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The Dreiser – Esherick Camaraderie

February 23, 2018

Theodore Dreiser. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Few things inspired Esherick like his closest friends, one of which was American author Theodore Dreiser. This month, we re-illuminate this friendship with an article from our Spring 1991 Quarterly Newsletter. At that time, an Esherick and Dreiser exhibit, “A Local Connection”, was on display at the People’s Light and Theater Company.

“The Dreiser-Esherick Camaraderie”

Theodore Dreiser, author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, two truly American novels that broke new ground in literature, is considered one of America’s literary giants.

Dreiser and Wharton Esherick first met at the Hedgerow Theatre in 1924 when Dreiser drove over from New York to see a young woman friend perform there. Arrangements had been made for Dreiser to spend the night at Esherick’s house in Paoli. Esherick, who was seated directly behind Dreiser in the theatre, introduced himself as Dreiser’s host for the night; he was given a once over and then ignored for the rest of the evening as Dreiser concentrated his attentions on the performance and his aspiring friend. However, the two hit it off and became good friends, each respecting and enjoying the other’s genius.

Dreiser, like Ford Maddox Ford and Sherwood Anderson, prominent writers of their times, found a certain combination of solace and intellectual stimulation at the Eshericks.’ Between visits they corresponded, and they each saved the other’s letters.

Within a year after their first meeting, Esherick made a cane in snakewood for Dreiser, carving the handle with a caricature of him. In the summer of 1927 he carved two busts of Dreiser – a sketch in pine, which we have at the Studio, and a finished piece in mahogany, which he gave to Dreiser. It would have been one of the first pieces made in his new studio.

Sketch for “Head of Dreiser” on display in Wharton’s bedroom.

September 1st, ‘27

Dear Dreiser,

Your letter received. We expect to go to Barnegat on the 10th. Will you join us even just for a night?

I want to see the Mount Kisco place very much, I know I could help you with the material end of it, construction I mean. I am conceited enough to feel that you should see my new studio before you make any very large alterations or extensions to your place. It will be an inspiration to you.

Drive down for the night, bring your household – I want to show you the head in wood of T.D. before I exhibit it elsewhere – Someday I will take your offer for a book, at present books are not very close to me.

Many thanks.

Wharton Esherick

“Dreiser’s Studio” pencil on paper, ca. 1928, served as the basis for the print “Of a Great City”.

A few months earlier Esherick had carved a woodcut depicting Dreiser at work in his New York studio. On September 9, 1927, he wrote,

… It delights me to hear how you feel about the woodcut “Of a Great City” – I had intended to send a print to a magazine but not until you, the subject, saw it. I am sending it to Vanity Fair.

In the mid-1920s Esherick made a series of trestle tables, each a little more refined and sculptural than the last. In 1928 Dreiser commissioned one with a raised lip around the perimeter in the manner of shipboard tables.

The Eshericks spent the winter of 1929-1930 at Fairhope, Alabama, a “single-tax” community based on the economic philosophies of Henry George and a winter gathering place for artists, writers and other “free-thinkers” of the time. On January 27 Esherick wrote Dreiser,

“Of a Great City” Wood engraving, 1928.

… This is a full town, full of all kinds of isms, the philosophical kind, you know. On Sunday mornings a group of 30 or 40 meet to discuss open subjects at each other’s house. Breakfast is served and then a chatter. When they met here I opened up with the Bible (Good Samaritan passage). The crowd was surprised as it was the first time the Bible was brought into the meter. Even these intellectuals are scared. I didn’t do it for a joke either. I followed it with Anderson’s mountain girl story in Vanity Fair – a “good Samaritan” act which didn’t work out. Then the crowd tore Anderson apart as only these parlor intellects can do it, missing the point of the tale. After that I brought forth your Forum article, “What I Believe.” It was read by Judge Totten and it was grand to see them scratch and fight like chicks over a worm, not knowing what to do with it after they got it. There was one, a young actress from New York, who cut your head off with one swipe, says you say the obvious, whatever she means … She did apologize after the meeting. A young single-taxer was much impressed and the article brought from him some good honest statements. It is an interesting group if you like groups, but they seem to be trying too hard to find out how to have fun.

