I don’t remember a visit to Popham Beach when I didn’t gaze jealously over at Gilbert’s Head, with the beautiful square Federal house standing all alone on the point.  High up on the rocks, it seems remote and secluded, and one can only imagine the view.  I don’t know who is lucky enough to live there nowadays, but it was once the home of famed artist Stephen Etnier.

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Etnier and his second wife, Elizabeth Morgan Jay, spent a year cruising up and down the east coast in a 70-foot schooner called the Morgana.  According to a biography of the artist on lushergallery.com, they bought Gilbert’s Head around 1934 and continued to live on the boat for another year while they fixed up the old house.  Elizabeth was an author, and she wrote a popular book called “On Gilbert’s Head” about their time together.  Sadly, the romance and adventure did not last.  Etnier would later move to South Harpswell and acquire three more wives before his death in 1984.

Etnier was born in 1903 and was the grandson of a wealthy industrialist.  His parents raised him in a mansion near York, Pennsylvania, and expected him to learn engineering and enter the family business.  Etnier, however, was not interested in engineering.  Nor was he interested in art.  A trip to the Louvre bored him, as it contained nothing but “corridors filled with old brown paintings.”  Strangely enough, it was a novel that got him interested in the subject.  The book “Moon and Sixpence” by Somerset Maugham, which is based on the artist Paul Gauguin, gave him a purpose in life.  Eventually, Etnier attended the Yale school of art, but found it just as stuffy and boring as every other school he had attended.  He was kicked out for poor grades but went on to study at other art schools.

After attending a lecture by Rockwell Kent, Etnier wrote to the famous painter and asked to become his apprentice.  Kent had never had a student before, and he was not impressed with Etnier’s work.  But he agreed to take him on.  Etneir’s paintings improved greatly under Kent’s guidance, and he began to master a semi-realistic style that focused on light.  Soon he would be known for his landscape and seashore paintings.  Many of these depict Maine, his chosen home, but others come from his frequent wanderings to the Caribbean, which earned him comparisons to Ernest Hemingway.

Etnier’s style varied over the decades. He gave up art during WWII to join the Navy, where he commanded vessels.  Afterward, his paintings were more desolate and less colorful than before.  Later his palette would mirror the fashions of the times, with more artificial and saturated colors during the psychedelic ’60s.

Etnier’s work sold in many art galleries, and can be found in many art museums in Maine and around the country.  His career spanned many decades and five marriages.  The most blissful time of his life, I would imagine, must have been the time he spent on Gilbert’s Head.  A large antique house, a rocky shore for a front yard, and clear views of Popham Beach.  Who could ask for a better location?

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