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E. Ambrose Webster



Summer School



Webster, c. 1887


Webster, Summer Garden, 1913
Collection of the Town of Provincetown


Researching the life and career of the Provincetown painter E. Ambrose Webster, has underscored the essential truth of the observation of "a curious anomaly that exact facts about the work of many modern artists are harder to come by than if they had lived in the fifteenth century." (Albert Barr, Jr., the magisterial first director of the Museum of Modern Art, an early spokesman for modern art in America.)

This essay presents some amplification and observations to fill out the story, based on additional research and access to family papers. Included in these papers are notes of interest, such as the fact that Webster dated his pictures from the year they were first exhibited or the notation that while at the Academie Julian, Webster studied architecture privately on Saturdays and Sundays.

Webster's career as a painter is marked by his lifelong yen to voyage in search of sunlit places where he could express his love of light and color. It has become a hallowed cliche in Provincetown and in writing of Provincetown as an art colony to refer to the intense light at the end of the Cape--"like the light of Venice, St. Ives in Cornwall, or the Greek Islands."

Ambrose Webster himself is recorded as stating: "Before I went to Paris (about 1896) I came down on the boat one day. The light house and point were all shining and gold, and all behind was a delicate rose." (Dorothy Earle, Detroit Sunday Times, Nov. 2, 1919, quoted by Ross Moffett in Art in Narrow Streets, p. 50)

In 1900, Webster acquired his white house at 180 Bradford Street on the Provincetown hill overlooking the bay. This house with its still distinctive roof and decorated eaves appears in Webster's own paintings as well as in paintings by Demuth, Stubbs and others.

His Summer School of Painting, started at this time, lasted until his death n 1935. This was to be the first modernist school in Provincetown. As teacher, Webster with his low key, analytical style evoked in his loyal band of students deep affection, respect and an enduring influence on their painting. This abiding influence is confirmed in reports of conversations with his students, among them Charles Darby, Fritz Fuglister, and Kenneth Stubbs.

In a 1919 interview, Webster said "I started a school for the same reason all painters do. I have an analytic mind and when I know something that I think will help someone else, I like to pass it on."He went on to state: "Painting should be taught like mathematics, as a science. You can't teach talent or inspiration but you can teach painting."

Webster's influence on main themes, for instance on color and mathematics in painting, especially the "golden mean" and its application, was extensive not only in his teaching but also in his writing and various lectures across the country. Houghton Cranford Smith in his memoir The Provincetown I Remember relates how Webster led him to a new way of dealing with color that went beyond Hawthorne's approach, with his revelations of Post-Impressionist color theory that Webster had gained from his study of Monet and exposure to the work of Melchers and Hitchcock.

It is perhaps significant that Webster apparently did not depend on his pictures for his livelihood and was thus able to concentrate on his painting, teaching, writing and lecturing.

Webster started studying at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, then a conservative enclave, under Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell, both of whom had studied at the Academie Julian in Paris and were known in Boston for their sunny, elegant landscapes in the Impressionist mode.

Awarded a scholarship for excellence for three years of study abroad, Webster spent two years at the Academie Julian studying with Jean Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant, one of the Julian's renowned two-man teaching teams. He won several prizes for work which was enshrined by being posted on the studio wall. Since Julian’s was like the others in the traditional, academic approach to life drawing as the basis of excellence in art, Webster must have felt some frustration as an incipient landscape artist. So great was the academic fealty to drawing from the figure, that Landscape as an art was never offered as a discipline. Students were expected to venture out of Paris on their own to centers of landscape such as the Barbizon woods, or the Normandy coast.

After their time at Julian's, Cutler and Webster voyaged in the summer, to Egmond, Holland, where Gari (Garibaldi) Melchers and George Hitchcock were painting vivid Post-Impressionist canvases. Around this time Webster met Dodge MacKnight, an older American painter who had known Van Gogh in Arles and who worked with expressive freedom in water color, the medium in which he would become successful.

Married Georgiana Rodgers of Provincetown.