Esherick was encouraging Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow Theatre to produce a dramatization of Sister Carrie. On May 8, 1931, he wrote:

I would like you to see Deeter’s production of “Pinwheel” by Faragoh. A strong exciting piece of directing and so simple and economical both materially and actingly. They play it Wed. 13th … Deeter is doing some excellent things and I am anxious to see what he does with your Sister Carrie.

Although “Sister Carrie” never came to fruition, Hedgerow did perform a dramatization of An American Tragedy in 1935.

Esherick suggested that Dreiser try his hand at painting, and Dreiser, in turn, nurtured Esherick’s trial efforts in writing. Esherick wrote Dreiser September 16, 1932:

It’s good of you – encouraging to think my thoughts worth putting down on paper. I recall that time in a little Italian restaurant in lower New York when you, Helen and I sat over the last of a meal, table cleared, and you took the salt shaker and piled the white grain on the white cloth, spread it with your hand like dry sand we play with by the sea. I watched you while we talked, making patterns, designs. I said you should paint or draw pictures if for no reason but to just amuse yourself. You said, “Don’t be a fool, Esherick. I know I can’t do it; I express myself in other ways.” … If I saw a pot of golf in writing I feel I would go into it, even though I often have stated that I would never go after a living – no, after money through art. I would rather push a plow than a pen or brush for money. But – what are our rules and statements for but to be twisted in a cyclone? When does the new magazine come out? Do you need any drawings for it?

Letter from Dreiser to Esherick, July 31, 1929.

In response to a letter from Dreiser requesting an article about the building of the studio for his new magazine, Esherick wrote on October 27, 1932,

Your persistent flattery and praise has forced it out – I’m thrilled to have such a man as you believing in me. I was at the shop alone the other day working on a new stool when suddenly I went to my desk and wrote off the ‘building” article, and the very next day I get a letter from Helen asking me to write an article – What a power you are! Here I am stuck away on a lonely hill – running away from people with my few talents, trying to keep them polished. It almost seems like weakness not to stand up and fight, but yet I see it as useless to buck against the mob. Most of my effort goes into a chunk of wood. Deeter once said to me you should be happy that you are working with oak instead of people. But words, people, or oak have their qualities which must be directed…

The article was never published and Esherick abandoned hopes of finding any gold at the end of the writing rainbow. Dreiser never risked rejection in painting. But the friendship continued. On February 1, 1941, Dreiser, who by then had moved to Hollywood, wrote:

Fairest Wharton:

I’m to speak in Philadelphia for the Friends of Soviet Russia on March 5 next. My plans and obligations are a little uncertain as yet, – certain peace and civil liberties groups being after me to go here and there. Just the same, with your consent and invitation, I’d like to come out and spend a night or two. I love that place so much and you know how I feel about you…

Writing Table for Theodore Dreiser, Padouk, 1928.

On May 4, 1942, a year after Sherwood Anderson’s untimely death, Esherick wrote:

Dear Dreiser,

Sherwood’s memoirs are out, and I had great joy reading them. I felt as if I was walking the roads of Virginia listening and in many places I find myself telling. You didn’t know Ripshin, I wish you had, Sherwood would say often “it would be good if Teddy were here now.” I feel that if he could have edited his book he would have left the father part out, it’s been said so often by him. Anyhow it’s a sweet book. I meet many friends in it. Don’t you like how he did you?

I have a friend here, Emil Gauguin the son of Paul Gauguin the painter – he tells me Hollywood is thinking of making a movie of his father, founded as he informs me on Maugham’s Moon & Sixpence which he says is not his father.

David Loew & Levin are to do it – he is objecting & they have offered him $25,000 to assist – but he does not want his father’s life botched with a sex movie. I told him I would write you, maybe with your experience with movies you could put him on the right track to get a good biography of Gauguin. It seems to me it would make a good movie even if they did stick to the truth. What say[?]

I’m still working at woods, sculpture and furniture trying to forget this mess the world is in, hoping they all will not gang up on Russia.

How are you?


Emil Gauguin had come to know Esherick through Pricilla Buntin, whom he married, who in the late 1930s had cataloged Esherick’s oeuvre and kept his records for the work on the Curtis Bok House.

Dreiser died on December 28, 1945, at his Hollywood home. He was 75. Esherick was 58.


For more on Dreiser and other authors in Wharton’s library check out our previous post, Wharton Esherick–Reader of Banned Books?, written by Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania.


