Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by current dates or events.
It is difficult to identify any particular style or quality that encompasses the artistic heritage of Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has played host to many well-known individuals. Though much has been said about Thomas Hart Benton and the artists of the Barn House collective in Chilmark, less has been said about the Branstock School, an institution founded and run by the early 20th century sculptor Enid Yandell. Co-existing for a brief time at the turn of the century, they reflect the growing tensions between traditional and modern art playing out in Europe and all over America.
Miss Yandell, a sculptor originally from Kentucky, established the Branstock School in 1908. Well-known during her lifetime, she was celebrated both for her talent and for succeeding in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. She studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy, and in 1893 designed sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago before traveling to Europe where she studied briefly with Auguste Rodin at his Paris studio. According to Desire Caldwell, an expert on Enid Yandell at the Rhode Island School of Design, her style, like that of many of her contemporaries, reflects a mix of classicism, romanticism, and eclectic symbolism, which one can clearly observe in many of her works, including a monumental statue of Athena that was never cast and a plaster relief recently discovered in the Edgartown School.
Yandell’s sculpture drew inspiration from a variety of sources and seems to be interested in celebrating a national identity. Like many artists, she adopted a style that borrowed heavily from neo-classicism, emphasizing ideal proportions and symbols of Ancient Greece and Rome. In this, she was following a long American tradition. For America’s founding fathers, Ancient Greek and Roman associations were important in helping to shape a nation founded on rational ideals and principles. They, like artists, believed that the purpose of art was to serve as a tool to elevate and transport its audience away from the menial drudgery of the everyday world. As time wore on, however, artists like Miss Yandell and her contemporaries produced fewer public monuments in favor of private commissions intended for wealthy collectors. In this context Yandell’s decorative and increasingly cryptic art came to be seen as more of status symbol for collectors eager to flaunt their European connections.
In 1908 she founded the Branstock School at the corner of Davis Lane and School Street in Edgartown. While it began as a sculpture school, in 1909 it expanded to encompass a number of artistic and decorative fields, from painting and drawing to ceramic decoration. Albert Sterner, a New York artist, taught portrait painting while other classes were offered in china decoration, wood block printing, leather tooling, and metal work. Classes were structured affairs and students were required to make a commitment of three months, but enjoyed comfortable accommodations and beautiful surroundings. A small, but elegant tea room attached to the Arts and Crafts Cottage welcomed artists, visitors and collectors who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city in the summer without missing out on its civilized amenities. The school, when it opened, set the tone for Edgartown’s growing artistic community.
In response, by the 1920s there was a growing movement that felt the need to create an artistic style that would better represent the American experience. Some, like Thomas Hart Benton, felt that art was most powerful when it reflected the struggles and triumphs of real people in real life. Though the distinctive style he developed is most commonly associated with the mid-west and Missouri, his summers on Martha’s Vineyard had a strong influence on his work. Like Yandell, Benton received a formal art education and studied extensively in Europe. In 1921, staying on the Vineyard with friends, Benton was inspired by the farmers and fishermen of Chilmark and saw an opportunity to celebrate the nation’s rustic heritage and visceral human experiences. This was a point of view that Benton shared with many. During his summer retreats, he was often a guest at the Chilmark seasonal community known as Barn House, which was founded in 1918 and continues to this day.
Coexisting for a just about a decade, Yandell and Benton seem to characterize the regional differences that can still be felt on the Island today. At the turn of the century here on the Island, just as in Europe and all over America artists struggled to redefine their purpose in an increasingly modern world. Though Martha’s Vineyard has long had a mystique as a place out of time and separate from the concerns of the outside world, in this case, the Vineyard was at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde.
Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is open year-round. Off-season hours are Monday-Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for non-members is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15, and free for children under the age of 6.