Alice Stallknecht (1880-1973), Cape Cod Regionalist

by Patricia Likos Ricci
Assoc. Professor, Elizabethtown (PA) College

Alice Stallknecht’s mural paintings in the Chatham Historical Society have remained Cape Cod’s best-kept secret for decades. Despite the fact that her paintings were exhibited at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 1958, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles in 1977, Stallknecht has not yet found a place in the history of American Art. In the foreword to the 1977 exhibition catalogue, William C.Agee, then Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, noted that Stallknecht’s paintings “were all but unknown.”(1)

At least one reason why Stallknecht has remained obscure is that critical responses to her first retrospectives focused almost exclusively on her enigmatic style which seemed to defy categorization. In the catalogue to the 1958 exhibition of her easel paintings at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, Lloyd Goodrich, then Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, stated that Stallknecht was “a natural.”(2) Although he acknowledged that the rhythms of her brushwork suggested Van Gogh or Marsden Hartley, he concluded that the resemblance was “probably coincidental” and did not affect “the authentic originality of her art.”(3) Nearly twenty years later, her son, Frederick Wight, a painter and an art historian, expressed a similar opinion on the occasion of the first traveling exhibition of his mother’s mural paintings. In an article entitled “Portrait of a New England Town” published in Art in America in 1977, Wight wrote: “Her painting was outside of the world of art history, of development and change. Her vision was simply her way of seeing under emotional pressure.”(4) At first glance, Agee, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, also thought Stallknecht’s painting was in the vein of “popular,” “folk” or “naïve” art, but a closer look convinced him that her style bore a family resemblance to German Expressionists such as Otto Dix and Oscar Kokoschka.(5) While critics differed in the terms they used to describe Stallknecht’s painting, they agreed that it was bold and original. The fact that all of her major work was produced in a fifteen-year period from 1930 to 1945 when she was over fifty years old contributed to the her image as a talented amateur who suddenly blossomed on the thin soil of the Cape. However, the reconstruction of Stallknecht’s biography proves that this interpretation is actually a myth.

It can hardly be a coincidence that Stallknecht, whose most important works are three mural series, grew up during the golden age of American mural painting. Beginning in 1876, the “American Renaissance”, a movement in architecture and city planning that transformed the public and private buildings of the United States, gained steady momentum. Throughout the next four decades, the interiors of new opulent residences, public libraries, courthouses and state capitols were ornamented with murals in the manner of the Italian Renaissance. Coinciding with the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, this golden age of the American mural was also the era in which women emerged as muralists. The Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was painted with murals by Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies, Lucia Fairchild Fuller, Amanda Brewster Sewell, Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet and Dora Wheeler Keith. In 1900, the illustrator Violet Oakley (1874-1961) received a commission to decorate the interior of All Angel’s Church on W. 80th Street in New York.(6) In 1902 she became the first woman to receive a public commission when she was selected as one of the mural painters to decorate the new Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg.(7)

Born into an affluent middle-class family in New York City, Alice Stallknecht aspired to a career as a professional artist from her childhood. After high school, she attended the progressive New York School of Applied Design for Women from 1898 to 1901 where she studied illustration. Mural painting and illustration both used narrative modes of expression and many successful muralists, notably Maxfield Parrish, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Violet Oakley, were trained as illustrators.

Despite this promising start, Stallknecht did not pursue a career after graduation. Instead she married Carl Wight, a student in classics at Johns Hopkins University, and had a child. In the following years, Wight, who had dropped out of school before graduating, suffered a nervous breakdown. Burdened with financial and health problems, the young couple retreated to the small town of Chatham, Massachusetts in 1910. According to their son, Frederick S. Wight, the next two decades were years of “anxiety, poverty and dependence on relatives.”(8) Stability was finally achieved when Wight completed his degree and was hired as Professor of Greek at Johns Hopkins.

click on any image to view a larger version
Like many aspiring female artists before and since, Stallknecht found herself overwhelmed by the responsibilities and trials of domestic life that Germaine Greer described in The Obstacle Race: The Fortune of Women Painters and Their Work.(9) However, she did not entirely abandon her art until 1930 as was previously thought. As the Chatham Historical Society’s 2002 exhibition, Beneath the Surface, demonstrated, Stallknecht continued to draw, paint and make prints. She collaborated with her husband on a children’s book although it was never published. Moreover, Stallknecht stayed involved in the fine arts by teaching her son, Frederick, to draw and paint. By promoting his career, she recovered her own. In 1916, when John Singer Sargent returned from Europe after an absence of thirteen years to install his murals in the Boston Public Library, Stallknecht consulted him to ask his opinion of her teen-age son’s watercolors. Sargent invited the mother and son to his Boston studio which was filled with his mural paintings and offered encouragement to the young artist. When Frederick enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1918, his mother enrolled in the Life Drawing Class taught by Edwin H. Blashfield, the leader of the mural movement. Blashfield had recently published Mural Painting in America, a book that summarized the achievements in the field and outlined the objectives of American mural painters.(10) In 1925, when Frederick was studying art in Paris, Stallknecht accompanied him on a Grand Tour of France, Italy and England.
It was after her return from Europe that Stallknecht began to develop her own work. By then she was in her forties, her son was raised, her husband was gainfully employed, and she had both the time and the money to paint. During these years she produced three life-size portraits of the American presidents, Washington, Lincoln and Wilson, a series that was inspired, perhaps, by Wilson’s death in 1924. The size of these portraits is the first indication that the artist was attempting to paint on the scale of murals.

