Charles Kaelin and The Aesthetic Appeal of Motif No. 1


By Carol Lowrey
On a recent trip to Boston’s North Shore, I spent some time in Rockport, MA, described by the painter Harrison Cady as “the quaintest port on the entire New England coast.” For art historians––particularly those of us interested in American art colonies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries––visits to locales in which our favorite artists painted are essential components of the research process, giving us greater insight into their choice of imagery and the myriad ways in which they responded to their immediate environment. With this in mind, I headed straight to Motif No. 1 (above), a small lobster shack on a stone jetty that juts out into the quiet waters of Rockport’s inner harbor. Located on Bearskin Neck, the structure is painted a deep red; its simple and unassuming but in terms of the artistic tradition of Cape Ann it has iconic significance, for it’s been said (by Cady, among others) to have been the subject of more paintings that any other building in America, attracting the brushes of artists and art students alike.*

In strolling along the docks, I came to understand the allure of Motif No. 1: not only does it stand out because of its color and placement at the end of the wharf, it looks different depending on the light (as seen on this sunny day)––and thus its appeal for artists concerned with portraying outdoor effects. This was certainly the case with Charles Kaelin (1858-1929), a fixture on Rockport’s art scene during the early 1900s. Born in Cincinnati, he made his first trip to Cape Ann in the summer of 1900 and visited regularly for the next sixteen years, when he made Rockport his permanent home. Although the lush pine forests on the outskirts of town are often featured in Kaelin’s oils and pastels, he was at his best when depicting the local waterfront, just steps from his studio on Atlantic Avenue.

Motif No. 1 could be approached pictorially through a number of different vantage points. In Rockport Harbor (left) Kaelin gives us a glimpse of the building as seen from Bearskin Neck, using the gentle diagonals created by the boats and pier to lead our gaze into the picture and to create visually appealing design. His sharp cropping of the image produces a lively, snapshot-like effect and a sense of immediacy that’s heightened by his vigorous application of pigment (when using oil, he would typically interpret nature in terms of mass rather than line). Charles Kaelin’s rich palette helps evoke the play of sunlight as it glances off this famous landmark on a summer’s day; indeed, when viewing the piece, I’m immediately transported back to Rockport, where salt-tinged air, cool breezes and Motif No. 1 rule the day.

* Motif No. 1 was built in the 1840s. It was destroyed in the Blizzard of 1978 but an exact duplicate of the structure was erected that same year.

One Response to “Charles Kaelin and The Aesthetic Appeal of Motif No. 1”

  1. Charles Salis Kaelin and the Segantini “Stitch” « Spanierman Gallery | An American Art Blog Says:

    [...] might also enjoy reading Charles Kaelin and the Aesthetic Appeal of Motif No. 1. http://www.spanierman.com/Inness,-George/album Possibly related posts: (automatically [...]


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