Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Love Provincetown

Violets, Ferol Sibley Warthen

In conjunction with my second post on the New England Home Design Blog which is a visitors' guide to some of Provincetown's best art galleries, I wanted to do a post on why I love Provincetown, the art and the artists that have spent time in this historic artists' colony. 

A few years ago, I did a post on Ferol Sibley Warthen, an artist who made white-line prints, a process invented in Provincetown.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some time in what had been Warthen's studio.  Next door neighbor Robenia Myrer Smith was an animated storyteller and she brought Warthen to life for me.  Robenia grew up on Louisberg Square in Beacon Hill and the family summered in Provincetown her entire life.  Her mother was an artist and had an amazing collection of artwork that had been passed down.

Photo:  Flickr

On special afternoons, Robenia would invite everyone for cocktails on the lawn by the wharf house (with the flag).  As we gathered by the harbor to watch the evening tide go in or out, she served up her delicious stories along with the best chipped beef and martinis I've ever had.  

Fast forward several years when, at a local frame shop, I saw a postcard with this painting:
Fritz Bultman, Heat of the Sky

I couldn't wait to get home to do research on this artist and see more of his work.  

As a high school junior, Bultman studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich.  Hofmann moved in the same circles as Picasso, Braque and Matisse and he brought his knowledge of Modernism to America.

Fritz Bultman, Still Life Study from Hans Hofmann class
Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hofmann is said to be the father of Abstract Expressionism and if Abstract Expressionism was born in New York, it summered in Provincetown.  Hofmann went to Provincetown each summer and flocks of now legendary artists followed.  I could do an entire blog on the artists of Provincetown.  It's hard to even narrow one person to a single post.  I could easily do four posts on Bultman alone.

Hans Hofmann art class, Provincetown, MA circa 1945
Archives of American Art

I was able to find quite a bit of information about Bultman but it was hard to stay on track.  Each article would mention one artist after another that branched out like a family tree of Who's Who in American Art.  Bultman was part of a group of artists referred to as "The Irascibles" in a 1950 Life magazine article.  

The "Irascibles" photograph by Nina Leen

This group of American abstract painters, including Willem deKooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko, wrote a letter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art basically accusing them of ignoring American artists.  Although Bultman signed the letter, he was studying sculpture in Italy so was missing from the now famous photograph.  Bultman always felt his absence from the photograph prevented larger success.

I would never get my chance to meet Bultman who died in 1985.  When I had exhausted all the internet information, I wrote a letter to Bultman's widow Jeanne explaining I was a big fan of her husband's work and asked if I could visit her sometime to ask some questions.  She called me a few days later.  "Any fan of Fritz's work is welcome anytime you want to visit, you just let me know," she said.  I was planning to take a week-long printing workshop at the Provincetown museum in a few weeks so we made a plan to meet while I was in town.

Fritz Bultman in his studio circa 1945                                                The Bultmans in Provincetown

Even in her '80s, Jeanne Bultman was stunning.  We met as she was getting her mail.   We walked up the hill to her cottage and took a seat on her porch to talk.

She came to Provincetown in 1942 where she met Frtiz and she stayed for the summer to work as a model for Hans Hofmann.  They married in 1943.  I recalled Robenia Myrer Smith's talking about German submarines being in the water off Provincetown during WWII and this put Jeanne in town at the same time.  She admitted it was a scary time.  "We never saw German submarines but we were told they were out there.  There were blackouts at night and all of the artists would go to the A-House and dance all night."

Drawing from Hofmann class by (I believe) Lillian Orlowski with inset sketches by Hans Hofmann

I asked about some of the other artists that spent time in town like Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko.  She seemed to love Franz.  "He always had a smile on his face and recruited all the artists to play baseball games.  "Of course they were horrible," she said, "but they all played and everyone laughed."

Fritz was also friends with Tennessee Williams.  I've seen several accounts of Tennessee's shenanigans but I think once Fritz and Jeanne were married and had kids, she wasn't having it anymore.

After I'd exhausted all of my questions, Jeanne asked if there was anything else she could help me with.  Imagining any artist from this period would have an amazing art collection, I asked if I could see her house.  She politely gave me a tour....and I was right.  Not only did she have an amazing collection of paintings, it was rounded out by interesting furniture and objects that I'm sure had their own stories.