Woodcut Wednesday Highlight: Stuffed Peacocks

January 24, 2018

Usually, our Woodcut Wednesday posts on our Facebook page consist of just a few sentences about one of the over 350 woodcut prints Esherick created during his career. However, every so often, a print has a story worth more than a few sentences – and today’s print led our staff on an amazing research treasure hunt!

Peacock 1 with wathermarkThe featured print this week is of a lovely prismatic peacock used as the dust cover art for the 1927 publication Stuffed Peacocks written by Emily Clark and published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, for which Wharton produced nine woodcuts.

Emily Clark (1890-1953) is best known as a writer and founding editor of Richmond, Virginia’s The Reviewer, a literary magazine that played a major role in the Southern Renaissance (1920s – 1930s). Prior to the Renaissance, southern writers tended toward themes that romanticized and glorified the Antebellum South. However, the Renaissance moved writers to themes about race, gender, identity and the burden of history in the South; themes that are still relevant today. Some of the best known Southern Renaissance authors include William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and H.L. Menken who was a precursor to the movement. Many works by these writers line the bookshelves in Wharton’s bedroom here at the Studio. This literary movement continued to inspire 20th-century writers after it’s height in the 1920s. Perhaps the best-known work inspired by the Southern Renaissance was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Emily Clark

Emily Clark, Courtesy of University of Virginia Special Collections.

It is not known exactly how Emily Clark met Wharton Esherick, or if they met at all. Wharton could have been hired as an illustrator through her publisher, but there is a very good chance the two met through the Centaur Book Shop when she moved with her new husband to Philadelphia in 1924. The Centaur Book Shop produced a total of three publications with Esherick illustrations with woodcuts including, Song of the Broad Axe in 1924, Yokahama Garlands in 1926, and The Song of Solomon in 1927. Wharton spent a lot of time there; it was a favored meeting place of Avant Garde writers of the time and would have certainly attracted Emily Clark. You can read more about the Centaur Shop (and press) from a past post here.

In the collection at the Museum, we have eight of the original nine blocks Wharton carved for Stuffed Peacocks. Ironically, the block we do not have is the one that inspired this post! After admiring the print of the peacock, we decided to check out the blocks themselves. When we pulled them from their storage space, we found they were kept in a solid wooden box, screwed shut and stored in a separate location from the other 300+ woodblocks in our collection.


American Railway Express shipping label.

The box holding the blocks measures 13″ long, 8″ wide and 6″ high and is joined at the corners with finger joints. Pasted to the side of the box is the original shipping label from the American Railway Express Company dated October 6, 1927. Though the label has seen better days, we could still make out who the shipping company was, that the package was prepaid, when the box was shipped and that it was headed for New York on the Pennsylvania Express, Terminal 1 via the Pennsylvania Rail Road.  On the top of the box is a green address label for “Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, 730 Fifth Ave. New York City, USA” noting that the contents were “for Stuffed Peacocks”.


The blocks for “Stuffed Peacocks”, wrapped in newspaper and packed tightly for shipping.

Opening the box was even more exciting than discovering the labels on the exterior. Inside we found a stack of folded newspapers from 1927 used to fill the space between the top of the box and the eight woodblocks below. Each block is wrapped in a section of the same newspaper and wedged in tightly so they wouldn’t shift during shipping. There were even a few wadded up sections of newspaper stuffed in around the blocks. Judging by how we found the blocks, it’s quite possible that Wharton received them back from the publisher and decided that the blocks were wrapped up safe, and so he kept them in the box and stored it away.

The treasure hunt continued when we started to read the newspapers. The papers were each the same: Volume VI of The Linotype News, a publication of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company which was founded by Ottmar Mergenthaler, inventor of the linotype printing process. The publication focused its articles on the publishing business all across the United States. A small section on the front page boasts: “As usual, this issue of The Linotype News has been composed entirely on the Linotype. The news and feature heads are Linotype set. So is the news and feature body matter. Likewise the rules, borders, dashes and other ornaments. A complete listing of the faces used appears on page four.”


clippig from Fourth Estate A Weekly Newspaper for Publishers, Advertisers

Clipping announcing The Linotype Newspaper in the Fourth Estate: A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers

The Linotype News highlighted what different printing companies were doing, how they were using and improving the linotype process as well as other articles of note to the printing community. Making the front page headline of this volume: “Lino on N.E.A. Speical Train Comes Thru With Flying Colors”, an in-depth look at a traveling print shop inside the baggage car of the National Editorial Association’s special train through Nebraska and the Black Hills as part of their Omaha convention.

