Cornish Colony Museum
147 Main Street
CLASSICISM, AS A MODEL FOR BEING AND CREATING, SEEMS A TRIFLE IN A 140-CHARACTER AGE.
While the internet offers infinite venues for the compaction of experiences and perceptions into rapid-fire sound bytes, space for the slow study of the ideal diminishes. Modes of thinking can change easily in a culturally agreed upon span of years. It is here, in this crevice between the idea of ourselves at the start of the new century and the idea of ourselves at the start of the old, that the study of the American Renaissance is most relevant.
The American Renaissance was a time of returning to the study of nature,
beauty and serenity, and the high-mindedness and leisure that supposedly
accompanied it. The Cornish Art Colony, formed in 1885 in Cornish, N.H. by
one of the most celebrated sculptors of his day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens,
flourished on the basis of these ideas. The colony quickly grew into an escape for some of the most important New York and Boston artists of the last century — some who merely summered there and some who resided year-round. Around this group gathered local artists such as iconic illustrator Maxfield Parrish of Plainfield, N.H.; his father and master etcher Stephen Parrish of Cornish; and Cornish’s Charles Platt, architect and garden designer. Sculpture, painting, literature, landscape design and political thought were paramount, and members pursued a “golden age” ideal.
The colony’s birth in 1885 is thanks to a New York lawyer named Charles
Cotesworth Beaman. He convinced his friend, Saint-Gaudens, to rent a house for the summer on the hundreds of bucolic acres Beaman owned in New Hampshire. Knowing Saint-Gaudens had been commissioned to sculpt Abraham Lincoln for Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and with models of Lincoln’s height being scarce then, Beaman lured Saint-Gaudens “with a promise of Lincoln-shaped men,” said Cornish Colony Museum curator Nicole E. Ford. Saint-Gaudens fell in love with the property and began to return each summer to work and rest.
He enticed New York cronies to summer with him. The property’s smattering of studios, residences, barns and ancillary structures — with views of Vermont’s Mt. Ascutney — lent itself to the purposes of concentration and loose camaraderie. The Saint-Gaudens family bought a house there in 1891, which is now the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
Between 1885 and approximately 1925, more than 200 people, including Thomas
Dewing, Isadora Duncan, Kenyon Cox, George de Forest Brush, Herbert Adams,
Henry O. Walker, American novelist Winston Churchill and President Woodrow
Wilson spent time there. Though not a teaching colony nor under a system of
recruitment, as Cornish was primarily a social network of friends inviting friends, some of the most enduring works of American Renaissance culture were created and nurtured there.
Younger artists unassociated with Saint-Gaudens made their way following
his death in 1907, recalibrating the atmosphere. The original spirit waned. In addition, “World War I woke America up from the dream it had been indulging in, in the so-called Gilded Age,” said Ford. “Architecture was big, elaborate and elegant, and everyone was focused on having a good time. Conspicuous consumption wasn’t a bad thing. After WWI America faced a harsh reality as a whole. People started to look negatively upon those who would spend money on summerhouses and going off to the country and basically splurging in this way. By around 1930, people weren’t coming into the colony area the way