the weekly spotlight

In our Own Backyard: Elmer Livingston MacRae, Greenwich’s Own Artist

by Susan VP Barrett

Elmer Livingston MacRae
Am. 1875-1953
Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard
Oil on canvas
40 x 30 in.
Framed:47 x 36 ¾ in.
Signed and dated lower right

This month Abby M Taylor Fine Art has chosen to shine the spotlight on one of our own local artists, although the term “local” seems not to fully describe the importance of the artist Elmer Livingston MacRae. He was one of the founders and the first Secretary-Treasurer of the American Pastel Society, a charter member of the Greenwich Society of Artists where he served on their council, and most importantly a founding member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors which organized the famed Armory Show of 1913, an International Exhibition of Modern Art at New York City’s 69th Street Armory. This Exhibition showcased the art of such European artists as Paul Cezanne and Marcel Duchamp which was a radical departure from the previously known Realist and Impressionist work.  MacRae served on a number of committees that organized this ground-breaking exhibition that would change the face of American art. Without MacRae’s tireless work the show could conceivably not been the ultimate success that it was.

MacRae studied under John Twachtman, Carroll Beckwith, Robert Blum, and H. Siddons Mowbray at the Arts Students League in New York City. Many of these students visited the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, Connecticut to continue their studies in outdoor landscape painting under John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, who taught summer classes there. MacRae himself is known to have spent two summers at the school in the 1890’s. In 1896 MacRae settled in the village of Cos Cob. At the boardinghouse of Edward and Josephine Holley which had become the unofficial headquarters for the Cos Cob Art Colony MacRae met Emma Constant Holley, the daughter of the owners of the Holley House. In 1900 Elmer Livingston MacRae married Emma and settled permanently in the house that he had come to love. For the next two decades Elmer and Emma together ran the boardinghouse that drew many artists and writers and that served as a setting to showcase MacRae’s works.  Amongst the best known visitors were the artists Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson and Ernest Lawson.

Elmer Livingston MacRae painted Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard the year before the landmark International Exhibition of Modern Art held at the 69th Street Armory in New York City in 1913. This painting is a major work by MacRae in its size, scope, subject and technique where he is clearly pushing the bounds of Impressionist painting.  Works from this time frame depicting this subject are very rare, and MacRae himself painted possibly just once in this location.  The beautiful clay cliffs depicted in Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard are located close to Aquinnah, a town known prior to 1998 as Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. In this painting the cliffs as well as Jungle Beach below them are ablaze in pastel shades of reds, blues, greens, and yellows that delineate the various clays, sands, and gravels composing the sedimentary layers left by the receding glaciers. MacRae has painted these cliffs in quick almost agitated broken brushstrokes. This dramatic new color palette coupled with the distinct application of paint represents a further step into Impressionism from MacRae’s formerly solid style of painting. The abstract brushstrokes, softly toned images, and overall composition reflects the influence of MacRae’s teacher and mentor John Henry Twachtman, who taught outdoor landscape painting at the Bush-Holley House. They are also suggestive of a concurrent movement towards a more modernist approach on the part of MacRae. Like many other former Impressionist artists MacRae had been enthralled with Japanese art and woodcuts. Their flattened perspective and asymmetrical orientation can also be seen in the placement of the cliffs towards the front as well as the right side of the canvas as well as the situating of the Elizabeth Islands in the distance towards the upper part of the canvas. MacRae’s predilection for painting en plein air or in the open air still remains in this exquisite painting that is full of natural light and gentle atmospheric effects with their shifting transient qualities. A later version of Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard dates from 1915 and is appropriately in the permanent collection of the Greenwich Historical Society which is headquartered at the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, Connecticut.

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