Backstory: A regular guy with a Renoir touch

Artist Robert Caulfield grew up standing in bread lines. Now his works go for as much as $30,000, and he has a devout following.

Robert O. Caulfield has been painting for almost 75 years, but it wasn't until 20 years ago that the colors on his canvas finally began to brighten up - and for good reason.

He and his brother were raised by his grandmother, who used to lock them in the attic with a candy bar for dinner while she left to get drunk. As a child of the Great Depression, Mr. Caulfield routinely had to stand in bread lines. Later, he clung for 35 years to steady work at the Boston Gas Company, first as a laborer laying pipes and later as a manager.

But it wasn't until he took the biggest risk of his life, retiring at age 55 to open his own studio here with his wife, Marilyn, that the dark mood conveyed in his landscapes began to lift. "My father told me his dream was to wake up every day and just run downstairs and worry about, 'What do I have to paint today?' " his son, Wayne Caulfield, recalls. "That's what he's doing now. He's living his dream."

Apparently so. The man who once supervised a backhoe crew now gets as much as $30,000 for an original painting. His canvases adorn top corporate suites and hang in galleries well known in the posh art world: Newbury Street in Boston and Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Fla. The now defunct Art Trends magazine once decreed Caulfield one of the leading impressionists in the nation.

"Caulfield is in that tradition of highly recognizable landscape painters where the subject is Vermont or rural New England," says Sam Ankerson of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. His nostalgic style resonates "with the public in a way that's not unlike some of the artists in our collection," which includes Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth.

More to the point for the Caulfields, they now live in a brick colonial with a coveted spot on the Green in this Currier & Ives town in central Vermont. Inside, oriental carpets and a gold-plated mirror set an elegant mood for browsing among dozens of paintings. Living above the first floor gallery, the couple has five bedrooms and five fireplaces to keep them comfortable.

"We never dreamed we'd ever own a home like this," the artist says during a gallery tour. "We could have used this house when we were bringing up the [five] kids."

For Caulfield, however, just having enough to eat is a step up from childhood. He learned to fight to protect groceries on the rough streets of Roxbury, Mass. Even then, he resented what standing in bread lines seemed to mean. "I hated every humiliating second of standing in those lines of the down and out," he writes in a new book, "Ruggles Street: The Life of an American Artist." "I knew those people in their shabby clothes were the dregs, the poorest of the poor, and that I was one of them."

Such images seem a long way from Caulfield's favorite subjects to paint today: The Plaza Hotel in New York City, women picking flowers in long dresses and wide-brimmed hats, beach scenes of children and mothers. All hark back to a Victorian bliss - a long brushstroke from the reality of his past.

But in these scenes, his bleak childhood finds its redemption, at least in the opinion of Rick Clancy, a Winthrop, Mass., stockbroker who owns 11 Caulfield paintings. "When you come from a hard-knock environment, I think you hold out hope that life doesn't necessarily have to be that way," Mr. Clancy says. "So when you find out that you were right ... I think you tend to embrace it more firmly than many people would. And I think that comes across in his art, through a little romantic flavor."

That style, which has garnered Caulfield a devout following, developed without a single art class. In fact, for most of his adult life, the painter doubted he could make it professionally. "You can definitely starve doing this," Caulfield says. "It's one thing to starve on your own. But I didn't want the family to starve."

For that reason, he gave most of his adult years to Boston Gas (now Keyspan Energy). Because schools were good in Lynnfield, Mass., the Caulfields raised their family in a modest home there. He painted at night in the basement. One exception was Tuesdays, when free admission at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts meant he and Wayne could marvel at the work of masters such as Monet and Renoir.

On weekends, he'd drive to Rockport, Mass., and visit artists with enviable galleries and time to paint during the day. While other artists amassed thousands of works, Caulfield generated just a few per year. He displayed them anywhere he could - local restaurants, coffee shops, banks.

To gas workers, who stopped by the Lynnfield house when they had a job in the area, Caulfield was a regular guy with an odd hobby. "He wasn't one of those space-shot guys you would think of when you think of an artist," says Moe Sarno, who drove a backhoe on a crew Caulfield supervised. "He'd talk sports with you - baseball, whatever."

At ease in his studio, Caulfield combines an "aw shucks" demeanor with subtle yearnings for appreciation. He proudly recalls his days as a high school football star who could date any cheerleader he wanted. In a similar tone, he speaks of his rich Manhattan clients who can have their pick of the art world, and choose him.

At times, however, Caulfield's self-training and lack of connections seemed to hinder his success. He once applied for membership in Boston's prestigious Copley Society, which includes 700 artists, and got rejected. "That was when I realized it's not just about how good you are," he says. "It's also about who you know."

But Caulfield has learned to mingle with the art-buying elites, while Marilyn handles the marketing and negotiating. "A lot of artists are real characters," says John Stringer, owner of a gallery in Bernardsville, N.J. But Caulfield, he says, is an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent: "It's like dealing with a family member, like an uncle. That's exactly how I look at him."

For Caulfield, generating 50 paintings a year to meet demand means sitting at the easel, in a paint-spattered chair, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. He and Marilyn own a beach-side condominium in Florida, but he doesn't like to be away long. "He'll say, 'Honey, can we go home now? I miss my paintings,' " Marilyn says.

Despite all his success, dreams still beckon. One clue: In a rendering of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Caulfield has slyly scrawled a name on a flag waving out front - his own.

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