Seen from the shore through a screen of trees, Boothbay Harbor on the Maine coast appears in its modern in-season character as a popular tourist resort in Florence White Williams’s The Old Wharf, Boothbay Harbor. The wharf itself is represented by a weathered wooden structure set on pilings over the water. Gathered about it are small sailboats and rowboats, the fair-weather craft of vacation-time leisure. The rippling cool blue surface of the calm harbor bespeaks the beneficent conditions of a fine summer day. The almost-square format of the balanced composition, in which trees on the right and the building on the left frame the view, contributes a sense of comforting stability.
Like Williams’s benign, pleasing subject matter, her vigorous brushwork and bright color were among the hallmarks of an early twentieth-century impressionist manner that was widely practiced among Chicago’s landscape artists in the early decades of the twentieth century and favored by middle-brow, urban American consumers, including many in artistically conservative Chicago. For them, impressionism signaled a modern but “sane” practice that embraced evidence of artistic process while adhering to a solidly representational effect. Like John F. Stacey in his Gloucester, Massachusetts, views, Williams pictured Boothbay Harbor from the perspective of a seasonal tourist, with grubby evidence of the locale’s longtime fishing industry carefully elided. Rather, the old wharf anchors the setting in a romantic idyll of Old New England as a site of settled tradition and sanitized national heritage—a popular fiction in an era of whirlwind change. As the Chicago Tribune’s conservative art critic Eleanor Jewett observed, “A tendency toward romancing runs through [Williams’s] pictures.”i
In the late 1920s, the period to which this painting probably dates, Williams reached the height of her modest success as a Chicago-based landscape painter. In 1928, the Chicago Galleries Association held a solo exhibition of her works that included a painting entitled The Old Wharf, likely this work, among other images from Boothbay Harbor. Williams also painted the shoreline scenery of nearby Monhegan Island as well as the Indiana Dunes and New Hampshire lakes. Boothbay Harbor held a special place in her career, however, for she had spent a season studying there with Henry B. Snell, co-founder of the Boothbay Studios summer school in 1921. By that date, picturesque Boothbay Harbor was already a popular destination for artists.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
i Eleanor Jewett, “Chicago Canvases at Institute,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1928.