Two years and $3 million later, the Cahoon Museum of American Art reopens its doors in Cotuit, introducing to the public a glorious melding of old and new – painstakingly constructed and reconstructed to attain a fluid journey through the creative lives of Ralph and Martha Cahoon.
Outside and inside, the museum is able to welcome loyal, past patrons and a generation of new admirers – with wider driveways and more parking to an elevator navigating three floors to a public room and kitchen to accommodate special events. Narrow stairs have been replaced by wide, gleaming new ones.
All in all, the original museum has doubled in space.
It’s the combination of space, height, light and creativity that truly beckons art lovers to what was the actual home of the Cahoons, where they painted with a style all their own.
“What’s interesting is that they were an artistic couple,” Sarah Johnson, the museum’s new executive director told the Cape Cod Times. “Like Jackson Pollack and Lee Kramer, their careers were intertwined.
The Cahoon family originally settled in Chatham. When Ralph met Martha, a furniture decorator, in 1932. They soon married. In 1945, they moved to the Crocker homestead in Cotuit, where they created their art and began displaying and selling it there.
Beyond their furniture, the Cahoons began to paint folk designs of their own invention. Ralph often gravitated to scenes with sailors and mermaids. Martha painted them, too, but especially loved country scenes and such natural motifs as flowers, shells and birds.
In 1953, one of the Cahoon’s customers, art patroness Joan Whitney Payson, convinced the couple to frame some of their scenes for her to exhibit at the Country Art Gallery, a new business she was opening on Long Island. The paintings sold at once, and the Cahoons had their first two-person show at the gallery in 1954 (plus many more in the years that followed).
By 1960, Ralph and Martha were also showing regularly at the Lobster Pot Gallery on Nantucket and Palm Beach Galleries in Palm Beach, Florida, and were being invited to show at other galleries around the country. In particular, an exhibition at Vose Galleries of Boston toward the end of 1960 did much to enhance their reputation.
By this time, Ralph’s polished style was all but synonymous with mermaids. Typically, his scenes had New England seaside settings, often with a lighthouse on a spit on the horizon, a clipper ship out on the water and a hot-air balloon or two in the sky. His slightly raunchy wit won many enthusiasts.
Using a somewhat more muted palette and a gentle playfulness, Martha charmed her admirers with nostalgic country scenes and pictures of shorebirds in their natural habitat. During the Sixties and Seventies, the Cahoons’ work was collected by such notables as Jacqueline Kennedy (who drove over to their studio from the Summer White House in Hyannis Port), Jean Kennedy Smith, Maxim Karolik, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Lily Pulitzer, Joan Fontaine, and several members of the Mellon and duPont families.
Martha was 77 when Ralph died in 1982. She sold their home to Rosemary Rapp, a local art collector who transformed it into the museum named in the Cahoons’ honor and granted Martha life-time rights to live in four rooms on the ground floor.
Although Martha stopped painting a year or two after Ralph died, she continued drawing pictures with crayons and colored pencils, many of them of mermaids. Although she vowed to stop on many occasions, she never could. Her final drawing dates from just a few weeks before her death in December 1999 at age 94.
Ralph and Martha Cahoon are the most famous folk artists the Cape has ever produced, and Ralph the best-known of any native Cape Cod artist.
Now, their former home offers visitors an intimate relationship with the couple as well as the art of many other American Art painters and decorators.
What you will find now that the museum has reopened is:
- Significantly more gallery space, especially the dramatic multi-story exhibition area that has been inaugurated with Coming Home Again: Works of Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Their paintings line all four walls, punctuated by painted furniture throughout. All the art has been donated by Cahoon collectors for the exhibit running through June 26.
- A room in the original house that has been lovingly recreated as the Cahoon’s studio.
- A welcoming lobby and gift shop.
- Handicap accessibility throughout
- Outdoor spaces that feature many plants from Martha’s original garden
There will be many reasons to visit and revisit the museum based on the ambitious schedule of exhibitions planned for the year.
Following Coming Home Again, the museum will host:
- Face to Face: Recent Portrait Studies by John Friedman from June 28 to August 14. Friedman is nationally known for his portraits and large-scale renderings, which he creates from his Truro studio.
- Contemporary Pastel: Cape Cod Landscapes, from August 16 to October 2, featuring contemporary artists capturing the Cape’s landscapes with techniques ranging from atmospheric to vivid and vibrant.
- Women Artists from October 4 to November 20.
- Fourth Annual Small Works Show, from November 22 to December 24, which features the museum’s small works that can be purchased by the public.
“The expansion of the museum creates greater opportunities to fulfill our mission both as a vibrant place for learning and as a cultural destination on Cape Cod,” said Johnson. “The inaugural exhibition will allow museum visitors to experience great art by both Ralph and Martha and to see works they have been very rarely shown publicly.”
In all, there are 50 pieces by the couple on display, all borrowed from private collections. Together, they explain “what made the Cahoons unique – the easy blend of authenticity and whimsy in their 19th century scenes,” explained Cindy Nickerson, who curated the exhibit.
To enjoy the exhibit even more, the museum has scheduled a series of programs in the next month that are free with admission.
- Tuesday, May 17 at 11 am. Nickerson talks about the exhibition. She has written a book about the lives and art of the Cahoons slated for 2017 publication.
- Tuesday, May 24 at 7 pm. Ron Lindholm and Tracy Need of Cape Cod Picture Framing as well as Restoration and Art Rescue Disaster Services of Dennis will present The Art of Restoring Paintings and Frames. Ralph Cahoon had much of his framing down at Cape Cod Picture Framing during the last decade of his life, and it was Cahoon’s bent for using antique frames that sparked Lindholm’s interest in frame restoration. Nee specializes in both painting and frame restoration.
- Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm. Conservator Barret M. Keating will talk on Conservation and Restoration of Cahoon Furniture. Keating, who has a studio in North Falmouth, has specialized in conservation and restoration of antique furniture and wooden artifacts for 30 years. His commissions have included the restoration of about three dozen pieces of furniture decorated by the Cahoons.
- Tuesday, June 7 at 11 am. Auctioneer Joshua F. Eldred will speak on Cahoons on the Block – Selling the work of Ralph and Martha at Eldred’s.