A high point in Webster's career came in 1913 when he was invited to the Armory Show. A key event in the development of American art in the 20th century, this was the exhibition held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City by a group of American artists that introduced domestic as well as European avant-garde art to America along with the idea of modernism as the art of the future.
While the European artists were invited by the organizers, Arthur B. Davies, Walter Pach and Walt Kuhn, American artists received invitations from the artists of the Domestic Committee who selected individuals they deemed to be "Modernists," such as Hopper, Demuth and Hartley. These artists were invited to enter lists of their own work, of which two pieces would be hung.

Webster was invited. He was included, Martha Severens suggests, by Maurice Prendergast due to Webster's earlier involvement (with Prendergast, Cutler and Pepper) in the four-man exhibition at the Brooks Reed Gallery in Boston. Webster's entries were "Old Hut, Jamaica" and "Sunlight, Jamaica." Both paintings were vivid depictions of lush, tropical vegetation accented by bright yellow fronds and set off by purplish shadows, from intense light to dark values.

In 1914 some interested townspeople joined a group of Provincetown artists to found the Provincetown Art Association which held its first exhibition in the summer of 1915. Ambrose Webster, Charles Hawthorne, and William Halsall were leaders in the formation of the Association. The new Association’s Art Committee was composed of Edwin Dickinson, Oscar Gieberich, Gerrit Beneker, Oliver Chaffee, and Frank H. Desch.

Charles Hovey Pepper wrote a sympathetic catalog text for Webster's one-man show at Boston's Brooks Reed Gallery. The exhibition was highly praised by Marion Waitt, The Boston Evening Transcript, and the Christian Science Monitor.

The Provincetown Printers, the distinguished white-line color woodblock group, were given their first print exhibition in Ambrose Webster's studio at the foot of Bangs Street. (Kathryn Lee Smith, catalog, The Provincetown Print, PAAM 1996)

Webster volunteered as director of the Art Association when Harry Campbell declined to continue. Webster was reelected in 1918 and in 1919 with votes of thanks and esteem from his peers.

Boston's St. Botolph Club gave Webster and Hawthorne a two-man exhibition in January. Webster showed pictures of Bermuda and Jamaica plus two of his Tamworth, New Hampshire snow scenes and "Late Snow, Provincetown" which may be the picture in the current PAAM show. Hawthorne showed figure paintings, including "His First Voyage."

Webster went to France and worked with Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who collaborated on their early treatise on abstraction, Du Cubisme, Paris, 1912. According to Mr. Webster's nephew, Karl Rodgers, Gleizes wanted to feature Webster in his book but Webster refused because he did not wish to be identified as a non-objective painter. Gleizes had been pleased with his student's work, even putting on exhibit Webster's only essay into non-objective painting.

Webster's studies with Albert Gleizes, with his stress on Cubism and on the Golden Mean, led Webster to a conceptual approach to painting, in contrast to his early approach. He proposed the use of pattern, rhythm and geometry as the means to achieve harmony in art. His late paintings are made in accord with formal means to a prearranged set of rules. Webster began to solidify his compositions; people and houses began to appear as flat shapes in an abstract setting.

Webster seemed to favor his Tamworth, New Hampshire snow scenes. He showed them yearly at the Provincetown Art Association from 1915 through 1919, and they were frequently the subject of positive comment in critical reviews of his exhibitions.

In his 1964 book Art in Narrow Streets, Ross Moffett wrote what may be the finest early recognition of Webster’s work and his particular contribution to early modern art in this art colony:

"In fairness one could not end a chapter dealing with the emergence of modern art in Provincetown without special mention of E. Ambrose Webster, who, beyond a possibility of doubt, was the pioneer of modernism in this area."He quoted Webster: "At first there were no modernists here but myself. I had to fight all alone, and sometimes it was pretty hard."

Moffett wrote: "His booklet on color, which he published rather early, regards color as a means towards representation--colors in shadow appear certain ways, colors as they recede in perspective change in specified ways, and so on. He was greatly concerned with light." In his book, Ross Moffett refers to the "snow scenes which signify his happiest and most uninhibited period of creation." Image and execution come together through the artist’s obvious joy in the making of a painting so close to his heart and mind.

