By Maggie Dimock | Connecticut Explored Inc. | Summer 2022
In a letter scribbled on stationery from The Players club in New York in the winter of 1902, now held in the Holley-MacRae Papers in the collection of the Greenwich Historical Society, American Impressionist artist John Henry Twachtman (1853 – 1902) put into words the dislocation and exhaustion of city living: “I wish I were back. The town is using me up. I am on the go from morning until night and nothing doing. Always busy about some damned unnecessary thing and spending money to beat the band and to no purpose. And I also miss the painting.”
Twachtman addressed these melancholy thoughts to his friend and sometimes confidante Josephine Holley, the proprietor of a boarding house in the coastal village of Cos Cob, Connecticut. For more than a dozen years Twachtman enjoyed the gracious and informal hospitality offered by Holley and her husband Edward P. Holley, who provided rented rooms and communal meals in their 18th-century saltbox house overlooking the harbor. Twachtman was, in turns, a lodger, a family friend, and a neighbor to them, having purchased his own house in 1890 in a hilly section of nearby Greenwich, just three miles northwest of the Holley house.
Twachtman’s life in Greenwich is the subject of Life and Art: The Greenwich Paintings of John Henry Twachtman(Greenwich Historical Society, 2021) by Dr. Lisa N. Peters, accompanying an upcoming exhibition by the same title curated by her at the historical society, on view from October 19, 2022 to January 22, 2023. Twachtman’s presence, and the summer painting courses he organized, established Greenwich’s reputation as a destination for artists. Between 1890 and 1920 the Holley house was a regular stopping point for New York painters seeking, as Twachtman had, a picturesque location and escape from the pressures of modern urban life. Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, and Childe Hassam were among the celebrated painters who spent time there, as did their students and followers. Their depictions of Connecticut coastal and maritime scenes evoked a nostalgic tranquility that came to define the region in the popular imagination, even as many of the artists were, like Twachtman, transplants to the area.
Twachtman was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a German American family, and as Peters notes in Life and Art, he began serious artistic studies under the famed painter Frank Duveneck. In 1875, at age 22, he accompanied Duveneck to Munich, Germany and enrolled in life drawing classes at the Royal Academy. Twachtman spent the next decade traveling and studying in Europe, during which time he met his wife Martha Scudder, an accomplished artist who also hailed from Cincinnati. By the late 1880s, now father to three children, Twachtman fixed his sights on New York, where a teaching position at the Art Students League provided stable income and the city’s community of artists provided favorable social and exhibition prospects.
Perhaps inspired by Weir, a friend whose farm in Branchville, Connecticut was a respite from the crush of New York society, Twachtman sought a country retreat within commutable distance to the city. He purchased his Greenwich home in 1890 and, together with Weir, initiated the summer painting course in Cos Cob the following year. Their students flocked to the Holley House, an easy train ride from the city. By day they received instruction from Twachtman, painting among the old weather-beaten warehouses and shipyard buildings that lined Cos Cob harbor. In the evenings, they took part in convivial group dinners and discussions on the Holley porch, gatherings that attained legendary status.
Twachtman’s true passion, though, was his own Greenwich homestead. The artist’s house was in a neighborhood known in the 19th century as Hangroot, an enclave that had been home to several Black families. Twachtman expanded the house into an idiosyncratic, neoclassical-inspired country cottage surrounded by hand-laid stone walls, terraces, and garden paths, all tucked snugly amid the natural sloping landscape. The area’s remote location, rough topography, and hillsides cleared of trees from decades of logging provided dramatic scenery and striking views.
Twachtman’s homestead became the primary subject of his art through the 1890s when he produced many of his most acclaimed canvases and reached the height of his Impressionist style. These years appear to have been the happiest, most fulfilling of his adult life, though unfortunately this idyllic period was cut short. In 1899 the house was rented out to boarders, and in 1900 Martha and their children departed for Paris, where the oldest son was set to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Twachtman stayed behind with the Holleys for extended periods. In summer 1902, while on a trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts, he died unexpectedly from what was recorded as a brain aneurysm. He was 49 years old.
Twachtman’s influence lives on in present-day Cos Cob, where visitors retrace the painter’s footsteps on guided tours of the boarding house (since 1957 the Bush-Holley House). Twachtman’s legacy may be explored online through the John Henry Twachtman Catalogue Raisonné, a free online database of all known works by the artist, a wealth of supplementary resources, and a detailed chronology. The Twachtman Catalogue Raisonné, a collaborative project between Peters and the Greenwich Historical Society, may be accessed at jhtwachtman.org.
Maggie Dimock is Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at Greenwich Historical Society.
Life and Art: The Greenwich Paintings of John Henry Twachtman
On view October 19, 2022 to January 22, 2023
Greenwich Historical Society, 47 Strickland Rd, Cos Cob