By Annette Hinkle
Today, there are many people who have never heard of him. But ask someone with a little history in Sag Harbor. Artist Cappy Amundsen was a veritable fixture in the village from 1945 until the early 1990s when, destitute and unable to physically care for himself, he was placed in a nursing home.
Though Amundsen died January 18, 2001 at the age of 89, he remains a local legend. His paintings of whaling scenes, coastal views and life along the docks are second to none and many a home in Sag Harbor still has a Cappy or two hanging on the walls.
June 9, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s birth, and East Hampton art dealer Terry Wallace has organized two summer exhibits in Sag Harbor and a special event at The American Hotel focusing on the artist’s work.
The first is “The Life and Art of C. Hjalmar ‘Cappy” Amundsen” a show of 10 of the artist’s whaling scenes — considered to be his finest work — at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum (200 Main Street). That show opens with a reception on June 3 from 6 to 8 p.m.
“The last time that many of them were on view was in a show at the Whaling Museum in 1956,” explains Wallace. “That year, Moby Dick was made into a movie and there was a rejuvenation of interest in whaling. Just shy of 20,000 people came through to see that exhibit — most of them local people who usually didn’t go to these things.”
“His whaling scenes are incredible,” says Wallace. “You could put them against any artist. He’s the last artist to do a large body of work on them.”
Wallace has also organized a second exhibit at the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House (174 Main Street) titled “The Many Aliases of Cappy Amundsen,” a show running May 28 to September 1 devoted to the many assumed names Amundsen painted under during his lifetime. Wallace is also publishing a book on the artist, “Cappy: The Life and Art of C. Hjalmar Amundsen” which comes out June 15 and will be celebrated with an event at The American Hotel on June 23. Paintings by the artist will also be available for purchase at the event with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Whaling Museum.
It was the late Anthony Pintauro, a Sag Harbor resident, who urged Wallace over the course of many years to write a book on Amundsen. In preparation for writing the book, Wallace did extensive research. He obtained scrapbooks and diaries belonging to the artist, read every issue of the Sag Harbor Express from 1945 to 1975 (along with a similar number of issues of the East Hampton Star) and interviewed 60 people who knew Cappy personally. Wallace found that getting the facts straight about a man who loved to tell stories was quite a challenge.
“You’d hear Amundsen’s name and a story — if you talked to five people, there were five different versions of the story,” says Wallace who, for that reason, was meticulous in his research. “He’s legendary in Sag Harbor. I first heard he was a pool player, a drinker, a real character. Later when I was able to go through stuff from the newspapers, I realized he was a community activist.”
“Reading these articles you realize he was an incredible person,” he adds.
Cappy who had come to the East End as a child with his father, moved from New York City to Sag Harbor with his new wife, Nancy, in 1945. By 1951, she had left him and taken their young daughter with her. But Amundsen stayed in Sag Harbor. He instituted a racing regatta, held fundraisers for the ambulance corps, founded a sailing program for troubled teens and organized art shows. Wallace notes that later in his life, younger people in the village never knew why Amundsen had the respect he did and he was viewed as little more than a village hobo with a drinking problem.
It was a far cry from how he started life.
Casper Hjalmar Amundsen was born in New York City as Casper Hjalmar Emerson III. His father, Casper Emerson, Jr. was a famous artist and Cappy grew up a son of privilege. A contemporary of both Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning (with whom he co-founded the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show in 1932) while his fellow artists were testing the waters of Abstract Expressionism Cappy found his footing as a painter of realism.
It was Cappy, himself, who changed his name to Amundsen and throughout his life, he maintained that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was his great uncle. Wallace has doubts though, and was unable to find evidence of such a relationship in his research.
“The notion of being related to Roald Amundsen was a fabrication of Cappy’s mind,” says Wallace who concedes it’s possible the two could have been very distantly related.
Wallace suspects Cappy was also influenced by artist Rockwell Kent whose 1930 illustrated three volume edition of “Moby Dick” brought new attention to a largely forgotten novel. In those illustrations the young artist studied the tools of the trade —harpoons, whaling boats, sailing ships that would eventually find their way into his own paintings.
What is clear, however, is that like his namesake, Cappy Amundsen had a strong spirit of adventure and a love of the sea. In his early 20s, Cappy and two friends attempted to cross the Atlantic in a 62-foot schooner. In his time, Kent and his friends had taken a similar trip from Newfoundland to Greenland where they were shipwrecked. Cappy and his crew set out from Boston hoping to sail to Norway. But on the way to Iceland from Newfoundland, they ran into trouble and were forced to turn back.
