and Red House, Bermuda)and plausibly the equal of efforts executed by far better-known purveyors of similar landscapes.Poinciana House was regarded as a significant enough achievement to have been reproduced in the November 2001 issue of The Bermudian magazine. Though to date Atwood’s New England landscapes have not achieved the same level of critical import as have his Bermudian compositions, many of them were exhibited in several prominent regional venues in which Atwood had attained membership, such as the Boston Art Club, the North Shore Art Association, and the Copley Society (the latter being America’s oldest non-profit art association, located in Boston).
Atwood’s chief legacy arguably resides not in what he did with brush in hand, but for his efforts in consideration of other artists: It was in 1916 that he and his wife constructed “The Gallery-on-the-Moors” in East Gloucester, Massachusetts, which dramatically effected the lives and careers of many artists belonging to Cape Ann’s “Rocky Neck Art Colony,” one of the nation’s oldest working community of artists, and historically one of its most significant. During the nineteenth century, the fishing village of Gloucester was divided into eight “wards,” one of which was East Gloucester, which contains the area known as Rocky Neck, situated on a peninsula within the village's working harbor. It is here that the Rocky Neck Art Colony first arose. Renowned for its unique luminescent glow and rugged topography, the area began to attract en plein air painters in the middle of the nineteenth century, beginning with marine painter Fitz Henry Lane, a native of the region whose home still exists on the waterfront, and whose seminal work Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck was created in 1844. Other world-class talents subsequently attracted to Gloucester — many closely associated with the canonically important Cape Ann School of American Impressionism — included Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, Frederick Mulhaupt, Frank Duveneck, Cecilia Beaux, Jane Peterson, Emile Gruppe, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, William Meyerowitz, Joan Lockhart, Theresa Bernstein, and Marsden Hartley, as well as premier exponents of the Ashcan School such as Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens, and Maurice Prendergast. Writers such as Louisa May Alcott and Rudyard Kipling also spent time there. In an interview in the September 2, 1917, issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the colony’s members, pioneering female artist Jane Peterson, explained the origins of the Gallery-on-the-Moors (which is acknowledged to be one of the first venues of its kind to be openly receptive to the work of female artists): “If ever there were two people who were disinterestedly kind and generous, these two are Emmeline and Billy Atwood . . . when I arrived from my California trip (in August 1916), I found them knee deep in the midst of pictures, envelopes, cards, and blue-books. From this mad chaos soon developed a marvelous exhibition of the most recent things done by our best-known artists on the North Shore. I asked Emmeline, ‘How did you happen to conceive this idea?’ and she answered,
‘One day we were motoring through Gloucester, and, always interested in art, were going from studio to studio to see what the artists were doing and to purchase some pictures. We found the artists tucked away in dark little lofts, old outhouses, chicken coops, tiny rooms, poorly-lighted makeshift places such as one might find in an old-time fishing village. Little spaces that had been discarded by the fishermen. We were inconvenienced with the difficulty of seeing the pictures and thought others might be too. We felt that in this active summer colony there might be many people who would welcome the opportunity to see what the artists were doing. Here was our chance — beautiful pictures, and a public anxious to see them. We decided to provide the space.’ ” The Atwoods proceeded to consult their good friend, Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), the prolific and influential American architect of collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings, often in the Gothic Revival style, who later was featured on the cover of the December 13, 1926, issue of Time magazine for his work designing the famous Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, as well as Princeton University’s Graduate School Campus. Cram, who was known for designing structures that closely blended in with their surroundings, chose a simple, archetypal Cape Ann-style design for his structure, a one-story building with a steep, peaked roof, exterior walls of pink stucco, hand-hewn wooden beams, and a porch door which was a copy of an old English doorway, leading to a blue vestibule whose coloring the