Oliver Newberry Chaffee


".. .a modernist before modernism was popular. .."

                                                                        Ross Moffett

Between 1904 and 1906, Oliver Chaffee spent summers in Provincetown studying painting with Charles Hawthorne. He had attended the Detroit Fine Arts Academy (1892-1902) and studied in New York with Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase, and with Hawthorneat the Art Students League. Henri was an immensely popular and radical (eschewing the academic tradition of painting) teacher and according to Solveiga Rush, the author of the catalogue accompanying the 1991 Chaffee retrospective at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, he "championed freedom of expression and exalted imagination, intense feeling and spontaneity -- ideas that had a strong impact on Chaffee." The spontaneity of gesture, referred to as temperamente by the art critic Henry McBride, continued to be the hallmark of Chaffee's style.

It was during these three summers in Provincetown that Chaffee began to paint outdoors, working in the Impressionist style. Provincetown was a remote, unspoiled fishing village, offering the sweeping vistas of sand and sea, and the unique quality of light that still draws artists today. These outdoor lessons with Hawthorne sharpened Chaffee's understanding of color and light. Chaffee exhibited his early Provincetown marine paintings in a one-person exhibition in 1906 at the Detroit Museum of Art where the local press described his work as of "undoubted merit and great promise." Chaffee soon left for Paris where the artistic establishment was shaking from the explosive debut in 1905 of the Fauves, which art historian John Russell described as a "forest fire": "Everyone who was anywhere near got singed."

Chaffee studied at the Académie Julian, which promoted artistic diversity and encouraged students to follow their own paths. He saw the work of Matisse and the avant-garde art of Cézanne. Chaffee became well versed in European modernism, and abandoned Impressionism. A 1908 self-portrait, with its rough treatment of the surface, densely packed space, and vigorous, patchy strokes of brilliant, arbitrary color contrasts, attests to Chaffee's early commitment to Fauvism.

After his return from Paris in 1908, Chaffee spent winters in New York and summers in Provincetown. The powerfully influential and controversial New York Armory Show of 1913, later traveling to Boston and Chicago, introduced an estimated 300,000 Americans to European modernism, irrevocably affecting all aspects of American art. Three Chaffee paintings were included. Painter William Zorach describes the mood after the armory show:

We were modern (wildly modern) in days when a mere handful of people in America even knew Cubists and Fauves existed. We were drunk with the possibilities of color and form, and the new world that this opened up. The great developments that had been changing art in Europe had formally reached America. There were about half a dozen of young artists experimenting and feeling their oats. We got together and held a show at the McDowell Club.

The McDowell exhibition included six paintings by Oliver Chaffee. Chaffee and his wife Mary Cole, a young art student from Georgia he had met in Provincetown and married in 1912, sailed for Europe shortly after the Armory exhibition. But the threat of war forced Chaffee and many other American artists home, an event which art historians site as accounting for the sudden transformation of Provincetown into a flourishing and important art colony, for many other expatriates who had been active in modernist circles joined him here. Provincetown accommodated diverse attitudes and convictions, and this "charged the atmosphere with creative energy and excitement." (Rush) During this time, Chaffee helped found the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Watercolors Chaffee painted address his primarily pictorial concerns of form and color, a departure from direct description and an acknowledgment of the autonomy of color and form.

In the summer of 1916, Blanche Lazzell became a student of Chaffee's. While Chaffee mastered the one-block color woodcut, later known as the Provincetown Print; and, in fact, taught it to Lazzell, he "must have found it too tedious" (Rush), because he returned to it in his own work only occasionally. Nature grew to be the primary source of Chaffee's work - his intense, highly personal response to nature conveying an inner urgency closer to German Expressionists such as Kandinsky, than to earlier Fauvist instincts. In 1919, on seeing Chaffee's watercolors in Boston, a critic in the Post called his drawing with the brush "lawless and brutal" but his use color of "amazing brilliancy."

During the 1920s, Chaffee returned to Europe, often without his family. His work changed profoundly. Structure, distilled from nature and architecture, preoccupied him - achieved largely at the expense of color. Separation and financial concerns began to strain the marriage and he was divorced in 1925. Shortly thereafter, he married printmaker Ada Gilmore, whom he had known in prewar Paris and in Provincetown. They returned to Provincetown in 1928.

In Provincetown again, Chaffee experienced a renewed interest in color and a new emphasis in texture and pattern. The intellectual theories of aesthetics continued to intrigue him and this tension between the idea and the feeling was always an inner conflict for him. In the 1930s, he discovered a new excitement in primitivism and developed an interest in fantasy.

This exhibition includes work from Chaffee's last years, described by Rush as work of "unparalleled spontaneity and exuberance." She continues: "At the end, Chaffee's vision was that of a consummate colorist and dynamic Expressionist."

Chaffee followed his own course. His color-saturated late work captures expressive force in a few bold, gestural strokes. As seen in Untitled (Blue Poles), painted a year before his death at 63, Chaffee's late compositions opened to larger, more simplified forms, often set against a flat background, a synthesis of a life-long exploration of form and color.

Between his first one-person exhibit in 1906 at 25, and this exhibition in 2002, Chaffee's work has been the subject of many exhibitions throughout the country and internationally, including a major exhibition at the Heritage Museum in Provincetown in 1981, curated by Josephine Del Deo; in "Provincetown and the Art of Printmaking," 1992, a traveling exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution; and several exhibitions at Berta Walker Gallery. His paintings are in many private and public collections including the Detroit museum of Art, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown Heritage Museum, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among others.

June 2002


©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved