Friday, July 3, 2009

The summer I painted in Provincetown

Henry Hensche, still life, from outer Cape Auctions
I had a hard time finding an image by Hensche, if you have a good one you can e-mail me I would be grateful and will add it to this blog. For now, this will be our example.

I guess an adequate time has passed since I wrote my last autobiographical post, that I can write another. I have a a number of goals for this blog, and I often ask myself questions like,"what does a painter need to know?" and "will this be useful to my readers?" This blog is mostly a tutorial, but I do have some other goals, one of which is to document the things I have seen, and my own experiences as a painter.

The last post I did on my history had me in The Fenway studios studying with R.H.Ives Gammell. If you haven't read the posts before this on the Gammell studios , they are here, and here.

I spent several years in the Fenway studios as part of the Gammell milieu. There were a number of other students in the building of Gammell and some were from the Hensche studios Although there was some animosity between Hensche and Ives Gammell, we students, at least in the Fenway studios mingled freely and knew one another pretty well. The Hensche students spent their time drawing planes and we drew shapes. We occasionally shared models and drew figures side by side. A number of students of Gammell spent time with Hensche as well. But Gammell and Hensche evidently were not fond of one another. Being exposed to both approaches was an advantage and I remember many late night discussions on painting with Hensches students. I wish now I had learned more about the Hensche method. Although I don't really want to paint like that, all knowledge is useful and there was a lot of experience in those ideas.

One spring in the mid 1970's, I was invited by Robert Douglas Hunter, one of my mentors and himself a senior Gammell student, to spend part of the summer in Provincetown, on Cape Cod . I had begun painting landscapes and I jumped at the chance to paint the dunes and the historic waterfront . Ives Gammell had summered there for many years but had recently moved his summer retreat to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Hunter had the use of the Provincetown place.The old barn that I visited that summer was divided into two parts, half was where Hunter and I stayed, and there was an enormous studio with a loft at the back in which I slept. The other half contained the Cape School of Art . The Cape school had been started by Charles Hawthorne in 1899. Hawthorn was a famed impressionist painter who wrote a well known book. The Hawthorne book is a classic and should be in every painters library .In 1935 upon the death of Hawthorne, Henry Hensche took the helm of the school for nearly fifty years.

Here is my usual disclaimer, there are many Hensche students today who are far more qualified to speak about him and his legacy than I. I do not pose as an expert on his teaching. I do want to describe what I saw that summer though.

The big barn was rickety and very old, I think it may have dated from the 1700's, Massachusetts has plenty of historic architecture. The barn is now gone. That barn was used to teach painting for decades though. Provincetown was a tourist town and the streets were filled with crowds of vacationing people . It was changing over from being an old art colony into a gay travel destination. I saw the last of the art colony. The sandy streets lined with 19th century houses, the fishing fleet and the dunes running along the sea to Cape Race at the end of the Cape were beautiful.The barn was a few blocks from downtown.It had a little grassy yard out in front and a bit of worn out picket fence,weathered gray.

Out behind this dilapidated structure was a fenced in area where students could paint in the sunlight. They had stands upon which were set white wooden blocks about 2 inches high.The students painted from these blocks using only palette knives. The idea was to make the students work in planes and unable to model or blend their strokes together, they were forced to use color to turn their forms. That's an idea that pops up in a lot of places. It is a variation on the conservation off values idea. Rather than using a new value to describe each change of plane in a form, they used a different color or color temperature, delicate stuff.

They had what seemed a strange kind of color to me, but they all seemed to see it. The blocks in their paintings glowed with a preternatural sort of fluorescence. I have posted a link to a book on Hensches teaching and Hawthornes below. It has not much to do with how I paint, but I think I should make it possible for you to learn more about it if you choose. There are several Henscche students out there today teaching his philosophy.

Hensche studied Monet extensively and believed he was carrying on that tradition of color. The whole thrust of the training seemed to me to revolve around a heightened perception of color vibration. As I said before, I never really got it.They referred to it as "full color seeing" and were rather fanatic about it. ( undoubtedly some former Hensche student will log on to my comments and bite me, watch out! I am 32 feet tall and weigh over 1600 pounds ) I did see a show of Hensches drawings at the Guild of Boston Artists in about 1975, and they were very strong. His emphasis on planar structure gave the black and white portrait heads in the show a great solidity. I saw that he could draw very well.