So you can see how a simple Woodcut Wednesday post on our Facebook page called for a deeper exploration and more than a few sentences about one of the prints from a book Esherick illustrated. As we often find when researching Esherick and his life, you never know what fascinating rabbit trails it will take you down!



Post written by WEM Curator & Program Director, Laura Heemer.



Block from “Stuffed Peacocks” with its newspaper wrapping.



Christmas in the Esherick Archives

December 19, 2017

Sketch from the ‘Behind the Scenes at Hedgerow’ folder labeled ‘Setting Androcles for the Camera, 1947.’

Climb the red oak spiral stairs up to Wharton Esherick’s bedroom, turn the small wood latch, open the closet door and what do you find? A treasure trove of Esherick’s sketches. Boxes upon boxes organized by theme with labels like ‘Animals’, ‘Dance’, or ‘Hedgerow’ across the front, each containing hundreds of sheets of paper. Esherick was an avid sketcher, his keen eye observing and interpreting the world around him. From his earliest days as a painter through his transition to three-dimensional work, his passion for drawing remained a constant in his studio. One can imagine him with pencil in hand as he sat in the audience at Hedgerow Theatre, on a family vacation, or alone on a Pennsylvania hillside. He drew all sorts of subjects – landscapes, portraits of friends and family, actors, dancers, circus performers, and plans for furniture and sculpture. In the drawings, we can see Esherick continually inspired by movement, while his style evolved from strict representations to quick gestural drawings. The more he came to know his subject, it seemed the fewer lines he needed to express it.

Sketch of a walnut desk for Mr. Goulandris, 1950.

Behind the scenes, we have been hard at work cataloging the sketch collection throughout the past year.  Well, “we” isn’t quite accurate. Rather, one amazing volunteer, Judy Stevenson, has been volunteering her time towards this project. Carefully assessing each individual page, noting it’s content, size, little notes scribbled in the margins, Judy is gathering and organizing any and all important information a researcher or curator might want to have at their fingertips. A perfect fit for the project, Judy is the Archivist for Longwood Gardens where she manages and catalogs Longwood’s historical archives and cultural object collections. You can imagine our delight at finding so qualified a helping hand! She has cataloged over 2,000 drawings so far, which are now searchable by the Museum staff.

Judy Stevenson, Archivist for Longwood Gardens, volunteers her time to catalog Wharton’s sketches.

Take for example a folder of sketches (now easily located!) labeled ‘Christmas 1945’. Rather than sketching decorated trees or holiday bows, Esherick was sketching the people in his life. With a few decisive marks of his pencil, Esherick captured the unique, robust personalities of the faces that surrounded him on that particular holiday season. With each portrait we can imagine a lively gathering, friends whispering, laughing, telling stories and shooting glances across at Esherick as he sketched. They are the perfect reminder to be grateful for all the wonderful and colorful characters that come through our doors – as guests eager to experience Esherick’s world and volunteers eager to share and preserve it. From all us at the Wharton Esherick Museum, we hope all your holidays are full of warmth and cheer – and maybe some sketching, too!

Just a few of the playful portraits from Esherick’s ‘Christmas 1945’ sketches.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Wharton Esherick at the South Philadelphia Free Library: Rhythms and Rhythms II

November 20, 2017

Rhythms II on display in the forest of Esherick sculptures that is the main gallery.

Among Wharton Esherick’s final sculptures is a pair of tall, graceful cottonwood forms known as Rhythms and Rhythms II. The latter we see here at the Museum all the time. Rhythms II stands near the center of the main gallery, its flowing curves enjoyed by many visitors over the years. The abstract form is open to interpretation (alluding to waves, water, boats, movement) though Wharton was likely inspired by the dancers that were such an important part of his life and career. Most visitors, in fact, may not realize there is a companion for this piece, Rhythms, which lives down at the South Philadelphia Free Library. Both Rhythms and Rhythms II were carved from the same large eastern cottonwood tree which was cut into two logs once it was felled by Ed Ray, Wharton’s dear friend and expert logger.

