Truth and beauty


Discovering Edmund Tarbell’s local history and living legacy

Edmund Tarbell was studying the old masters in Paris when the new movement of Impressionism caught his attention in the late 1800s.

It’s an oversimplification to say that the duality of those influences led to the Boston School’s style of painting, of which Tarbell was a pioneer. But, he was known for putting things in their simplest terms, supposedly describing his process as “making it more like.”

Local artist and curator Alastair Dacey sums up the Boston School more poetically. “They would do more than adopt a style; they were to choose a vision of truth and beauty,” he says.

Tarbell was already one of Boston’s most prominent artists before he set foot on the Seacoast. He taught at the Museum School, became famous as one of “The Ten” American Painters who exhibited together in the city, and helped found the Guild of Boston Artists.

But this area has a claim to Tarbell’s fame as well. Some of his most definitive works were painted on his property in New Castle, where he spent much of the last three decades of his life.

“Illuminating Tarbell,” a two-part exhibition at Discover Portsmouth, sheds more light on the significance of this time. Downstairs in the Academy Gallery, “Life and Art on the Piscataqua” focuses on the artist’s work locally, while upstairs, “Legacy in Action” provides evidence of his continued influence today. It opens Friday, March 4, with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m., and remains on view through June 3.

After visiting Portsmouth’s artist colony, now known as the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, Tarbell bought a summer home in New Castle in 1905, where he built a studio and eventually settled. He painted what he knew, true to how he saw it. Much of his work documents the domestic life of his family, often with his wife and children as sitters. His grandson and namesake, the subject of “Edmund and His Pony Peanut,” painted in 1930, still lives in the area.

It was in this home and time on the Seacoast that Tarbell created his most original and influential works. These were a shift away from impressionism and landscapes to more refined and subdued paintings of introspective women in antique decorated interiors.

Unfortunately, the house was lost in a fire in January, but the studio and a converted carriage house remain. One of the renters of the multi-unit house was Dacey, who studied Tarbell in school and is now curator of “Legacy in Action.”

Six contemporary painters, including Darcey, demonstrate how Tarbell’s painting and teaching styles continue to inspire and inform artists. Different groupings show similarities in a technical process, an eye for precision, and the choice of familiar subjects.

“Vernal Inklings” by Alastair Dacey, 2015

“Vernal Inklings” by Alastair Dacey, 2015

“Life and Art on the Piscataqua” is curated by painting conservator Jeremy Fogg. He not only restored and researched key pieces for the show, but also collected family photos, letters, and ephemera, which together recount Tarbell’s local history.

The exhibition draws from collections across the country and includes works that haven’t been shown publicly before. Engravings, drawings, and oil studies give insight into Tarbell’s creative process, and a recreation of his studio brings it to life with original antique furnishings.

While Tarbell’s work has been in many galleries, this retrospective delving into his golden years on the Seacoast adds more material while introducing a new generation to the artist as a historical figure. There is also an upcoming lecture series, and a 72-page catalogue with a study of Tarbell’s life in New Castle by artist Christopher Volpe.

Immersive, personal, and educational, “Illuminating Tarbell” reaffirms Discover Portsmouth as more than just a resource for tourists, but a real asset to the community with free, locally relevant, museum-quality exhibitions.

“Illuminating Tarbell” is on view through June 3 at Discover Portsmouth, located at 10 Middle St., Portsmouth.