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(2017)

With his occasionally psychedelic palette and his boldly juxtaposed forms, Oliver Newberry Chaffee Jr. (1881-1944) was a “modern before modernism was popular,” Ross Moffett said. But his accomplished Fauvism — good enough to get him into the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York — could not disguise what looks like tremendous affection for his subjects. As a result of their exuberant but disciplined spirit, Chaffee’s century-old paintings hold up remarkably well; better, certainly, than those by many of his contemporaries. His other artistic legacy was as the husband of Ada Gilmore, a watercolorist and printmaker, many of whose works complement his. This plain house on Central Street is where Chaffee lived through the early 1940s.

Chaffee arrived in Provincetown in 1910 to study with Charles W. Hawthorne and he also worked with E. Ambrose Webster. Like many Provincetown artists, Chaffee attended the Art Students League and, like a few others, the Académie Julian in Paris. Importantly, he also studied under Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase in New York. In turn, he was a teacher, at the Provincetown Art Association among other places.

In 1925, in the town of Vence near the Côte d’Azur, Chaffee married the artist Ada Gilmore (1883-1955). Gilmore had also studied under Henri, as well as at the Belfast School of Art and at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Provincetown, she was among the pioneers of the white-line wood-block print; a technique that permitted the use of a single block for multiple colors through the incision of narrow channels among the color fields. She had six prints in the first exhibition by the Provincetown Art Association in 1915. Chaffee had two paintings.

Chaffee was likened to a child — most favorably — by Hutchins Hapgood. He was quoted in an essay on the Julie Heller Gallery Web site by Barbara Blackledge Miller and Solveiga Rush:

The child is full of wonder, everything arouses his imagination. He is filled with the fresh beauty and meaning of life. But as he grows into a man, he is generally confronted with the problems of practical life, which tend to kill the original simple vision. When the child survives, in spite of all the experiences of man, is when the artist may appear.

Douglas Johnstone and Edward A. Terrill bought the Chaffee house in 1993. Johnstone became town clerk in 2004, just in time to preside over the issuance of the first marriage licenses to couples of the same sex in Massachusetts. No simple clerical function, this job actually pushed Johnstone into a confrontation with Gov. Mitt Romney, who sough to prevent out-of-state couples from marrying in Massachusetts. “To start to say yes to certain couples but not others doesn’t make sense,” Johnstone told The New York Times.

(Full disclosure: as an amateur historian, I am deeply indebted to Johnstone, who made it a hallmark of his tenure to open the precious, priceless town archives to as broad a public as possible, principally through the Provincetown History Preservation Project.)

¶ Adapted from Building Provincetown (2015).

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