By Ellen Frankman
For those native to Sag Harbor, Annie Cooper Boyd is a historical fixture of the village, rooted in a period of whaleboats and factories and coastal trade. But upon second glance, the legacy of Boyd extends beyond her historical value to Sag Harbor in the recognition of young Annie Cooper Boyd’s art.
For the first time, the Sag Harbor Historical Society will host an opening for an exhibit on the landscape art of Annie Cooper Boyd at her home and the Historical Society’s museum. The exhibit will kick off on July 12 with opening remarks by Rebecca Radin of the Parrish Art Museum, who will speak largely to the moment in time Boyd represents, as well as the artist’s connection with American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase.
Born in Sag Harbor in 1864, Boyd was the youngest of eleven children and the daughter and granddaughter of well off whaleboat builders.
“When the Coopers had this lovely young daughter later in life, they spoiled her and she turned to painting, as many young women of the time did,” said Jean Held, a member of the Sag Harbor Historical Society who helped curate the exhibit. Held also enlisted the help of Molly Adams, an educator and naturalist at the South Fork History Museum, to help choose from Boyd’s many pieces to put on display.
“I was drawn to the romantic landscapes of the water in Sag Harbor,” said Adams, who chose works that reflected the town’s connection to water — a view from Shelter Island looking at the Sag Harbor port, old ferry boats bobbing off shore, and once prominent buildings clustered along the water’s edge.
“Sag Harbor is an area where you do want to capture the natural beauty of the area, and the things Boyd painted are the things I would want to capture if I lived in her time,” said Adams.
“This year was the perfect time to take another look at Annie Cooper Boyd’s paintings,” said Held. “She was kind of like a Peter Pan figure in her way because she had an extended youth, and she documented all of this as well as documenting Sag Harbor in her time.”
“One of the things that I find so interesting is that people during this period were very interested in recording the area in both its literal sense and also in the atmosphere and feel,” said Rebecca Radin, a docent of the Parrish Art Museum and a former professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. “Of course photography was available, but it was still felt in many areas that a good watercolorist or landscapist could give a truer sense of the environment.”
Radin approached Boyd’s landscapes largely through the lens of the social and historical context of the period. In the 1880s, art in America largely felt the influence of French impressionism, both because many American artists went to study in Europe and because many European impressionists traveled to the United States, said Radin.
“Like any kind of trend that boils up through popular culture, you can start to see the impressionist influences come up in Boyd’s work,” said Radin.
And though Boyd’s work may never have been acknowledged as high art, both Held and Radin found that upon closer examination, it indeed has artistic merits of its own.
“I think it’s traditional,” said Radin. “It was considered to be part of the furnishings of a proper late educated mind that you are able to make watercolors or cut silhouettes, just like you were expected to play popular tunes on the piano. But she was quite reasonably talented in my mind. Her landscapes are not only pleasant, but they are informative, they are interesting, and many of them are very well composed.”
Boyd may very well have developed much of her skill during the summer she spent painting at the Shinnecock School under the tutelage of East End artist William Merritt Chase.
Chase’s rise in fame coincided with the heyday of the railroad, as trains pulled into stations in the then-industrial towns of Riverhead and Sag Harbor in the 1870s. City dwellers increasingly began to travel to the East End, and Southampton sprung up as a center of cultural activity. Needing a physical representation of a budding arts scene, wealthy individuals in Southampton came together to establish a museum, which became the Parrish, and an art school. William Merritt Chase was well known during the period, and was in turn asked to form the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in 1891.
“The school became well known very quickly and children would come from all over the country and even from Europe,” said Radin. “They would stay and board through the summer and study art with Chase.”
Annie Cooper Boyd was one of those students who attended the Shinnecock School around 1895. The students would spend one day each week being critiqued by Chase and a second day of the week being observed by their teacher while they worked.
“He would advise then in particular on stroke, brush work and color,” said Radin. “He was really a very concerned and attentive teacher.”
And perhaps as a reflection of Chase’s own landscape aesthetic, much of the work Boyd completed while attending the Shinnecock School demonstrates an immediate connection which her surroundings. She painted Sandpiper Hill in Montauk, the Frank C. Haven house in Sag Harbor (now Cormaria), the sand dunes in Napeague and completed a series of studies on collapsed bridges in North Haven and the surrounding area.
“While it’s hard to say whether it was strictly individual influence that Chase had on Boyd, the plein air style and the attention to the recording of historical data is present, and was kind of a movement at that time,” said Radin.
Regardless of what stroke or pop of color may have been attributed to Chase, nearly all of Boyd’s pieces are a marker of life and nature in Sag Harbor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The concentration on recording the history of a place was something that was very important during that time,” said Radin. “If you want to get an insight into the society and an insight into a place, then these watercolors offer that.”