William and Lucy L’Engle were part of Cape Cod’s early art colony
Among the artists and writers who gathered in Provincetown in the early 1900s were two prolific painters who met and fell in love while studying in Paris. William and Lucy L’Engle, Modernist artists who were instrumental in bringing the Cubism style of painting to the United States, arrived in Provincetown in 1916 and bought a house near the Provincetown Wharf Theater in the East End, next door to playwright Susan Glaspell. Living and working in Provincetown, they were part of the Provincetown Players’ productions and social circle. After eight years in Provincetown, the L’Engles bought a historic house in Truro that would be their home and studio for the next 50 years.
That family house on Long Nook Road in Truro was the historic Shebnah Rich house, which the L’Engles purchased in 1924 after summering in Provincetown from 1916 on. “Provincetown was too busy for them by then. It was teeming with artists and tourists,” says the couple’s grandson, Daniel L’Engle Davis, who lives in Orleans. “They should see it now, in August.”
The house was the 1824 birthplace of Truro historian Shebnah Rich, son of a mariner and author of the 1884 book “Truro Cape Cod: Or Land Marks and Sea Marks.” Behind the house was the L’Engles’ studio, and when Davis climbed to the rafters to make some repairs to the building in the early 1990s, he discovered a cache of rolled-up paintings by his grandparents that his grandfather had evidently hidden away on purpose.
“It was a time capsule,” explains Davis, noting the cache was comprised of 15 paintings by both Lucy and William dating from 1914 “right up to 1955.” Davis believes William had hidden the paintings there in the 1950s, telling no one.
L’Engle may have enjoyed the idea of surprising future generations, because in addition to the “time capsule,” several L’Engle paintings were discovered behind other paintings, and one was unearthed behind a wall in the house after it was sold, during a renovation.
Many of the paintings Davis found in the rafters of his grandfather’s studio were restored and featured in a show Davis helped facilitate at D. Wigmore Fine Art in New York City in 2010. The catalog from that show, “Connecting Cubism to an American Narrative,” notes the L’Engles were “pioneer Modernists, part of a generation of artists working abroad in the years immediately following the public debut of Cubism in Paris in 1908.”
Having graduated from Yale in 1906 with a degree in naval architecture, William L’Engle went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and then the École des Beaux-Arts. Lucy, who like William studied at the Art Students League in New York before going to Paris, went to study at the Académie Julian in 1913, at the age of 23. The couple met soon after Lucy’s arrival in Paris, and were married in 1914.
William and Lucy, whose paintings hang in a number of American museums, had two daughters: Madeleine, born in Marseilles, France in 1915 as the L’Engles were making ready to flee the city during the onset of World War I, and Camille, born in 1917. Madeleine, who followed her parents’ brushstrokes and became an artist, was often mistaken for the author of the same name, who was actually a cousin.
That name is getting a lot of press this year as L’Engle’s 1960 book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” has been made into a movie, released in March and starring Oprah Winfrey.
“Madeleine was a popular name in the L’Engle family,” says Davis, whose wife, Teresa Izzo, helped him create a website (lenglefinearts.com) detailing his grandparents’ lives and art. William’s sister was also named Madeleine, so researching family history “does get confusing,” Davis says.
“My mom always said that people would come and bring books for her to sign,” after seeing the name L’Engle at the end of the driveway of her home in Truro, Davis recalls. She would tell them that no, she was not that Madeleine L’Engle, “But they would say will you sign them anyway?”
Returning to New York with their infant daughter after the onset of war in Europe, the L’Engles were part of a Modernist art movement and, like fellow Modernists Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Blanche Lazzell and William and Marguerite Zorach, came to Provincetown to join a growing group of artists, writers and intellectuals. Lucy was good friends with artist Marguerite Zorach, and the two of them made local headlines in 1919 when they arrived in Provincetown sporting bobbed haircuts.
Both L’Engles exhibited at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, established in 1914, and maintained a lifelong affiliation with PAAM. Both served on the jury for and exhibited in the organization’s first Modernist exhibition in 1927, and William, known to friends and family as Bill, was a trustee.
While many of the artists’ paintings were in the angular Cubist style, they both exhibited great range over the course of their respective careers. Much of their work is considered a blend of Cubism and Realism, and William gravitated toward Social Realism. In the 1920s, the couple’s work captured local flavor in the Provincetown-Truro area, but in the 1930s William painted scenes that ranged from industrial, as in “Stonington Mill” (1934), to community, as in “Local Traffic” (1938). Lucy’s work was included in a show with Pablo Picasso in Paris in 1925, Davis notes. Both were enthralled with the Martha Graham dance troupe 1930s jazz dancers, depicting the dancers in sketches and paintings.
William did a number of portraits and sometimes worked in watercolor as well as oil, and Lucy became more abstract in her later paintings. William’s work could be playful, as in his 1924 “Family Map” painting, which depicts all of Cape Cod as Truro and Provincetown, picturing the couple’s studio, Highland Light, Provincetown Monument and, where the mainland would begin, William’s ancestral home in St. Augustine, Florida. Also included in that painting is Lucy’s nickname, “Brownie,” for her maiden name of Brown.
William L’Engle died in 1957, and Lucy kept the Truro house and continued to paint for the rest of her life. She wintered in New York until coming to live full time in Truro in her 80s, at which point her daughter Madeleine moved back to the family home to care for her. Lucy died in 1978 at the age of 89.
Although Davis is happy to have a number of L’Engle paintings, many others went to his cousins, the children of his Aunt Camille, who spent most of her life in California. “So most of the Truro paintings went to California,” Davis says. “They painted all over the world, but the Truro paintings are really great.”
Both William and Lucy were passionate about their work. “They were very dedicated and painted non-stop their entire lives,” says Davis, who remembers his grandmother as very supportive, opinionated and assertive, with a commanding presence. Within the family, “She was a ‘grande dame,’ kind of like Peggy Guggenheim, the famous New York City collector and gallery owner,” he says. Her passing, he reflects, was “the end of an era.”