Painting the Shipyard

By Maggie Dimock
childe hassam the red mill cos cob

In January 2021 the Greenwich Historical Society will show publicly for the first time a newly acquired painting by American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, which will appear at the center of an intimate focus exhibit titled Lost Landscape Revealed: Childe Hassam and The Red Mill, Cos Cob (on view January 16-March 28, 2021.

The Red Mill, Cos Cob presents a view across the Cos Cob Harbor toward the buildings of the Palmer & Duff shipyard, once located on a peninsula in the Mianus River opposite the Holley boarding house – now the Bush-Holley House. Drawing from the Historical Society’s collections, Lost Landscape Revealed will offer a glimpse into the past, exploring how Hassam and fellow artists captured the fleeting character of Cos Cob’s Lower Landing and its businesses and people at the turn of the century.

childe hassam the red mill cos cob
Childe Hassam, The Red Mill, Cos Cob, 1896. Oil on canvas. Greenwich Historical Society, Museum Purchase with funds from Susan and Jim Larkin, Sally and Larry Lawrence, Mr. and Mrs. Peter L. Malkin, Debbie and Russ Reynolds, Reba and Dave Williams, and Lily Downing and David Yudain.

The coastal village of Cos Cob, Connecticut became a gathering place for New York artists beginning in 1890, when John Henry Twachtman bought a house on Round Hill Road in Greenwich. Fellow artists visited him there or rented rooms in nearby farmhouses. The next summer, Twachtman began teaching outdoor painting classes in Cos Cob, with his students often lodging at the 18th-century waterfront boardinghouse run by the Holley family (now the Bush-Holley House).

Painter Childe Hassam was already a celebrated figure when he began visiting the Holley boardinghouse for painting excursions. Born in Boston to a family with deep New England roots, Hassam was a largely self-taught artist who first worked as a commercial illustrator and watercolorist. Travel in Europe in the 1880s exposed him to French academic training and the French Impressionists, whose lively color palettes and free brush strokes he absorbed. Hassam settled in New York City in 1889, where he painted the urban landscape and established friendships with fellow American Impressionists J. Alden Weir, John Henry Twachtman and Theodore Robinson.

childe hassam portrait
Childe Hassam, Studio portrait taken about 1908
Greenwich Historical Society, Photograph Collection

Hassam’s first visit with the Holleys took place in September 1896. During that time he painted The Red Mill, Cos Cob. The “Red Mill” of the painting’s title was not in fact a mill, but rather a large two-story building used by the Palmer & Duff shipyard for sail making and ship carpentry. A tall chimney visible at the upper center of the canvas connected to the furnace in the shipyard’s blacksmith shop. The wooden buildings of the Palmer & Duff outfit were painted a brilliant rust red, though Hassam’s choice to depict them in delicate shades of salmon pink may reflect their faded appearance in 1896.

pamer and duff boat builder
The Palmer & Duff Shipyard, photographed circa 1906
Greenwich Historical Society, Photograph Collection

Founded in 1848, in its heyday Palmer & Duff built commercial sailing vessels used as market boats for transporting farm products to New York City. By the 1890s their business was in decline and shifted to repairing the oyster sloops still in operation on the Long Island Sound, and servicing pleasure yachts owned by wealthy New Yorkers who had begun settling in Greenwich. A decade after Hassam made this painting the Palmer & Duff shipyard closed for good.

Hassam was not the only Cos Cob artist to turn his attention toward the shipyard. Theodore Robinson, Charles Ebert and Ernest Lawson all painted views of the Palmer & Duff buildings between the 1890s and 1910s.

Charles H. Ebert, Water’s Edge, circa 1913. Oil on canvas. 19 7/8 x 27 inches.
Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Miss Elizabeth Ebert, 1977.18.13

Ebert’s vibrant, sun-dappled depiction of the shipyard was painted from a vantage point somewhat farther north from where Hassam stood to paint the same view in 1896. Charles and his wife Mary Roberts Ebert met as art students in Cos Cob and married in 1903, settling in Greenwich for several years before relocating to Old Lyme in 1919.

The Greenwich Historical Society’s collections include several views of the shipyard by artist Elmer Livingston MacRae, who first arrived in Cos Cob in 1896 at the age of 21 as a student of Twachtman’s. The Holley boardinghouse became his permanent home when he married Edward and Josephine Holley’s daughter, Emma Constant Holley, in 1900. After settling in Cos Cob, he and Constant gradually took over running the busy boardinghouse

elmer livingston macrae
Elmer Livingston MacRae, Cos Cob in Winter, circa 1900. Oil on canvas adhered to pressed wood. Greenwich Historical Society, Gift of Alfred B. Van Liew in memory of his grandparents, Herbert Henry Ferris and Edna Reynolds Ferris.

MacRae was a prolific artist, producing countless paintings, sketches and pastels of his family and scenes from the Lower Landing. Over the years he painted a number of views of the Palmer & Duff shipyard, observing this local fixture from the front porches of the Holley House under cold blankets of snow, and at different times of day.

macrae cos cob harbor
Elmer Livingston MacRae, Cos Cob Harbor, Winter, 1910. Oil on canvas
Greenwich Historical Society, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh B. Vanderbilt.

Morose and mysterious, this deeply blue-tinged canvas stands out as one of MacRae’s most distinctive landscapes. This misty view of the shipyard on a cold night omits detail in favor of mood and simple forms. The railroad bridge over the Mianus River, in life visible to the right of the shipyard, has been excluded from the scene.

Maggie Dimock is Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Greenwich Historical Society

Lost Landscape Revealed: Childe Hassam and The Red Mill, Cos Cob is on view at the Greenwich Historical Society January 16-March 28, 2021.

Find more information about visiting and and reserving timed tickets.

By Maggie Dimock

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