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More space to smile

With its expansion complete, the Cahoon Museum of American Art unveils new ‘Martha & Ralph’ exhibit

Cahoon Museum Of American Art, Cape Cod Art Annual 2016

Photograph courtesy of the Cahoon Museum of American Art

The Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning quarterback debate was decided—decisively—when cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception secured the New England Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl championship in February of 2015. But other debates will ring eternal: Hot dogs or hamburgers? Coke or Pepsi? Coffee or tea? Dogs or cats? Van Halen or Van Hagar? Folk art or fine art?

For many New Englanders and New Yorkers who prefer folk art, a similar debate rages on: Ralph or Martha Cahoon? Both artists, who lived and worked on Cape Cod for decades, have their own dedicated adherents. While their collective work evokes summertime memories of the Cape, and are highly collectible, Ralph’s whimsical, humorous paintings frequently solicit smiles while the work of his wife, Martha, features pleasant pastoral landscapes that offer viewers a sense of tranquility.

“Both of them primarily painted 19th-century scenes, but they did so with a fresh 20th-century look to them,” says Cindy Nickerson, a noted Cahoons scholar, curator, and a former director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit, which boasts a special focus on the regional art of Cape Cod and the Northeast. “What was new about their work was the use of mermaids and sailors, mostly by Ralph. You see some humor in 19th-century art, but Ralph had this great wit. He injected his work with a more pointed humor and a greater sense of whimsy.

“The Cahoons’ paintings always bring smiles to people’s faces,” says Nickerson. “For the seven years that I worked at the museum, my colleagues and I would always remark about how happy people were when they left the museum. While viewing art in a historic colonial home was a pleasant experience, it was the paintings that made people chuckle and left them in a happy mood.”

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