April Gornik, Light Before Heat (1983), oil on linen, 167.5 x 335.3 cm. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY. Gift of Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner
The Parrish Art Museum is probably the luckiest regional museum in America.
The Hamptons, like the French Riviera, have been home to a disproportionate number of influential artists. Ever since the Impressionist William Merritt Chase lured painters to the area in the 1890s, the Hamptons have had everything creative people need to thrive: an inspiring setting, fellow artists, and rich patrons. It’s been an art colony for generations. A museum here can collect primarily local works and still end up with a Who’s Who of American art.
The Parrish happily embraces its regional status. Even its architecture is reminiscent of a traditional Hamptons potato barn. And yet, because of the Hamptons’ outsized influence, its collection tells a much bigger story.
By chance, I happened to see the museum “backwards,” starting at the far end with the ongoing exhibition American Views: Artists at Home and Abroad. The star here is William Merritt Chase (the museum has the world’s largest public collection of his work). Chase trained in Europe—as did almost anyone who was serious about art in that era. Chase was a big deal in his day: he founded the Parsons School of Design in New York City (still arguably America’s foremost art school), and created the first Hamptons art colony when local boosters tapped him to lead the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.
William Merritt Chase, The Bayberry Bush (Chase homestead in Shinnecock Hills) [c. 1895], oil on canvas, 64.8 x 83.8 cm. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY. Gift of Mrs. Robert Malcolm Littlejohn, Littlejohn Collection
Shinnecock was a hub of Impressionism, the first school in America devoted to plein-air painting. And what a place Southampton must have been to paint in the open air! Chase’s paintings of seaside summer pleasures are pure delight.
And yet he’s far from a household name. My companion during a tour of the museum—a sophisticated New Yorker with a Ph.D.—said, “I didn’t even know there were American Impressionists."
She’s not alone. Until the mid (or even late) 20th century, the United States had a distinct “cultural cringe”: an inferiority complex that led even the most patriotic Americans to feel that European artists were inherently superior. Ballet dancers would Russianize their names, calculating that “Tatiana” sounded more sophisticated than “Betty Lou.” American painters would tout their European training. Naturally, the more you try to define yourself in terms of another, “better” culture, the more you tend to treat your own with disrespect.
That’s where the Hamptons art story starts—looking across the Atlantic. But something interesting happens as you go through the Parrish Art Museum: its permanent collection, perhaps unintentionally, tells the story of how the United States got its artistic self-respect.
Billy Sullivan, Max, Sam and Edo (2011), oil on linen, 182.9 x 259 cm. Parrish Art Museum, purchased with funds provided by Parrish Art Museum Collector’s Circle and partial gift of the artist, 2012.2
The 1940s rivalry between Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning is still the Hamptons’ biggest art story. (The day I visited, curators were installing a Pollock show just across from a gallery with a de Kooning painting.) Both artists lived and worked in the Hamptons, and the symbolic importance of their rivalry can’t be overstressed. It was the Wyoming cowboy versus the heir to Vermeer, head-to-head, as peers. You could argue that the homegrown Pollock’s success helped America lose its cultural cringe.
Certainly the Hamptons artists who came after him weren’t looking to Europe. They were looking out their own windows.
Unsurprisingly, the Parrish Art Museum has a large and superb collection of landscapes. The walls are covered with scenes of beaches, marshes, and shingle-style houses. For over 100 years now, big-name artists have been colonizing the Hamptons. And if you spend any time in this setting, you probably can’t help wanting to paint it yourself.
American Views: Artists at Home and Abroad is an ongoing exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
Share this page