Photo:  PAAM

After Jeanne's death in 2008, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum held an exhibition of the Fritz and Jeanne Bultman's collection including some of their furniture and objects.

Although my afternoon with Jeanne Bultman is another chapter closed, there are more yet to be discovered.  Other artists and their sons and daughters who experienced this exciting time in America's history are still there.  And new generations of artists carry on making art and creating new chapters in the story of Provincetown.

The estate of Fritz Bultman is represented by Albert Merola Gallery.
Another great source of vintage Provincetown artwork is Acme Fine Art in Boston.


  1. What a great memory! That was like meeting Michaelangelo's wife!

    I love the story of German subs. My family is from Virginia Beach, VA and they also had German subs off the coast all during WWII - black outs at night and debris on the beaches. A scary time to live on the shore, and one of the best kept secrets during the war.

  2. Wow. I admire your tenacity when pursuing your interests. What a great memory you created for yourself. And I'm sure she loved recalling it all. You always give me a great education. Thanks.

  3. Wow!!! You touched the hem of the Irascibles' trousers! What a joyous thing to be known as a member of a group dubbed the Irascibles! Delicious! You were so fortunate to meet with his wife. Did you meet her long before she died?
    That roomful of eclectica is intriguing!

  4. Thank you so much for the mini vacation this morning. A wonderful get-away with my coffee! What a beautiful post... thanks for sharing. Have a great day. Jalon

  5. Annie,
    I should have mentioned that Jeanne was a common sight around town. She volunteered for Meals on Wheels into her late '80s and for events at the museum. I would see her almost every time I visited town and, most remarkable, she always remembered me.

  6. That is so exciting. I think my favorite bit of modernism is early Ab-Ex and to see what one of the pioneers of the style chose for his own home, in-situ, is a dream.

  7. What an interesting life you've created for yourself and how much fun of you to share such interesting and informative parts of it.

    Love this.

    xo Jane

  8. Wonderful story! I really enjoyed both the photos and the memories. The photo of Jeanne makes me wonder why women think they need to wear string bikinis to be sexy! I recognized most of the the artists, but was not familiar with Bultman, so now I am off to find more images of his work.

  9. Love the name "The Irascibles!" They sound like my kind of people. This post is fascinating. Have you ever thought of interviewing sons and daughter of these artists and putting it all together in a book?


  10. I just loved this story Steve and think you're brave to chase one of your dreams and phone Jeanne. You must have had such a wonderful time with her almost like meeting one of your heros. A tough time in our history but it sounds like everyone made the most of it. Please keep sharing your stories.


  11. Fabulous post. I love that school of art. The Berkeley Museum had a permanent exhibit of Has Hofman's art that I loved to visit. It's fun to imagine all the artists in remote Provincetown and the inspiration the wildness of the ocean and skies must have provided.

  12. A truly fascinating post, Steve. I was in Provincetown once, a long time ago and loved it, but I only had one day there and wasn't able to see that much. Maybe someday I'll get the chance to go back and this time I'll know what to look for.

  13. Thanks for an interesting look into American art and the scene of the 40s and 50s. Something as simple as a well-intended phone call can be life-changing.

  14. I was there on Sunday, but only for a few hours so its nice to get more info ... funnily enough, I did mention you in my blog post about it :)

  15. What a wonderful post and a glowing tribute to your favorite artists. The art world is a beautiful web and I am so pleased you got to spend time with Jeanne Bultman - wow! It is wonderful to be connected to this group of fascinating people, and you are right, the more I learn about one artist, the more the web directs me to others who have influenced them or been contemporaries, etc. I love all the stories - they are leading interesting lives.

    Provincetown is on my "to visit" list.

    You did not show your Fritz Bultman(s) - maybe in another post?

    xo Terri

  16. Steve,
    I think this is my favorite post of yours...It's like opening up a whole new world for me. I realize I have so much to learn about these artists and Provincetown. How amazing that you were able to spend time with Jeanne Bultman and have your own personal tour of their home. Provincetown is on my list of places I must visit when we return to the east coast this summer. Now I must go and do more research!

