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

A complementary couple: the distinct styles of folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon, November/December 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

Sarah Johnson, director and curator of the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit, in the room that was once the studio of artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Photo by Deb Boucher Stetson

Ralph’s flamboyant paintings are balanced by Martha’s more subdued work. Martha painted many bucolic country scenes that depict people going about their everyday activities. “Martha’s palette was different from Ralph’s—softer and less high-keyed,” Johnson says, “and she responded to different influences and themes in art than her husband. In her later years, her work had a sweet and sentimental sense, almost childlike.” Martha also created many beautiful still lifes, a technique she picked up in her father’s workshop.

After Ralph’s death in 1982, Martha lived in an apartment attached to the Cahoon Museum up until she passed away in 1999. Legend has it that now and then Martha would wander into the museum, and talk with visitors who had no idea she was the artist.

Today, Ralph and Martha’s paintings are coveted by collectors who admire the artists’ connection to Cape Cod. Benton Jones, a prominent collector of the Cahoons’ artwork, praises the way “their work represents in exquisite folk art and in a whimsical way what the Cape is all about.” In the same vein, Johnson says that even when the location of a Cahoon painting is not immediately recognizable, both Ralph and Martha “used the sense of place here on Cape Cod in all their paintings.”

“Ralph had salt water in his veins, and his artistic language carried history and paid homage to those who lived before him,” Johnson says. “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.”

Selections of Ralph and Martha’s work, as well as more information about the Cahoons, can be found at the Cahoon Museum of American Art, 4676 Falmouth Road, Cotuit.

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