Art Annual 2023

Artist Profile: Erna Partoll

Cape Cod Art  /  ART Annual 2023 /

Writer: Chris White

Mid-Day (Portals), 2007 • acrylic on canvas • 40″ x 30″

“It’s hard to leave Provincetown,” says painter Erna Partoll. “Every season is beautiful, even the winters.” In her 53rd year at the top of the Cape, she should know. The Swiss artist left the mountains of her home country at age 21, then lived in England, spent two years in Paris, and landed in Canada before living out the 1960s in New York City. 

“It was exciting, living in the city. When you’re young, it’s fun,” she says. But in 1970 she decided to settle in Provincetown. “When I arrived, I felt that the nature here was so impressive—even overwhelming. I love this end of the Cape, being surrounded by water. The light is beautiful.”

By the time Partoll arrived in Provincetown, she had developed her core style and technique. Her first major influence was the Turner collection at the Tate in London. “That was in the 1950s. It woke something up in me,” she says, “But my serious education took place in New York City, at the Art Students League.” For four years, she studied with Theodoros Stamos, whom she credits along with Will Barnet as her most influential teachers. “What they taught worked for me, and I’m using it still.”

Of her work, the Berta Walker Gallery states: “Erna Partoll’s abstract paintings focus on color, composition, the way colors interact, and the influence of color on the creation of space. The archetypal shapes of circle, square, wave, and arch—opening and closing, advancing and receding as their rhythms alternate—reveal life and death, joy and sorrow, heaven and earth, yin and yang.”

Untitled, mid-1960s • acrylic on canvas • 32.25″ x 28″

Since 1970, Partoll has immersed herself in Provincetown’s natural wonders. She likes to go out to the seashore and sketch ideas to later develop into paintings. “If you really observe,” she explains, “you discover a vocabulary of forms. I love the lines, the waves, and of course the wind creates sand dunes. It’s very beautiful. I take the images with me, and they come out in more abstracted ways. That is how I love to paint rather than copy something really realistically. I translate what I have experienced, and the colors are mostly expressions of emotions. Fortunately, there are some people to whom my art communicates something.”

Sadly, nature turned destructive on December 23rd, 2022, when a storm surge flooded a number of Provincetown homes. Four feet of water stood throughout the first floor of Partoll’s house. “The waves came over the bulkhead, and the downstairs filled up in about 10 minutes, including my studio,” she recalls. “It’s a mighty ocean. Being flooded like that was a shock, a new beginning. It’s a challenge, but it’s okay. It’s all working out. It has to work out.”

Because of the water damage, Partoll had to move out for 13 weeks while clean up and repairs took place, and renovations are ongoing. Luckily she has always stored her finished paintings upstairs, so they remained undamaged—and Berta Walker offered to keep them safe in her gallery, which has represented Partoll since 1992. Provincetown has undergone dramatic growth and change since 1970, and with the influx of tourism, some of the personal connections of a small town are no longer as evident. “But after the flood, people came together and helped,” says Partoll. “I was provided accommodation in unused apartments for weeks at a time, and I felt safe and secure. Whenever anything really dangerous happens, we can experience the goodness of people.” 

On the Bridge, 2002 • gouache on paper • 19.5″ x 27.5″

 This summer, Partoll’s first priority is to finish putting her house back together, but she’s also preparing for her upcoming exhibit at the Berta Walker Gallery from September 8th through October 10th, 2023. Among the paintings that she moved there are early works from her time with Stamos and Barnet. “Berta thought it would be interesting to show what students did in their classes,” she says. The exhibition will also benefit Partoll and photographer Susumu Kishihara, both of whom suffered substantial losses in the flood. Opening weekend coincides with the 36th Provincetown Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla, a fundraiser for AIDS, women’s health and the community. Organizer Jay Critchley has named Partoll the official artist of this year’s event, and the Berta Walker Gallery will donate the sale of her painting New Day’s Promise to the cause. 

“I’m so pleased to offer this painting to Swim For Life—that I can give something back,” says Partoll. “It’s something I look forward to.” 

Erna Partoll’s work is available at the Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown and at

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.