“Underhill House,” Monhegan, 1939, by Maude Briggs Knowlton, whose work and life are the subject of an exhibition at the Monhegan Museum this summer. Images courtesy of Monhegan Museum

It took 100 years, but the first woman to seriously paint on Monhegan island is finally getting the exhibition she deserves.

The Monhegan Museum of Art & History is showing the resplendent paintings of Maud Briggs Knowlton, filling the gallery walls of the hilltop island museum with the colors and joys of summer. Knowlton painted on the island beginning in the late 1890s, finding her way among the established male painters of the time like Samuel Triscott and later international heavyweights like Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and George Bellows.

Maud Briggs Knowlton on Monhegan Island, where she became the first woman to have an art studio. Photo by Edward Knowlton/Courtesy of the Monhegan Museum

In 1921, Knowlton and her husband, Edward, built their own home on Monhegan, a cottage they named Candlelight, and in so doing she became the first woman on the island to have her own painting studio. Later, Knowlton became among the first women to direct a major American art museum when she was appointed the inaugural director of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, her hometown. And this summer, another first for Knowlton: The first major retrospective of her work, a comprehensive exhibition of more than 40 watercolors, oils, etchings, drawings and painted porcelain.

“A Life Made in Art: Maud Briggs Knowlton” is on view at the Monhegan Museum through Sept. 30. It will travel to the Currier next winter, with an exhibition scheduled to open Feb. 15. It offers perspective on the largely unknown life of a pioneering artist during a time of cultural advancement, enlightenment and modernism in Maine, New England and across the country. The significance of this exhibition, beyond bringing together many of Knowlton’s paintings under one roof for the first time, is the exposure it brings to the artist, who exerted key cultural influence on two New England communities.

Until now, her story has been under-told, said Robert L. Stahl, associate director of the Monhegan Museum and owner, with his wife, of the Monhegan cottage that Knowlton and her husband built a century ago. The Stahls knew a little about Knowlton and her paintings when they bought the cottage in 2003, but their journey into her world would yield vast knowledge in the years to come.

Stahl wrote to the then-director of the Currier seeking more information about the museum’s founding director, and the reply surprised him. “Interesting, we have very little on Mrs. Knowlton,” wrote the director, Susan Strickler. “She had no children, and I do not know of any cache of material around.”

With that, the Stahls, along with Strickler, began their quest to learn as much as they could about Knowlton and her life on the island and in New Hampshire. “We knew who she was as an artist, but not in any great depth,” Stahl said. “We wanted to learn a lot more about her work, and maybe acquire a painting or two.”

Maud Briggs Knowlton and Edward Knowlton on Burnt Head, Monhegan, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Monhegan Museum

Strickler, now retired from the Currier, curated the exhibition, which also includes a selection of photos by Knowlton’s husband, who documented Monhegan life in black-and-white. As Strickler began researching Knowlton’s life, the Stahls began collecting her work, building their own collection of Knowlton’s paintings and drawings. Many of them are part of the exhibition; many others come from private and public collections.

The exhibition tells the story of a woman who spent most of her life teaching and promoting the fine arts as a lifestyle and community value. She was talented in many areas in addition to painting, and among her skills was her ability to organize and lead people. Long before there was a museum on Monhegan, Stahl noted, Knowlton organized art shows of island artists in her cottage, which she had built with a large north-facing window to take advantage of natural light for her studio.

She was appointed director of the Currier in 1929 at age 59. As the Currier’s first director, she helped build the museum’s collection and organized its exhibitions. She was challenged by the times and the economy. The stock market crashed within weeks of the museum’s opening that fall. Before she retired in 1946, she had to lead the museum through World War II. Among her accomplishments: Knowlton gave Andrew Wyeth his first solo exhibition of watercolors, in 1939, when he was 21.

She was born in 1870 in rural New Hampshire, five years after the Civil War, and lived through both world wars, as well as the Industrial Revolution and a time of great social change in America, including the woman’s suffrage movement. She died in 1956. According to Strickler’s research, Knowlton began her career as a painter of fine china. She trained in New York and Boston, and learned skills in many fields of craft. She exhibited her watercolors in Boston in 1895 and became active in the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts. She accomplished great things, showing her paintings alongside such luminaries of American art as Childe Hassam. A fire in 1902 destroyed her studio in downtown Manchester, wiping out many of her early paintings.

Maud Briggs Knowlton, “Sea Captain’s Cottage and Wash,” Monhegan, 1919

At the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, she taught a range of subjects, including block printing, metalwork and jewelry making, rug making, weaving and bookbinding, as well as oil and watercolor painting. She made art education a priority and helped develop an art curriculum that prepared students to teach art in public schools, believing in the power of art to change lives for the better. “Following the trail of what she herself studied and then taught to students, we get a sense of a woman possessed of tremendous energy, focus, and determination as well as a passion for teaching,” Strickler wrote in an essay for a catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

There’s no record of exactly when Knowlton arrived on Monhegan, but it was in the 1890s. “What is certain, however, is that as a young woman born in rural Penacook, New Hampshire, and reared in thriving industrial Manchester, Maud Knowlton would have found a distinct change of pace, atmosphere, and scenery in this island village,” Strickler observed.

At the time, Manchester was a city of 32,000 with thriving mills, which belched thick, black smoke. Monhegan, a fishing village with a year-round population of about 100, offered nearly the opposite experience. On Monhegan, Knowlton painted the island’s brilliant gardens, cottages, boats and harbors. Amid the chaos of the times, Knowlton sought out natural beauty, Stahl said.

Knowlton’s attitude may be attributed to her belief and faith in the arts and crafts movement, Strickler noted. The movement was about more than style. It represented the ideal that using and making handmade objects would lead people to simpler and more rewarding lives during a time of tremendous industrialization.

Among those who have become a fan of Knowlton is former Portland Museum of Art curator Susan Danly, who has a home on Monhegan and contributed an essay to the catalog about Edward Knowlton’s photography. As a female curator in New England, Danly admires all that Knowlton accomplished, against all odds.

“There were no role models for her to follow at all, and it’s important to remember that. She had to forge her own career without support or mentoring. She should be better known than she is,” Danly said.

Part of the lack of recognition for Knowlton stems from her lack of self-promotion. She put the careers of other artists ahead of her own, and her priority was teaching others to make art. But she was a very good painter, Danly said, with an eye for color. In viewing Knowlton’s images together, Danly was struck by the sheer volume of gardens that Knowlton painted. “I think that sense of color was the first thing that grabbed me,” Danly said.

Gardening was undergoing what Strickler called a resurgence in the 1880s and ’90s. America’s burgeoning middle class began creating private and public gardens as a way to connect with nature and to escape urban life. When they moved into their Monhegan cottage in 1921, the Knowltons planted perennials and a privacy hedge of rosa rugosa.

When the Stahls bought the cottage in 2003, the gardens were overgrown to the point that the building was barely visible from the nearby walking lane. But today, with care and cultivation over time, the roses the Knowltons planted a century ago are still thriving.

Maud Briggs Knowlton, “Hilltop Garden,” Monhegan


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