Art Town: Artists invade Westport, creating a “Latin Quarter of New England”

Arthur G. Dove, by Alfred Stieglitz (1912).

Arthur G. Dove, by Alfred Stieglitz (1912).

Contributed photo /

In the early 1900s, a set of progressive thinking artists began to settle in Westport, buying or renting antique abodes and mixing freely with longtime farmers, shopkeepers and laborers alike.

In 1911, local headlines championed: “Art has struck Westport with a definite and emphatic and beneficent force.” Later, columnist O. O. McIntyre reported that “New York’s real Latin Quarter is now in Connecticut” where in Westport “the art invasion began quietly about six years ago and came from the Village.”

George Hand Wright, a well-connected and well-liked illustrator, was credited by the press in 1911 as “starting the immigration of painters” here. That same year, a Philadelphia reporter quipped, “just who is the ‘dean’ of the Westport artists it is not necessary to decide.”

Marine painter Neil Mitchill, of New York City, arrived upon marrying Agnes Lewis in 1888. Among the first cohort were: illustrators J. N. Marchand, in town by 1904, and Edmund M. Ashe, by 1905; sculptor H. Daniel Webster, in 1906; Wright and landscape painter Lawrence Mazzanovich, in 1907; and illustrator-turned-modernist Arthur Dove in 1909.

When Ossip P. Linde joined the circle in 1911 from Chicago, a Bridgeport reporter said, “there seems to be something in the air and scenery of this town which induces artists to settle within its limits.”

Some of the earliest arrivals, like Dove and Laura Gardin and James Earle Fraser remain well-known, yet others — such as Karl Anderson, Hugo Ballin, Robert Leftwich Dodge, Silas S. Dustin, Joseph Mortimer Lichtenauer, Angus P. MacDonall, Henry Raleigh, “Tillie” Neville Spanger and Ralph T. Willis — held high regard then but are lesser known now.

Unlike the painters of Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Westport’s artists were a heterogeneous body, or “a coterie of artists doing missionary work in a village that hitherto has slept rather quietly on the wooded banks of the Saugatuck,” to quote a 1911 review. Still, they exhibited together at Silvermine, the Westport Library, and later, the Bedford YMCA. Their exhibits attracted press and buyers among residents and summer visitors motoring along the Post Road.

Collectively, they represented artists who “belong to New York, to Paris, to Munich and Rome…[and] of the wider art world,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1913.

Fast forward to 1926, when a Hartford reporter recorded that over 80 artists, “bringing their books and easels with them,” now found Westport an ideal place for working and living, and “numbering among them National Academicians, gold medal sculptors, mural decorators, portrait painters and the highest paid advertising writers in the world.” This post-WWI wave joined magazine publishers, authors, playwrights, actors, producers, and musicians to help secure Westport’s growing reputation as a thriving creative community.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful today to have a central Westport museum to help celebrate and promote the founding years of Westport’s artistic community and where we could once again view works by these artists side by side?

Kathleen Motes Bennewitz is Westport’s town curator and an independent art historian. She is a guest columnist.