Provincetown has been attracting artists to its shores for well over a century. Some were destined for world renown and their works for the walls of major museums. Most saw little if any financial compensation for their efforts, but their work is an essential part of the town’s rich artistic legacy. Fortunately, Provincetown’s thriving gallery scene affords plenty of opportunity to explore the work of 20th century masters. You too could go home with a painting by an artist whose work hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts, MoMA, the Whitney, or the Met. Or discover an artist who may not be a “name” but whose talent still shines through. Here are a few of the classics that caught my eye.
John Whorf, Sailboat (watercolor on paper), Egeli Gallery
Watercolor is a delicate medium and an unforgiving one. A painter working in oil can rework an unsatisfying passage, but when watercolor pigment soaks into paper it’s there to stay. Here, John Whorf has managed to capture the blazing sun, the crystal clear water, and the motion of the bobbing sailboat with confidence and apparent spontaneity – an impressive feat. The bold composition and the immediacy of the viewer’s perspective create a dramatic tension – this boat feels very real and it’s coming right toward us.
Maurice Freedman, Early Catch (oil on canvas), Julie Heller Gallery
Maurice Freedman was a prolific painter who studied in Boston (with John Whorf at the Museum School), New York, and Paris and was a key member of the American Modernist movement in Provincetown. His paintings of the town, especially of the docks and the waterfront, are bold, colorful, and edgy. I like this piece because he’s imbued an everyday scene – a fisherman’s catch emptied on the dock – with both whimsy and menace. These fish have personality! And a couple of them look none too pleased with their lot. It’s an expressionist take on a mundane subject and makes for a lively and irresistible painting.
Sylvia Carewe, Higgins Wharf (oil on canvas, 1951), Bakker Gallery
It’s remarkable to think that this is the very same world inhabited by Maurice Freedman’s fish. Those fish could have been flopping on this dock, and yet Sylvia Carewe’s world view is clearly different. All the elements of a working wharf are here, but they’ve been deployed by the artist in service of a dynamic composition. Abstraction meets surrealism with a candy-colored palate. Carewe was a student of Hans Hoffman, and her work is in the Whitney and the Met, but somehow fame eluded her. So this is an artist who could be in your collection too.
Edith Lake Wilkinson, Provincetown Farm (oil on canvas, 1916), Bakker Gallery
The first thing that struck me about this painting was the sense of calm surrounding the solid farm buildings set in landscape buzzing all around them. The town is a cubist jumble, and the trees feel more menacing than sheltering. Edith Wilkinson was at the center of the Provincetown art scene from 1914 to 1923, and along with Blanche Lazzell she is credited with the creation of the white line print, a signature Provincetown wood block technique. And while Lazzell’s reputation has only grown over time, Wilkinson was all but forgotten because in 1924 she was institutionalized by an unscrupulous guardian and never painted again. Fortunately her great niece has made a fascinating documentary, Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, which has brought her work long-overdue recognition. Check it out!
George Rogers is an artist and ceramicist. After a career in museums including the MFA in Boston and the Smithsonian, he and his husband moved to Provincetown full time three years ago.