  17. that was really interesting...thanks for sharing!

  18. Fascinating! And how wonderful to have spent time with Jeanne Bultman.

    I need to plan a trip to P-town!

  19. Love this post.
    What great fun it must have been having cocktails and discussing Art with Robenia. Sounds like a perfect evening.
    Or better yet, to be one of the new Modern artists, dancing in the dark and breaking down the traditional ideas about what is Art.
    I so admire you for meeting with Bultman's widow. I would love to do something like that but not sure that I would have the courage.
    Thanks for this learning experience, there is SO much that I don't know and would never pretend to always understand. But I admire their vision and their sincere effort to make a perosn THINK about Art.
    But of course, I still think there are sloppy pretenders out there that are trying to cash in on lack of talent by giving an elaborate story about the conflict and agony that went into their piece...
    Hey, who's the woman in the photo? I want to Google HER!
    Truly though, Thanks again for this post. You might have made a chip in my obstinance.

  20. Fascinating. Good for you for asking all of those questions - once that generation passes all of that will be lost so we need to ask now! I loved the intersection with Munich and found the unfortunate connections with the war intriguing too...not to mention the art!

  21. Fascinating! I see a book in the making!

  22. What an amazing opportunity to visit with her. I can tell she was a great beauty. I just emailed a link to this to my friend and artist John Scofield who lived in Provincetown a number of years throughout the 70s to see if he know the Bultmans. I'll keep you posted.

  23. A fascinating post, Steve, and a great memory for you to have. The Bultman's home looks terrific in the photograph.

  24. Steve,

    I so enjoyed this post. And good for you for reaching out to Ms. Bultman! I am sure she had as great of a time as you did - sharing her life stories!

    Quite a group - "The Irascibles"! And Mark Rothko! Did Ms. Bultman mention him too? I am sure they all influenced each other. Just look at the "Heat of the Sky"!

    Plese share more about artists you come across. I find this so inspirational and educational.

    Warm hugs to you from Seattle!


  25. I LOVE that you searched her out and spoke with her....so intimately.

    Love the art.

    My fave memory of provincetown...driving down some fairly tiny seeming roads in town in a HONKING HUGE Winnebago...Dad at the wheel.

    We were not cool.

    SO not cool.

  26. Steve I love that you follow your instincts; what an amazing day with Jeanne! Sometimes the unexpected is the gift of a lifetime!

    The 2012 Artist Series featuring Designer and Paper Artist Anita Rivera...(of Castles Crowns and Cottages)is on my site, please stop by! Her work is amazing!

    Art by Karena

  27. Amazing post! I love this generation of artists, it's one of the many I wish I lived in...and Provincetown! Can you believe I've never been? Something so close for me, but never had the chance!

  28. i have no idea why this post is not on my reader. it's so frustrating. i came over b/c i thought you posted the ben franklin tofu story! anyway what a wonderful story this is. i love that you took the opportunity to meet her and that she was so gracious and kind to you. great story!

  29. I was SO EXCITED to see this post. I LOVE P-town, I also summered there every year while growing up. While my art leanings are for the Packard family (especially Ann)- I love nothing more than days spent browsing through the art galleries - and of course, finishing up at the Wharf House (who doesn't?)

    You've given me that homesick feeling - I want to go back, and RIGHT NOW, before the tourist season really hits!

    PS Tip for Topsin' is one of the last Portugese-owned restaurants left. Step-grandfather always lived in P-town, three generations, still wasn't considered a true Provincetownian - blood not old enough!

  30. I discovered your glorious blog as I sat on the very porch swing where you met my delightful mother in law, Jeanne. Last night my husband, the son of Fritz and Jeanne, and I went to the new show at the Provincetown Art Assoc. which was curated by grammar school children on the cape and featured 5 of Fritz's pieces, selected by the kids. They would have been so thrilled.
    Cheers, Bethany Bultman

  31. Bethany,
    I'm glad you got to see the post and thank you so much for leaving a comment. Jeanne was a treasure and I'm thankful I had the opportunity to spend just a little bit of time with her.