With its expansion complete, the Cahoon Museum of American Art unveils new ‘Martha & Ralph’ exhibit
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.”
Like most folk artists, the Cahoons were largely self-taught and not classically trained. Martha’s father, a Swedish immigrant named Axel Farham, taught Martha the art of furniture decorating, which she pursued as a career. Soon after she married Ralph in 1932, he became her apprentice and, over time, the pair built a thriving furniture decorating and antiques business in Osterville.
Their careers took an even-more successful turn when wealthy arts patron Joan Whitney Payson noticed their furniture decorations in 1953, and encouraged them to transfer their talents to wall painting. “She was an art collector and connoisseur,” Nickerson says of Payson, who also played an instrumental role in bringing the Mets to New York City in 1962 to replace the departed Giants. “Where Grandma Moses had such great success as a folk artist in the 1940s, I think that Payson may have felt she was uncovering the next Grandma Moses in the Cahoons.”
Beginning this summer, Cahoon fans will be able to rekindle the Ralph-or-Martha debate at the renovated and expanded Cahoon museum. A two-year, $2.5-million renovation and new building project enabled the museum to add 3,600 square feet of new space, roughly doubling the exhibit area while improving access, increasing parking, and providing more room for classes, lectures, and community events.
A Colonial Georgian structure that Ebenezer Crocker began started building in 1775, the museum was home to five generations of Crockers before it fell into non-Crocker hands in the 1920s. The Cahoons purchased the house in 1945, and it served as their home and studio until Ralph passed away in 1982. Local art enthusiast Rosemary Rapp purchased the home and transformed it into a museum two years later. In 1999 Martha passed away at the age of 94.
While much of the old building’s renovation work is hidden—a shored-up foundation, window rehabilitation, and other structural improvements—so, too, is the addition, which is neatly tucked behind the original structure and smartly blends the new with the old.
“When you’re adding a new addition to an old structure, it’s very tricky to match the new and the old styles,” says Sarah Johnson, who was named director of the museum in March, succeeding Richard Waterhouse, who oversaw the construction project during his five-year tenure. “This project is very balanced and blends the old with the new in a sensitive way. The scale of the new building is in line with that of the old building. The addition is stepped back from the historic structure, and the roofline is slightly lower.
“On the interior,” Johnson adds, “the new addition is a beautiful space, featuring high-quality work and craftsmanship. A lot of museums and galleries feature white cubed interiors, but our interior is warmer and uses a lot of wood and other natural materials. The addition definitely reflects Cape Cod architecture. It’s been a very successful project.”
While the construction project was underway, the museum was temporarily located, rent free, in the Mashpee Commons shopping center. Because the museum was “coming home” to its original location this year, the organization’s leadership felt that the first exhibit in the new gallery should be special.
So was born “Coming Home Again: Works by Martha & Ralph Cahoon,” the grand-reopening exhibit that began in May and runs through June 26. The exhibit features more than 50 Cahoon pieces that have not been shown at the museum, including decorated furniture. More than one-third of the show consists of works from two private collections. “The idea was not to show lesser-known work, but to show work that hadn’t been on exhibit at the museum previously,” says Nickerson, the exhibit’s guest curator. “The museum wanted fresh work for the brand-new gallery.”
Thanks largely to Payson’s influence in the 1950s the Cahoons’ commercial work became wildly popular among the Cape’s mid-century jet set. In addition to Payson, Jacqueline Kennedy purchased Cahoon work, as did actress Joan Fontaine and members of the DuPont and Mellon families. A very prominent fan of the Cahoons was pharmaceuticals heir Josiah K. Lilly III, whose family had long spent summers on the Cape.
During his life, Lilly bought more than 50 Cahoon paintings. Lilly was also the founder of Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, which exhibits his antique car collection. Two of Lilly’s better known antique cars, which are still on display at the museum, are featured in “Shocking Incident on Route 28, Cape Cod,” a fantastic vision from Ralph’s fertile mind.
“One of the really fun paintings that will be on display in the new exhibit is ‘Shocking Incident,’” says Nickerson. “It shows two of Lilly’s famous antique cars getting in an accident. One of the cars is loaded with mermaids, while the other is packed with sailors.”
According to Nickerson, the new exhibit includes several other standout paintings. Martha’s “Up in the Air” is one of her more lighthearted works; the piece features 19th-century people—and a mermaid (of course)—gathered at a cliff to gaze at kites as people in hot-air balloons float by. “I’ve always been a fan of the print,” says Nickerson. “I’m very excited to see the actual painting in person.”
Another eye-catching exhibit piece, this one by Ralph and inspired by Cape folklore, takes whimsy to a new level. “Hannah Screecham of Grand Island” depicts 17th-century witch Hannah Screecham, who was rumored to have helped pirate captains bury their treasure—at a cost. The tales vary, but go something like this: A pirate captain would bring his treasure, along with a green young mate who didn’t know Screecham, to the dunes of Grand Island in Osterville. In the moonlight, Hannah would watch as the captain and the young sailor dug a deep sandy hole in which to drop the treasure chest. Just as they were preparing to fill in the hole, Hannah would let out an unearthly scream and push the young sailor into the hole. She and the captain would then fill in the hole, ensuring that the treasure would have a ghostly guardian for eternity.
“One of the best things about folk art, especially that of the Cahoons, is that it’s very accessible for a wide range of people,” says Johnson. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in fine arts to understand it. It’s for ‘folk.’”
“While we’re proud of our past tradition of excellent exhibits and programming, we’re also at a new phase in our museum’s development,” adds Johnson. “We’re entering a period where there’s a lot of growth and exploration of our collection. We hope that our expanded space will lead to an expanded role as a regional arts center and destination spot on Cape Cod and beyond.”
Located at 4676 Falmouth Road (Route 28) in Cotuit, the Cahoon Museum of American Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays, 1-4 p.m. For more information, visit cahoonmuseum.org, or call 508-428-7581.
Joe O’Shea is a freelance writer from Bridgewater.