Rosalie Black, the owner of the Black Buoy, a Main Street bar in Sag Harbor, told Wallace that Cappy and John Steinbeck, who came to Sag Harbor in the mid-1950s, were friends. It may be that the spirit of adventure was one of the things they bonded over — but likely not the only thing.
“I never thought of them as having anything in common — but then I thought about it,” notes Wallace. “They both worked in the morning and drank in the afternoon. It was a match made in heaven.”
The both also had poodles — there was Steinbeck’s Charley while Amundsen owned Tony. There were artistic similarities as well.
“Steinbeck’s work was based around the realities of the Depression – Amundsen too, who painted dock workers, and fisherman, and used historic conditions in his work. Amundsen’s father was a wealthy, famous guy, so was Steinbeck’s, but these guys wanted to be with normal people.”
And it’s normal people who most often came to own Amundsen’s paintings. In East Hampton, where Wallace has his art gallery, he finds people are eager to share information about artwork in their collection. This has not been the case with Amundsen’s work.
“The thing is that people in Sag Harbor are quieter about that — especially with Cappy paintings,” says Wallace. “They treat them as heirlooms because most were acquired through trades and barters — not as a monetary value.”
Wallace notes that longtime barber Marty Trunzo told him that when he got his Cappy paintings, it was for services rendered.
“Marty would say, ‘I’ve been cutting your hair for a while,’ and Cappy would bring a painting in to his shop and say, ‘How do you like this one?”
When it comes to his artwork, no one knows for sure how many Cappy Amundsen paintings might still be found in Sag Harbor homes. Though Wallace says he painted over 5,000 in his lifetime.
“In the 1950s every business had an Amundsen in the window or the store. Apple Bank has two, The American Hotel a couple, Murph’s has a couple, the old Sand Bar has one, Yardley and Pino has one and The American Legion has a bunch.”
Of course, complicating matters is the issue of aliases — Amundsen used them liberally and each came with its own unique fictional bio. There was J.J. Enwright who was born in Boston and spends summers painting harbors, docks and ships at Gloucester and Provincetown (which Cappy most certainly did), the Norwegian born W. Hughes, Swiss native H. Nansen (a towering figure in modern painting) and even Sven Sagg who “roams the seas” in search of new ideas. Other paintings were done under the names of W. Hughes, Wm. Ward, Jr., F. H. McKay, J.C. Bonac and John Dunne.
“I would say we’re looking at at least 25 or 30 different names,” says Wallace.
So for an art dealer, does that make proving provenance difficult?
“It does,” concedes Wallace. “But I’ve been studying these paintings a long time. One thing artists are are creatures of habit. Not only do the fronts look similar, but on the back of the paintings, the inventory number, title, name and copyright are all done the same way.”
Wallace can only speculate that Cappy used aliases out of concern for flooding the market with his work. Wallace suspects that the aliases also gave Cappy job opportunities, including with an art publisher in need of work to sell around the country. Rather than hiring 10 different artists, it was easy enough for Amundsen to do all the work and put 10 different names on the pieces. With realism increasingly taking a backseat to Modernism, it may also be that Cappy had to work harder to stay afloat.
“Artist Ralph Carpentier said there would be seven or eight paintings at a time in his studio, all uncompleted,” sway Wallace. “He’d do all the waters at once, then go back and do the skies, then the land. He’d even put them near an oven to dry.”
Part of Wallace’s goal with his research is to clear up the confusion and equalize the market.
“People in the art world don’t know a McKay is a Cappy. From a business point of view the paintings all bring different prices. The highest is going to the Enwrights, second highest to the Amundsens, third to the Hughes, then McKay or Ward. When everything gets out there and people realize it’s the same guy, a $200 McKay will go up to $2,000.”
For his part, Wallace finds that regardless of the name on the canvas, the quality of the work says it all.
“I never questioned Amundsen as an artist — but researching the paintings the way I have, I think the guy was a painting genius,” says Wallace who notes that the pinnacle of his talent can be seen in the whaling paintings. “You look at one and you can’t take it all in. I think it’ll be great to see all these whaling scenes.”
The June 23 “Birthday Celebration for C. Hjalmar ‘Cappy’ Amundsen” at The American Hotel, Main Street, Sag Harbor begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $100 and include a three course dinner, wine. Terry Wallace’s new book on the artist will be available. Fifteen paintings by Cappy Amundsen will be on view and for sale at the hotel from June 15 to July 1. The event benefits the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Call 725-0770 to reserve.