At that time, a new style of mural painting was supplanting the American Renaissance. In the 1920s, the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, Davis Siqueros, and Jose Orozco, were depicting the plight of the indigenous Mexican peoples with the innovations of Modernism. In a similar fashion, American painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood were applying the lessons of the “Ashcan School”, painters of the urban underclass, to the rural areas and small towns of the Midwest and the South. Known as Regionalists, these artists created the imagery of the “American Scene”, a genre that became the dominant style of mural painting sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project during the Roosevelt Administration. The prototype was Benton’s America Today mural series painted for the New School of Social Research in New York in 1930, which portrayed the life of the working class in the cities, small towns and rural areas of the United States.

Like these artists, Stallknecht portrayed an “American Scene” that was ignored by the mainstream culture that traditionally emanated from the metropolitan areas. She did not paint the cosmopolitan world of the Boston Brahmins, or the picturesque scenery of Gloucester, or the art colony at Provincetown, but the local culture of a Cape Cod community that was largely invisible to the artists and tourists who descended upon it every season. She knew first-hand the people and the way of life in Chatham, the fishing village that became her adopted home.

A conspicuous outsider in a community where generations of the same families had been in continuous residence since the arrival of the Pilgrims, Stallknecht saw Chatham as an archetypal New England town founded on political and religious principles. “These Murals show a cross-section of the United States of America,” she wrote, “-portraits of the people of the Town-with Christ The Spirit of God predominating. He is the Christ of NOW, ever present in Democracy.”(11) In the first of the murals, Christ Preaching to the Multitude (1931), the role of the Savior is played by a local fisherman who addresses his congregation from a dory. Painted on three canvases arranged as a triptych, it was designed for the vestibule of the First Congregationalist Church of Chatham so that the figure of Christ could be seen blessing the town when the doors were open. The second mural series, The Circle Supper (1935-43), represents the congregation’s weekly communal supper with Christ giving the blessing. It was assembled on a wall inside the church from 19 separate canvases with portraits of the congregation. The third, Every Man to His Trade (1945), composed of 30 canvases, celebrates the work ethic and the dignity of labor by depicting the townspeople at their trades, including a fisherman, a lobsterman, a quahaug raker, a scalloper, an oysterman, a mason, a shipwright, and a teacher, war veterans and boy scouts and girl scouts. Christ, the largest figure, stands among them as a carpenter. In this series Stallknecht localized the portraits by depicting views of Chatham in the background: the sea and the lighthouse; the Congregationalist and Methodist churches; the modest town hall and the public school; and the cemetery. Included are Chatham’s collective activities: the church fair, the town meeting, the local election, and the selectmen giving alms to an anonymous needy resident. At a time when the federal government had introduced the WPA to deal with the hardships created by unemployment, the local government of Chatham took care of the poor among them, shielding their identity to spare them the stigma of poverty. To Stallknecht this act of generosity was “town’s great deed.” “There is no Poor House in Chatham, she noted.”(12)
Stallknecht’s murals are linked to the Regionalists not only in time and theme but in style as well. Painters of the Thirties abandoned the classical figurative tradition of the American Renaissance muralists in preference for the naturalistic, expressionistic, and primitive modes of Modernism. Like Diego Rivera who adopted the imagery of Mexican folk art, Thomas Hart Benton who appropriated the distortions of Mannerism, and Grant Wood who imitated the naïf qualities of Early American primitive painters, Stallknecht invented a personal style derived from European expressionism.
In the separate canvasses that comprise Every Man to His Trade, there are obvious visual parallels to the paintings of the Regionalists. In The Shipwright and His Wife, a sampler stitched with “God Bless Our Home” serves as an internal caption as in Benton’s a double portrait of an old couple, The Lord is My Shepherd. Stallknecht’s composition is similar to Grant Wood’s Daughter’s of the American Revolution in which the figures are placed in front of Leutze’s famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. The incorporation of American icons was typical of Regionalists. The use of vernacular church architecture in Wood’s American Gothic and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere is echoed in Stallknecht’s paintings of the Methodist and Congregationalist churches of Chatham. Her Christ, the Carpenter is in the pose of Clifford Wight’s (no relation) standing worker in his mural at the Coit Tower, San Francisco. The influence of photographs of the Depression era can also be found in Stallknecht’s work. The expression and pose of The Widow bears a striking resemblance to Dorothea Lange’s celebrated photograph, Migrant Mother.
In summary, it is time to dispel the myth that Stallknecht was an anomaly and her art was naïf. She was educated and self-conscious about her manner of painting and its role as a form of political rhetoric. Her most significant contribution to the Regionalist movement is the discovery of an overlooked subculture, the fishing villages of Cape Cod, exemplified by the Chatham. At a time when the future of the United States was threatened by the Depression and World War II, Alice Stallknecht held up the example of Chatham and its residents as a model of the faith, courage and common sense of the people who originally founded America and whose descendants had already weathered the storms of three hundred years.
  1. A New England Town: A Portrait by Alice Stallknecht (1880-1973), exhibition catalogue, (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1977) 3.
  2. Ibid. 4.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Frederick Wight, “Portrait of a New England Town”, Art in America, (May/June 1977), 106.
  5. William C. Agee, Foreword, A New England Town: A Portrait by Alice Stallknecht (1880-1973), op. cit. 3.
  6. Patricia Likos, Violet Oakley (1874-1961), exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 1979.
  7. A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals, Capitol Preservation Committee, (Harrisburg, 2003).
  8. Op. cit. A New England Town, 5.
  9. Germaine Greer, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work ( Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979).
  10. Edwin H. Blashfield, Mural Painting in America, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913).
  11. Alice Stallknecht on her Murals, 1945, p. 1; manuscript in the Archives of the Chatham Historical Society, Chatham, Massachusetts.
  12. Ibid.
Copyright @2003, The Chatham Historical Society. All rights reserved.