Rhythms in Wharton’s workshop where it was sanded and finished.

Made from the larger of the two logs, Rhythms was initiated thanks to Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program. Established in 1959, the program requires a percentage of the cost of new buildings and development be allocated to install public art. In 1965, a percent for art meant a percent for Wharton! The new South Philadelphia Free Library board selected Wharton Esherick to create a large sculptural piece for the building’s atrium (despite the fact that when asked for at least a thumbnail sketch from the board, Wharton wryly submitting a very large sheet of paper with a sketch literally no larger than his thumbnail). The resulting piece was the over 13-foot tall cottonwood abstraction Rhythms.

(L to R) Bill McIntyre, Ed Ray and Wharton Esherick at work on Rhythms.



By the mid-1960s, Wharton found he was a little too old to sculpt with an axe, which had always been his favorite. Instead, Wharton enlisted his two workers, Horace Hartshaw and Bill McIntyre, to help with Rhythms, carving away with chainsaws what Wharton delineated with his chalk. While his “thumbnail” joke could have ruffled a few feathers, Wharton knew the freedom his process required. He needed to be responsive to the wood and the grain, knowing his compositions could and would change as the piece came into being. Rhythms II changed as well. Initially conceived as a prismatic form, Wharton found the second log worked best with similar flowing curves.

In both sculptures Wharton captured the graceful movement of organic forms while leaving them open to interpretation, sparking the imaginations of Museum guests and library goers alike – as with one child who thought Rhythms just had to be a dinosaur’s toenail!


Rhythms greets visitors at the South Philadelphia Library, Community Health and Literacy Center.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Wharton Esherick’s Animals Move Indoors

October 26, 2017

Fall is a time of fresh air and striking foliage, and a time when nature’s critters try to find their way indoors. While keeping an eye out (and an ear out) for mice and squirrels who would like to live in Esherick’s house, this month we found ourselves recognizing all the animal faces and forms that exist in Wharton’s work.  Ceramic monkeys, bronze pelicans, wooden apes – we’ve got a veritable zoo within these studio walls!

Left: “Cheeter” and “Jeeter” on display at Hedgerow Theatre c. 1935-56. Right: “Cheeter” inside the Studio today.

A few of these animal friends were initially designed for the outdoors. Cheeter, the blue horse sculpture which stands in the gallery of the studio is well known to our museum guests. Cheeter and his pal Jeeter stood outside of the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA from the time of their creation in 1934 until 1956 when it was determined they should be brought indoors. While Cheeter is blue now, he and Jeeter have been many colors, getting a fresh coat and fresh color as the years went on. Naturally, the pair became beloved by the neighborhood around the Hedgerow Theatre and when it came time for them to be removed, a full-size casting of Cheeter was installed at the School in Rose Valley just across the road. Children there still continue to climb up onto Cheeter’s back! Jeeter, on the other hand, made his way to Florida and is now in the collection of Modernism Museum Mount Dora.


Top: “Darling” in the woods outside the Studio. Bottom: “Darling” on display at Wharton’s 1958-59 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

Cheeter and Jeeter were both made from pieces of wood brought to Wharton by his friend and wood supplier, Ed Ray. While running his logging business Ed would find sections of trees in which he could envision an animal, maybe seeing a suggestion of a leg or two, and bring it to Wharton to carve. This was the case for a sculpture entitled Darling from 1940. Darling, carved from a section of white oak, depicts an elegant and alert looking deer, something we see plenty of in the woods surrounding the Museum. Having stood out in the elements, Wharton did have to make some repairs on this sculpture (which he playfully referred to as “dental work”) replacing a rotting section of the sculpture around to nose of the deer’s face. Darling was initially exhibited outside the Hedgerow Theatre and was later among pieces featured in Wharton’s 1958 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. The piece is now part of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ collection.

“Garden Horse” by the Studio door.

Garden Horse was another wood animal sculpture to stand outside the studio. Made in 1935, only a year after Cheeter and Jeeter, Garden Horse has a simplified approach. It’s primarily vertical with broad planes to define the form, notably similar to the posts which Wharton designed for the Curtis Bok house around this same time. Unlike his companions Garden Horse was functional too – he marked the gas fill for Wharton’s kitchen stove! Spotting these sculptures in our photos and archives remind us of the fluid movement that once took place here, with sculptures coming and going, both inside and out!


