Provincetown art colony: Where light, water, and art meet
Provincetown, Massachusetts continues its seasonal tradition of vibrant colors and characters.
Summer art colonies are permissive places where artists can let down their hair, paint or write with less worry about critics, and socialize with like-minded people. Such colonies can often be insular places, but not Provincetown, Mass, at the far tip of Cape Cod.Skip to next paragraph
I've come on a two-day exploration of the town and its fabled arts colony past. With the definitive book "Provincetown as a Stage," by Leona Rust Egan, tucked under my arm, I arrive at the Provincetown ferry dock on a windy, choppy morning in mid-June. I survey the waterfront, trying to imagine how Eugene O'Neill might have seen it on his first visit in 1916, the summer that proved a turning point in his playwriting career. Perhaps, as I did, he found the Pilgrim Monument an odd landmark, with its grandiose Italianate tower rising above gabled Victorian homes and Greek Revival buildings.
Locals describe the town, without too much exaggeration, as "three miles long and two streets wide." Cars are unnecessary because most of the 60 galleries, 170 restaurants and cafes, and dozens of inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels are within walking distance.
I notice tidy pocket gardens with huge roses in bloom, some the diameter of salad plates. The much-celebrated summer light that first brought painter and teacher Charles Hawthorne here in the 1890s must also be good for flowers. Hawthorne and his students came here to paint the ever-changing landscape en plein air, as the French Impressionists were doing. The interplay of light where water meets sky inspired Hawthorne and still inspires artists today.
The particular brilliance of the light is a frequent topic. Contemporary artist John Dowd paints images of the town's architecture in an atmospheric style that calls to mind American realist painter Edward Hopper. I ask him if he will ever run out of buildings to paint. "I can look at the same building five times a day, the light is never the same," he says.
Painter and teacher Selina Trieff came to Provincetown in the 1950s when she was a 20-year-old student following Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), a hugely influential teacher considered the dean of abstract expressionism in America. She quotes Hofmann as saying, "the light of the lower Cape was the nearest thing to that of the Riviera."
As I walk to dinner, I spot a woman with an easel set up on the beach facing the harbor, painting, while a man in a battered hat sits next to her on a driftwood log. Their poses appear timeless, as if at any moment in the history of this art colony I could walk out onto the beach and come across a painter absorbed in work.
After dinner, I stroll along Commercial Street and indulge in the popular Provincetown pastime of people-watching. I pass Town Hall, where ticketholders for the annual international film festival are waiting. The street, though busy, has not reached its crescendo of activity, because it's only 8 p.m. on a weeknight and the high season for tourists won't start until July 4.
My guesthouse is steps away from the town's bustle, but the minute I round the corner onto Winthrop Street and leave the main street behind everything becomes quiet. The rooftop deck of the guesthouse offers a 360-degree view of the town and the harbor. I picture myself as a captain's wife, waiting atop the widow's walk of a fine house, looking toward the sea. In the mid-1800s, Provincetown supported a profitable whaling industry.