The state of Rhode Island may be the smallest in the nation, but insofar as art is concerned, it stands quite proudly next to some its larger neighbors, holding its own especially in the areas of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It's a place where two elements join, the sea, and money, to inspire both artists and their patrons to rise above the mundane to create an art that is unlike an other in the nation, or even the New England seacoast. What started out as a refugee colony of freethinkers fleeing the Cotton Mather hard line of Massachusetts, thrived in its early years as a haven for rum distilleries (22 of them at one point), and early Americans of Jewish beliefs. After the Civil War, it became the playground of the monied Eastern establishment with it's big yachts, even bigger marble "cottages," and only slightly smaller motorcars. And while all of New England is awash in art inspired by the sea, in Rhode Island, particularly Newport, that which has most inspired artists have not been seascapes but the people inhabiting them. Artists as diverse as Robert Feke, Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Diego Rivera, Salvadore Dali, and Richard Lindner have all picked up a few extra bucks ornamenting the marble mantels of Newport Society compounds.
As might be expected, given such a list, the results have not always been as expected. An early Robert Feke portrait of Mary Winthrop Wanton featured a decolletage so daring her heirs commissioned Jane Stuart (Gilbert's daughter) to paint a flower to cover up the offending plunge. Miss Stuart called it an act of art vandalism, but nonetheless, held her nose, painted the rose, then took the money and ran. A Diego Rivera portrait of Joseph Hudson, painted in 1955, depicts the wealthy department store owner not as a man but as a young boy, seated amongst his toys next to a giant flower which might have been a precursor to the one in the "Little Shop of Horrors." Not only that, but the likeness is suspiciously like that of the artist, not his patron. A portrait of Josephine Bryce from approximately the same era portrays her like a noble Renaissance matron, strictly in profile, and seems somewhat stark in it's hardedged Surrealism until one notices the signature of the artist. For Salvadore Dali, it's really pretty tame.
But for all the name recognition pretensions of Newport society portraits, some of the most charming came from the brush of one of there own. Her name was Olive Pell. She was not trained in any meaningful way as a painter. She seems to have been mostly self-taught. But instead of gravitating toward sweet still-lifes or delightful seascapes, she chose instead to paint those whom she loved. And not just that, but to depict them amongst the stylish 1920s interiors over which she herself presided. Her self-portrait serving tea is at least as concerned with the polished silver as her own lovely, if somewhat stylized, countenance. A 1933 drawing room painting features her husband, Congressman Herbert Pell, seated in the foreground, while she, her son, and various other family members sip tea from her fine china. The style is a bit dated and she seems to struggle with various compositional element and the perspective from time to time, but the work is relaxed, lighthearted yet elegant, and surprisingly uncontrived. It's what Norman Rockwell might have painted if he'd lived in Newport rather than Rochester at the time.
But perhaps Olive Pell's most engaging portrait is that of her husband, and her then six-year old son. The slender, sweet-faced boy, seated diminutively before the looming bulk of his stepfather, is being taught literally at his knee, the arts and sciences of politics. It seems to have been a lesson the child learned well. Thirty-three years later, in 1960, the boy in the portrait was elected to the first of six terms as senator from Rhode Island. His name was Claiborne, and today we know him as father of the "Pell Grant" as well as a champion and a legislative founder of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. He concedes that despite his successes in diplomacy and politics, he was always an artist at heart, a trait he seems to have inherited from his mother.