Wednesday, April 6, 2011


The cliffs of Ironbound Island, in Frenchmans's Bay.
by Brad Emerson, The Downeast Dilettante
Special to the New York Social Diary

Thanks to its remarkable light and scenery, Maine has long held a significant place in American art, particularly landscape painting.  Starting with Alvan Fisher in the 1830s, followed by Fitz Henry Lane, Frederick Church, and Thomas Cole in the mid 19th century, to John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, and Thomas Bellows in the 1930s, to William Kienbusch, Fairfield Porter, and of course those darned Wyeths, in the 50s and 60s, to Alex Katz today, many of America's best painters have passed through and left a record of our landscape as they saw it.  

Bronze bas relief portrait of Dwight Blaney by Bela Lyon Pratt (American 1867-1917). In his hands, Blaney holds palette and brush, and in the background are the cliffs of Ironbound Island.
Among those artists was Dwight Blaney, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1865.  After attending the Chauncey Hall School in Boston, he trained as an architect, and for a time worked as a draftsman in the firm of Peabody & Stearns. Deeply influenced by the impressionists, particularly Monet, on a European trip, Blaney was in the vanguard of American artists painting in the new style.

After his marriage to an heiress to the Eastern Steamship Company, whom he had met in Europe in the 1880s, financial constraints were lifted, and Blaney, a convivial and intellectually curious man with broad interests, was free to pursue his hobbies with vigor.

He was one of the earliest collectors of American antiques, having begun his collection in the 1880s, and a founder of the Walpole Society, that most exclusive of collecting clubs, whose ranks were included Wallace Nutting and later, Henry Francis DuPont of Winterthur. 

He was one of the first to buy and restore an early American house as his country home (in Weston, Massachusetts). Blaney’s fascination with exploring the shell middens left behind on the Down East coast by the ancient Native Americans led to the formation of one of the finest collections of artifacts of its day, and which later constituted the first major gift to the new Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor when it opened in the 1920s. 
Dwight Blaney, View from Ironbound Island To Frenchman, 1908. Oil on canvas.
After Blaney purchased Ironbound Island, in Frenchman's Bay 3 miles off Bar Harbor as a summer home for his family, he spent the summer of 1904 studying the land snails of the Island.  From 1901-1909 he dredged Frenchman's Bay for marine mollusks, and eventually identified 149 varieties.

Two of these were new discoveries, which were named for him: Tonicella blaneyi (a chiton) and Oenopota blaneyi (a gastropod). In 1904, he studied the land snails of Ironbound, and in 1916, he and Frederick Loomis Brewster, a paleontologist, extricated 23 varieties of mollusks from Pleistocene clays on Mt. Desert.

In summer, the spectacular landscape of Ironbound, with cliffs and forests and fields, and views of Frenchman’s Bay and Mt. Desert, provided Blaney with inspiration for painting, and in the winter, he maintained a studio at the Fenway Studios in Boston from 1906 until 1943, a year before his death.  
Dwight Blaney, Ironbound Island, 1910.
Oil on canvas.
John Leslie Breck, American 1860-99, Cliffs, Ironbound Island, 1898. Oil on canvas. Breck, a friend of Monet, and part of the group of painters at Giverny, is considered to have been the first American Impressionist.
Although the Blaney’s idea of Ironbound, which is actually a part of the remote town of Winter Harbor, was of simple summer life by the sea, nearby Bar Harbor was then at its peak as a social resort, and the family’s presence at events there, as participants and patrons, was duly and regularly noted in the Society pages. 

When members of the fashionable world visited Bar Harbor, an invitation to Ironbound was often forthcoming, and the Blaney guest book recorded visits by leading society figures, famous writers, a prince (Rainier I of Monaco, who came to see Blaney's famous collection of shells), and most importantly to this story, many of Blaney's fellow artists. And what artists they were: Among those who visited the Blaneys and left a visual record of their stays on the island were John Leslie Breck, Frank Weston Benson, Frederic Childe Hassam, and William MacGregor Paxton.
Childe Hassam, American, 1859-1935. Sunset, Ironbound Island, Mt. Desert, Maine, 1896
Child Hassam, Portrait of Edith Blaney, 1894. Pastel on paper. This portrait shows Mrs. Blaney at rest with the island garden behind her. The book in her hand, charmingly, is Celia Thaxter's An Island Garden, about Thaxter's own garden on Appledore, illustrated by Hassam, and published that same year.
William McGregor Paxton, American, 1869-1941. Oil on canvas, 1916. This portrait shows Blaney's younger daughter in front of the drawing room fireplace of the main house on Ironbound, long since burned, with some of Blaney's antiques collection on display.
Last but not least, in 1920 and 1922, there came John Singer Sargent, who was visiting his cousin Mary Hale at her Bar Harbor summer home, and no doubt touching base with his many clients in the summer colony.

Sargent went out to Ironbound to stay with the Blaneys for a few days and produced seven paintings and sketches during his stay, of which these two below offer a seldom seen side of Sargent, at rest with friends.
Above: John Singer Sargent, American, 1856-1925. The Artist Sketching, 1922. Watercolor on paper. This virtuoso portrait is of Dwight Blaney at his easel on the shore at Ironbound Island.

Right: John Singer Sargent painting aboard the Blaney yacht Irona, off Ironbound, 1922. Notice the umbrella for shade lashed to Sargent's leg.

Below: John Singer Sargent, On the Verandah (Ironbound Island, Maine), 1920 or 1922. Watercolor on paper, This serene view depicts the Blaney family (left to right, daughter Elizabeth, Dwight Blaney, Mrs. Blaney, and daughter Edith) at leisure on the porch of the commodious farmhouse style cottage Blaney designed for Ironbound.
Although the main house burned in the 1940s, the island remains privately owned, with conservation easements that forever protect its character.
Personal History: After Blaney's death, this writer’s father, in the market for a boat, happened to go out to Ironbound to look at Blaney's boat, Irona, a classic 38 footer with cabin, and purchased it. On one mid-summer afternoon in 1953, my parents — my mother nine months pregnant — were on that boat when it became clear that perhaps the outer bay was not where they should be. 

Fortunately, it was a fast boat, and the local hospital is only a few hundred feet from the town dock, so I was not born on Irona, after all. Years later, I chanced to go out to Ironbound twice, once as the guest of a mutual friend of the Blaney's, who had been loaned one of the houses there for a long fall weekend, and again with another friend who was visiting the Blaney's daughter Elizabeth Cram, then in her 80s. It was a distinct pleasure to have her show me, in the amazing Ironbound guest book, along with sketches by the many famous artists to visit the island, the photos of my father taking away Irona some 35 years earlier.  

Recently I asked my father about Irona, and he replied, deadpan, “yes, handsome boat. We had a lot fun with it. Probably would still have it if you and your sister hadn’t been such expensive children."
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