The early landscapes are made up of differing kinds of brush strokes, as though he was improvising a hierarchy of marking to suit or solve each new landscape problem. This gives the paintings such immediacy and freshness they seem to have been just painted, full of the vivacity of his inspiration.

Unique in the history of the Provincetown Art Association was the Student Show, August 24 - September 7, 1924, exhibiting the work of students from both Hawthorne's Cape Cod School of Art and Ambrose Webster's Summer School of Painting. Among Webster's students included in the exhibit were Bertha Taft Reid, Katherine Liddell and C.S. Baker. Hawthorne's students included Nancy Ferguson, Jerry Farnsworth and Henry Hensche.

Webster revisited France the following year staying around St. Paul and La Gaude. At this time he was using an architectonic imagery often combined with a figure, in compositions with flat shapes and changes of light and dark seeming to stem from the abstraction of Gleizes.

Advertisements for Webster's Summer School of Painting, in Art Association catalogs for 1925 and 1926, note that Albert Gleizes would give critiques to Webster's classes.

Ross Moffett, in his favorable account on Webster, stated "Sometime in the 1920's apparently as a result of having studied briefly with Albert Gleizes, Webster abandoned any aesthetic he may have had, based on naturalism. . . Instead we find him occupied with a formal, or compositional approach to painting."

Moffett mentioned also Webster's typed notes written about 1930 for lectures and a possible book, defining art as the creation of harmony and referring to several aspects of art, i.e. line, pattern, solidity, rhythm, tone, geometry, and color.

In his oil painting, Webster made much use of the water colorist's technique of leaving the white ground, i.e. the paper, on a painting to show through a thin glaze of paint to add luminosity. The difference is that in an oil painting, the luminous white ground--prepared with zinc white oxide, per his recipe in his text on painting--would shine through any overlying layers of color and illuminate the surface, an effect enhanced by occasional spots of bare white canvas that appeared between brush strokes. This practice of the water colorists of the period imparted a sparkle to the surface, as John Marin was wont to do in his Maine landscapes.

Webster later gave up his watercolor technique approach, using an opaque paint film on his color shapes.

Webster returned to southern France and travelled to Florence. He particularly admired the masters Giotto and Duccio.

Webster joined with Janice Biala (Tworkov), Charles Demuth, Oliver Chaffee, William and Lucy L'Engle, Niles Spencer, Jack Tworkov, and Marguerite and William Zorach in an exhibition of paintings by a Provincetown group at New York's G.R.D. Studio, organized by Agnes Weinrich. The New York papers' reviews were unfavorable, Henry McBride being the pleasant exception.

Ambrose Webster died at his Provincetown home on January 23, 1935.

In the Boston Evening Transcript's Magazine Section, September 14, 1935, critic William Germaine Dooley wrote "Ambrose Webster's memorial will be the profound influence and encouragement which he gave to a younger generation at Provincetown, at a time when few of the worthy elders would support their initiative."

One of Webster's last pictures, the 1931 painting titled "Webster's House," shown in this exhibition, is carefully composed with elements from the landscape, the still life, and the nude, all traditional subjects of academic art. The upper right corner features a steep-roofed house with a gingerbread decoration of the eaves. This is Webster's own house, still standing on the corner of Miller Hill and Bradford Streets in Provincetown. The distinctive roof peak appears again in Demuth's painting, "After Sir Christopher Wren," with its Wren-like spire of Provincetown's old Methodist Church; Webster's house appears, accurately portrayed but arbitrarily placed in the lower right corner, contrary to visual reality in relation to the spire. Martha Severens' note that in 1914 Webster had given Demuth exhibition space in his studio for a display of water colors, suggests that Demuth might have acknowledged Webster's kindness by placing that distinctive roof detail next to one of his favored Wren steeples. This does seem like a tribute to a fellow painter by one of the subtlest, most allusive of them all.

The Provincetown summer avant-garde under the leadership of Weldon Kees--poet, painter and jazz buff--gathered to develop Forum 49 - a series of panel discussions and dispays of the new art. The gallery they created in the old Ford garage at 200 Commercial Street featured Ambrose Webster, Oliver Chaffee, Agnes Weinrich, and Blanche Lazzell, who were celebrated as the early modernists of the Provincetown art colony. The show also featured Fritz Bultman, Karl Knaths, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Perle Fine, Robert Motherwell and a host of others of their ilk.

