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A complementary couple: The distinct styles of folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon

Ralph Martha Cahoon

Photo courtesy of the Cahoon Museum of American Art

“Ralph had salt water in his veins, and his artistic language carried history and paid homage to those who lived before him. . . Martha moved to Harwich as a young girl. They were both impacted and inspired by Cape Cod’s beauty and strong sense of place. The Cahoons were very proud to live here.”

Located near the intersection of Main Street and Route 28 in Cotuit, the Cahoon Museum of American Art is named for Ralph and Martha Cahoon, the prolific Cape Cod artists who once lived and worked in this landmark cranberry-colored home. Collectors far and wide—including First Lady Jackie Kennedy—have purchased Cahoon paintings, most of which came out of this one small Cape Cod studio.

Ralph Cahoon’s paintings in particular reflect the Cape, as he enjoyed using recognizable  locales for his whimsical paintings. Among the artist’s Cape-based paintings is “Three Sisters, No. Eastham,” with a sailor and one of Cahoon’s trademark mermaids embracing before the trio of wooden lighthouses known as the Three Sisters that once overlooked what is now Nauset Light Beach. Another famed painting is “Shocking Incident on Route 28, Cape Cod,” which depicts sailors in a Cadillac roadster colliding with a carload of mermaids in a 1915 Stutz Bearcat.

Both paintings, owned by private collectors, were among the amazing array of works by Ralph and Martha Cahoon in last summer’s “Coming Home Again” exhibit at the newly-renovated and expanded museum, which also exhibits works by many other artists.

The expansion and renovation of the museum, an 18th century Georgian house that was once the Cahoons’ home and studio, means more room to exhibit works by other artists and the Cahoons as well. Sarah Johnson, director and curator of the Cahoon Museum, says since the expansion, the museum has seen a growth in donations of works by the Cahoons to its collection.

The museum already displays a fascinating collection of Cahoon paintings, including “A View of Hooper’s Landing, Cotuit” and “Megansett Tea Room,” both local scenes, and “Bon Appetit,” in which one of the mermaids preparing food in a busy kitchen looks just like Julia Child. The famed chef knew about the painting, “and she asked that he make her more modest,” Johnson says, which explains the steam wafting from the pot before that mermaid in the painting, obscuring her naked chest.

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