The Studio in 1947, with “Garden Horse” outside marking the gas fill. Note the trees in the distance which were “topped” by Wharton to keep the valley view.




Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Capturing the Spirit of Esherick: Memories of a Member

September 24, 2017

The road to Paoli circa 1914.

We hosted our Annual Members’ Party with extra fanfare this month, in celebration of our 45th anniversary as a Museum. Our program featured some wonderful speakers, who helped us take stock of our journey since 1972.  Running through the event was a theme of continuity, a passing of the touch between those committed to preserving Wharton’s creation. We heard from former Director, Rob Leonard, and our current Director, Julie Gannaway. We heard from Joyce Stoeber, who has volunteered for the Museum since its inception and Lisa DiCarlo, who is new to our volunteer team this year. The afternoon was full of laughter and stories being shared both in the program and among friends. With this in mind, we found ourselves thinking about the important first-hand accounts we’ve been able to gather from those who knew Wharton Esherick, stories that enrich and breathe life into our understanding of his humor and creative spirit. One such source of anecdotes was David Wilson, who will always be remembered among the Museum’s most dedicated volunteer docents. And we don’t say that lightly! Dave was still guiding fantastic tours here at the age of 97 – sometimes giving 100 tours a year!

The Eshericks’ neighbor, Dave Wilson, eager to share his memories of Wharton.

Dave Wilson knew Esherick from the time Wharton and Letty moved to the farmhouse in 1913.  Dave was born and raised in the Great Valley. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, having been inspired by Wharton’s work, and later returned to the area to run a dairy farm. His stories and memories were as invaluable then as they are now, so, in the spirit of sharing stories from past and present, we’re reposting an article from our very first newsletter (dated 1983) where Dave Wilson recounted his memories of Wharton for all to enjoy.

“Memories of a Member”

It was quite a novelty in this community to have a young artist and his bride settle here. It was real country at that time. The people were mostly farmers and were very conservative, but Wharton and Letty were soon absorbed into the community.

Wharton and Letty with one of their new neighbors, Isaac Clothier, c. 1914.


Having lived in the city all his life, Wharton was thrilled to be in the country. He helped his neighbors take in hay and with other such activities whenever they needed additional hands. Wharton joined the local farmer’s grange and made the scenery for one of their stage shows. Wharton often came to our house to play chess with a group of local men and during World War I my mother would invite Letty to talk to her Red Cross unit about ways of cooking to conserve food.

It was my custom as a youth to ride my horse about the Valley and surrounding hills. The back road up Diamond Rock Hill and through Esherick property was one of my favorite routes. I remember when Wharton remodeled his barn into a studio. I was particularly taken by the carvings on the supports for the little roof over the entrance, an eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve. One day, riding up their lane, I was surprised by an owl. Carved from a large hunk of wood and mounted in a hoop hanging from a tree, it was swaying in the breeze.

“An eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve” as Dave Wilson put it. These carved supports once adorned the entrance of Wharton’s barn.

Letty had an interpretive dance class – young girls dancing in thin flowing veils – that met out on the lawn at about the same hour each day. Colonel Cassat would try to time his daily horseback ride to pass the Esherick house at that particular time.

At one time Wharton had a Stanley Steamer which broke down quite often. Later, he bought a horse and a yellow two-wheeled cart. After our first real snowfall that winter, Wharton borrowed a sleigh and drove to our house for a visit. Mother invited Wharton to join us for a warming cup of coffee. “Get out of this sleigh, I should say not,” responded Wharton. Then, turning the horse sharply, as he would in his two-wheeled cart, he started off. The sleigh overturned, dumping Wharton in a snow bank.

After Wharton had made the dining table and chairs he decided that all the mid-Victorian furniture, contributed by his family, had to go to make room for his own work. The secondhand dealer had bought the lot and hauled it away – the day before Wharton’s mother came to call.

Later I married and had a farm on North Valley Road. Wharton would stop by for fresh eggs and raw milk, giving me the privilege to know him better. One day he gave me this advice for fixing up a set of old chairs I had found in the barn, “make them comfortable to your hands, round all those sharp corners and lace the seats with baling twine, which you have plenty of.”

