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