November 1916 issue of the American Magazine of Artexplained was meant to give “a certain hushed feeling of expectation before entering the main room.” The main gallery, the magazine went on to say, “is finely proportioned, and on its walls at least sixty paintings may be hung without crowding in a single line. At one end is a stage, fully equipped with trap doors and adjacent dressing rooms for theatrical use; at the other end there is a little balcony, in which a literary corner has been established with books on Gloucester and art publications.” The article added that “though very rapidly assembled, (the opening exhibition) compared most favorably with the larger exhibitions held in the great cities each winter,” and asserted in conclusion that “the erection of this gallery is a tangible evidence of the increasing appreciation not only of art, but of its relation to life in this country.” The Gallery was built high on a hill overlooking Gloucester Harbor, and was the first established venue for Cape Ann artists to display their work, having previously being forced to use the lobbies of hotels and other makeshift venues for exhibition purposes. Ralph Cram’s biographer, Douglass Shand-Tucci, wrote that “as an arts center the Gallery was an immediate success, helped along by the ferment caused three years earlier by the Armory Show, which famously introduced European modernist painting in America to New York, Boston, and Chicago, and indeed incited Stuart Davis, arguably the leading twentieth century painter then associated with Gloucester, to paint such pictures as Rockport Beach (which was exhibited at the Gallery-on-the-Moors).” The Gallery held its First Annual Exhibition in September 1916, which was determined by the American Magazine of Art to be “a most excellent show, one which could be viewed many times,” and which, “attracted considerable attention, persons visiting it from all parts of the North Shore, as well as from Cape Ann.” A painting by the noted artist/instructor Frank Duveneck was given the place of honor, flanked by portraits by Cecelia Beaux and Charles Hopkinson. Other artists participating in the inaugural exhibition included George Noyes, Louise Brumback, Walter Palmer, Henry B. Snell, and William B. Clossen. In addition to the paintings, there was sculpture on display, created by such well-known artists as Charles Grafly, Anna V. Hyatt, Anna Coleman Ladd (who sculpted masks for the disfigured soldiers of World War I), Louise Allen, and A.H. Atkins. According to the October 7, 1917, edition of the New York Sun, the Gallery’s Second Annual Exhibition — held in August 1917 — was also deemed a success, “bringing in a total of $4,000 in sales, led by a painting by Louise Brumbach fetching $600, a Sheldon Penner piece going for $200, and a Denys Wortman painting selling for $150.” Also featured in the exhibition were works by Jane Peterson, Paul Connoyer, Henry Hammond Ahl, and Charles Hopkinson. In a commentary evaluating the first two years of the Gallery’s existence, the March 17, 1918, edition of the Evening Star newspaper of Washington D.C. wrote “so high a standard has been attained that the fame of the exhibitions has gone out further than was anticipated and has drawn many distinguished visitors from places comparatively remote. The record of sales last year was quite extraordinary and the benefit to the artists very real. Not only is the building used for exhibition purposes but also as a general meeting place. It has a stage and serves admirably for dramatic entertainments, lectures, and concerts, and numerous times over the past seasons notable entertainments were given therein for the leading war relief funds. Gloucester has long been known as an art center but it has heretofore had no exhibition gallery and no such common meeting places such as this, where artists and art lovers could be brought into an understanding relationship.” By 1918 many prominent artists wanted to support the Atwoods in their endeavor, including Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, William J. Glackens, and John Sloan, all of whom took part in special group exhibitions. (Hassam’s work also appeared in the Third Annual Exhibition.) That summer, it was reported in the July 28 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer that, “Under the management of Mr. William Atwood of East Gloucester, Massachusetts, a large exhibition of war posters was recently held at Provincetown and the Gallery-on-the- Moors.” From August 15 through September 5, the Third Annual Exhibition of the Gallery was held, described thusly in the October 1918 issue of the American Magazine of Art: “Seventy-Seven paintings by well-known artists, the majority of whom had summer studios on the North Shore of Massachusetts, were attractively set forth. Charles Hopkinson’s charming painting of his little daughter, painted against the snow background, which received the Portrait Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy some years ago, held a conspicuous position on one of the side walls. To the left hung a striking winter picture by E. Ambrose Webster. Jane Peterson, Irma Kohn, Henry P. Snell, and Dixie Seldon showed typical Gloucester scenes. There was a large and impressive landscape by Carl Cordell and two noteworthy paintings by Felice Howell which were shown in the National Academy of Design’s most recent exhibition, besides several most memorable figure paintings by Cecilia Beaux, Adelaide Cole Chase, Eben Comins, Jean Nutting Oliver and others. The exhibitions were colorful, varied in character, and exceedingly well hung . . . among the sculptors exhibiting were Louise Allen, Albert Henry Atkins, Richard E. Brooks, and Anna V. Hyatt. Notable among the etchings, drawings, and illustrations were a group of Gloucester scenes and lithographs by Childe Hassam. The Gallery, built under designs by and under the direct supervision of Ralph Adams Cram through the Atwoods’ munificence, has become not only a center of art activity but one for patriotic war work: In the 1918 exhibition, over $2,000 was raised for wounded soldiers, refugees, orphans, and impoverished artists. In this gallery, which is both gallery and playhouse, have been given over the past seasons two series of one-act plays by a group of community players.” (During this time period, the Gallery also served as a temporary Red Cross shelter.)
Having incurred all the expenses of the Gallery, and taking no commissions on sales, the Atwoods initially made the decision to personally supervise the selection process for the exhibitions, a methodology which was criticized in several quarters. This system was altered in 1920, when the community of artists (and potential exhibitors) were placed in charge of electing an unpaid jury to meritoriously, and theoretically free from any charges of favoritism or conflict of interest, select the contents of the annual exhibitions. In contrast to the criticisms, however, the historical record clearly reveals an overwhelming majority of opinions in support of the Atwoods’ efforts, exemplified by the following items found in periodicals of the time: “The charm of the setting of this exhibition is apparent the moment you look into the gallery, with its hand-hewn beams and backgrounds of white plaster. To the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Atwood in providing such an exhibition space a more eloquent typewriter than this has borne testimony.” (Boston Herald, September 1917); “The enthusiasm, tireless energy, and cooperation of Mr. and Mrs. Atwood give spiritual momentum to whatever goes on at the Gallery-Playhouse. They are quite willing that the contents of their lovely house, or their personal wardrobe, shall be drawn upon, if necessary, for scenery or costume, and it is their earnest zeal that brings the finished success to this altruistic enterprise.” (Touchstone Magazine, April 1920); “In the struggle between materialism and idealism to the ranks of the latter which are so thin we hear that Gloucester has brought reinforcement. Long a mecca of modern art, the old fishing port has also become one of literature and drama. . . . All three are correlated or focused in the Gallery-on-the-Moors.” (Ogden Standard-Examiner [Utah] October 14, 1921)
By 1922 — following seven years of successful exhibitions — the Gallery-on-the-Moors was no longer adequate to meet the needs of the rapidly growing artistic community of Gloucester. At a meeting in August 1922 consisting of many of the community’s most prominent artists and citizens (including Atwood), a new society came into being that was in effect the successor-in-interest to the Gallery-on-the-Moors: The North Shore Arts Association (still in existence today). The new group purchased a building overlooking the harbor and immediately set about making plans for a large celebration to be held in the summer of 1923, in time for the tercentenary celebration of the town’s founding. Ultimately, though the paradigm embodied by the Gallery-on-the-Moors did not evolve into a universal one in the world of art, its impact on contemporaneous artists and lovers of the arts alike was profound. In a “Letter to the Editor” published in the September 14, 1917, edition of the Buffalo Commercial newspaper, a British visitor to America wrote: “Everyone in Gloucester knows the names of their benefactors, thus, there is no need to mention them. Had there been anybody in the art colony of St. Ives, England, to perform a similar service, St. Ives today would today be as flourishing as it was 20 years ago. . . . The Gallery-on-the-Moors, done for love, not for gain, may indeed open the gate to the true democratization of art.”