As a dairy farmer, I always had a surplus of cow manure. One day Wharton telephoned and ordered a load of it. “Where do you want me to put it?” I asked. “I’ll leave you a sign” was his reply.


The sign Wharton left was a large wood carving of a cow’s rear end and an arrow underneath with the phrase “David Here.”  The manure would be right where it belonged!


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.


Wharton’s Cape Cod Watercolors

August 15, 2017

“New England Cottage”, watercolor, 1920.

There are just two weeks left to check out our latest exhibition, Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, which highlights paintings completed by Wharton Esherick between 1919 and 1920 while he traveled with his family up and down the east coast. Many guests to the Museum are surprised to learn that Wharton began his career as a painter, since he is best remembered for his creations in wood. In fact, he studied painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (which later became the University of the Arts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where he studied under distinguished painters including Thomas Anschutz, Cecilia Beaux, and William Merritt Chase.

Wharton’s Schmincke Horadam watercolor paint set accompanied him on many trips.

Impressionist style painting, which Wharton studied, encouraged the artist to take their paints out of the studio and paint en plein air (outdoors). Wharton loved to paint from nature, often taking his painting supplies and wandering the area near their home, as well as on their family travels. Ultimately, Wharton would leave PAFA in search of his own unique voice, but he would always maintain his love of nature and the inspiration it brought him.


“Chatham Lights”, watercolor, 1920.

There are 18 watercolors on view in the exhibition, several of which were done while visiting Cape Cod. Wharton depicted the seaside cottages, gulls, and fisherman at their daily tasks with care.  One painting, “Chatham Lights”, is particularly striking, perhaps because it is the only nightscape in the show. Wharton captured in this painting the twin lighthouses at Chatham with their lights glowing brightly under a full moon. The palette is deep and moody, placing emotional tone over the capable draftsmanship we see in the “daytime” paintings. In fact, without the twin lights, it would be difficult to identify the site at all.

The Chatham Twin Lights in 1919. Photograph courtesy of National Archives.

Chatham, which is right on the “elbow” of Cape Cod established twin lighthouses in 1808 as a way of distinguishing it from Highland Light in Truro, MA further up the arm of the Cape. In 1841, due to coastal erosion, new brick towers were constructed further inland, though continual erosion caused the south tower to fall in 1879. New, cast iron towers were then constructed even further inland, and these are the towers Wharton saw during his visit in 1920. Three years after Wharton’s visit, the northern tower was moved 12 miles north to become Nauset Light in Eastham.

Wharton made several sketches of the Chatham Twin Lights in the summer of 1920.

While Cape Cod’s sandy shores have drawn beachgoers for hundreds of years, it’s views have called to artists. In 1896, Charles Hawthorne, who had also studied under William Merritt Chase, opened The Cape School of Art in Provincetown, which would become one of the largest art colonies in the world. Over the years, many artists painted Cape Cod, including Edward Hopper, William Paxton, and Childe Hassam. Others continued to establish schools of their own on the Cape, like Hans Hoffman’s Summer School of Art, or the Fine Art Work Center, both breathing new life into Provincetown’s artistic community.

Charles Hawthorne instructing a painting class in Provincetown, c. 1910.






Esherick, of course, would find his own haven for making art in the solitude of the Pennsylvania woods. Just months before he painted “Chatham Lights,” he had received a set of carving tools and was making his first forays into woodworking. These tools were given to him at a different sort of artist colony, a single-tax community in Fairhope, Alabama, where artists, writers, educators and all sorts of progressive thinkers were coming together to exchange ideas. It was there he began carving frames for his paintings – which he soon found got a bigger response than the paintings themselves! The story of Fairhope is one for another time (and another post) but it reminds us of the way these early adventures change and inform one’s life. While Esherick would find his voice in wood, those early years as a painter shaped him, as he observed and studied the world around him. As Edward Hopper wisely put it, “In every artist’s development, the germ of the later work can be found in the earlier. What he was once, he always is.”

A young Esherick setting off for Europe by cattle boat in 1906 – one of many adventures to come!


More on the history of artists in Provincetown can be found here:


Our current exhibition Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, curated by Laura Heemer, is on view through September 3, 2017.


Post written by Curator, Laura Heemer and Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.