| E. Ambrose Webster
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
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 Julians 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 Associations
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
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 Websters 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
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 artists 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
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,
Moffett, Ross. Art in Narrow Streets, The First Thirty-three Years of
the Provincetown Art Association 1914-1947, Falmouth, MA. Kendall Printing
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,
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,
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
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,
Baigell, Matthew. A History of American Painting. Praeger Publications,
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
Webster's house, Provincetown, 180 Bradford Street.
"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 eyethey
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
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.