The East End Gallery in Provincetown, run by Clinton Seely and Donald Jasinski, put on an inclusive exhibition of Webster's work at the urging of Webster's friend and ex-student, Kenneth Stubbs.

Webster's "New Hampshire Winter" 1914 was exhibited in the Provincetown Art Association's Golden Anniversary Show. It had been donated by the artist in 1915; with works by four other artists it formed the basis of the Art Association's permanent collection.


© Tony Vevers
Provincetown, July, 2001

(from E. Ambrose Webster catalog, published by the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 2001)



Del Deo, Josephine C., Figures in a Landscape, the Life and Times of the American Painter, Ross Moffett, 1888-1971, The Donning Co., Virginia Beach, VA, 1994

Moffett, Ross. Art in Narrow Streets, The First Thirty-three Years of the Provincetown Art Association 1914-1947, Falmouth, MA. Kendall Printing Company, 1964

Rodgers, Karl F. Unpublished Handwritten Notes of Conversations with Georgiana Rodgers Webster, 1940. Archives of American Art

Morrin, Peter et al. The Advent of Modernism: Post-Impressionism and North American Art,1900-1918, Exhibition Catalog, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 1986

Herbert, Robert L. Monet on the Normandy Coast, Tourism and Painting 1867-1886. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984

Bowness, Alan et al. Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting 1880-1906, Catalog. National Academy of Art, Washington, DC, 1980

Brown, Milton. American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression. Princeton University Press, 1955

Brown, Milton. The Story of the Armory Show. The Joseph Hirshhorn Foundation, Abbeville Press, New York, 1988

Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh in Arles, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1984

Seckler, Dorothy Gees and Kuchta, Ronald. Provincetown Painters 1890's-1970's Everson Museum of Art, Visual Art Publications, 1977

Farnham, Dr. Emily. Charles Demuth, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1971

Baigell, Matthew. A History of American Painting. Praeger Publications, 1974

Smith, Kathryn Lee. The Provincetown Print. Catalog, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1996

Weinberg, H. Barbara. The Lure of Paris. Abbeville Press NY, 1991

Marquis, Alice G. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Contemporary Books, Chicago, IL 1989

Webster's house, Provincetown, 180 Bradford Street.
Winter 2002.

"We live in a world of color. All nature is color: white, black, and grey do not exist except in theory; they are never seen by the eye—they could only exist in a world that was colorless. Such a universe is beyond imagination: a world without color would be a world without light, for light and color are inseparable."

--Ambrose E. Webster


Webster, c. 1900
both portrait photographs from Stubbs family collection.


Rosamund Vanderbeek rembembers

At 22 years of age, I spent the Summer in P-Town on Commercial Street as a guest of my Sister and Brother-in-law, I befriended Francis DeRiggs of Bradford St., who taught school in the Provincetown school system. We often double dated together during the Summer.

One day, while on the beach, Mr. Webster approached me and asked if I would consider modeling for him. I accepted and an interview was arranged at his home.

I recall entering the premises through a large white gate, which had large
gold letters "Webster".

I then approached the front door and rang the bell. I servant I believe answered my ring. He then pulled a large cord and a loud gong rang through the large entrance hall. Mr. Webster came bounding down a long staircase. He didn't seem very tall, wore short breeches and sneakers and seemed very cordial which made me feel at ease.

I had a choice of posing in the nude, which I declined. Many hours were spent sitting on a platforn dressed in a powder blue dress, white shoes and worn a wind blown bob, the hair style of the twenties.

Several students sketched me from different angles. Every so often, I stepped down from the platform and relaxed, gazing out to the sea.

In late summer, an artist costume ball was held in the Town Hall. I recall a costumed Lady Godiva riding past my home on a white horse, her long hair flowing in the breeze.

I am now 93 years old as of Nov. 2nd , 2002. I have very fond memories of that wonderful summer in P-Town.

--Rosamund Vanderbeek





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