I spent my days painting on the dunes around Provincetown I liked painting out in the bright sunlight on the dunes with the light blasting down around me from the cloudless skies and bouncing off of all of that sand. I got in touch with my inner lizard The light there is famous for its warmth.. Many of the other people there were naked, well actually, all the other people there were naked. I had a pair of lovely young women take off their clothes and lay down to tan themselves in front of my easel. I have found over the years, that never happens enough.They laughed about it later over dinner with me.

I was invited to see Hensche do a painting demonstration in the yard of his house. I remember I walked there from the barn- studio where I was staying. He was set up and working when I arrived, around him was gathered a group of his students and other interested onlookers. I believe he may have done this every week, although I was only there once.

What I saw was amazing. I described it in a previous post as like watching him chop the head out of a rainbow with an axe. The color was unlike anything I see, but the form was right there. I remember how fast it happened, I am trying to remember if he did it all with a knife but I can't. It was 35 years ago now. I don't know where all of Hensches work went, it doesn't seem to appear at auction very often. But I am glad I got to see him do that demo, and it was a little brush with an art historical figure that made my journey richer, and I am proud to have seen him that once.

I knew several of his students in those days and have run into a few of them years later. Some of them have become professional painters and a a few are very well known. Some of them lived in those days above a restaurant on the main street of Provincetown called Sals. There were a number of old studios up there which must have dated back to the Hawthorne days . They had a very historic feel and I expect they too have been improved out of existence. So many of the sets from that era have disappeared. I thought then that since they were so old and historic that they had made it through, and would be preserved from destruction. I was naive though, most of that old historic New England that is our artistic heritage has been destroyed .

The famous modernist teacher Hans Hoffman was there too, in a big white house on a downtown corner that had previously belonged to Fredrick Waugh. I was only vaguely aware of the Hoffman school at that time, but a who's who of abstract painters passed through there.

I was ultimately to spend many years at the other cape on Massachusetts, Cape Ann, but I am glad for the part of a summer I spent in the old art colony at Provincetown. I was a witness to that history for a brief time.


willek said...

Hi, Stape you sure were in a unique time and place to have made all these connections first hand. Two weeks ago I first heard of Hensche and read this about him. I'm sure you have seen it.
This fellow was a student. (Wow. Long URL.)

Stopped in to Jeff Weaver's gallery while riding around Gloucester in the storm yesterday. It was my first time in there. Really impressive stuff. Also took a lot of reference photos of some good surf and fog and boatyards, etc. It is a great place to for pictures.

undedian= bad indian.


Unknown said...

It is always insightful to hear about your journey. Happy fourth.

sphystis; noun. pustules caused by syphilis

Unknown said...

wow, lots of history here. Does that mean when we write our bios that we can claim the genealogy of Gammel/Kearns/(insert your name here)??
I have read Hawthorne's book, and Lois Griffel's book - dont want to paint quite like Lois, but it is, as you say, a uniquely colorful way of responding to light. Hawthorne had some excellent points.

I've never had anyone get "nekkid" in front of me while painting en plein air, and I have a feeling there is more to that story than we may ever hear!

"rephark". To repeat the phark.

Stapleton Kearns said...


t seems so long ago now, that it is like another life time with little bearing on this one. Almost like a movie I saw once.
I went to the site you pointed out,. I actually met the father described in the story a few years ago.Very interesting,how abusive some of the teachers were of their students. I am however, wicked nice.
undedian= vampire from Armenia

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, fireworks are legal here (live free or die!)and the whole neighborhood is exploding, I feel like I am in the trenches at Belau woods
syphistis= a disease acquired from a syphistcated lady

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is a surcharge for applying that to your bio. Mail me your visa card, lets talk.
I have only scanned Lois Griffels book. There is a woman named Camille Prezdewodik (sp?)who was a Hensche student. I see her advertised a lot. I think she has lovely color. Again not what I want to do, but she has come up with her own personal take on the Hensche thing.

rephark. I think you have the only possible definition. It truly hurts me to admit that.

Phillip St. John said...

I also studied with Henry at about the same time Stapleton did. I produced a 16mm film about Henry in 1975, it is now on dvd. For anyone that wants to buy a copy, more details can be found @
I also have a vintage oil painting for sale by Robert Douglas Hunter. More details are @
Feel free to write me at if you like to discuss stuff like this.
On another level, a spiritual one, I'd like to encourage everyone to trust in God, learn more about him from the Bible, talk with Jehovah's Witnesses, and visit their official website
Phillip St. John

Daniel Corey said...

Hey Stapleton, really enjoy your work and reading your blog but the real reason I wanted to comment was to ask......When did God get a website?