As the late May sun set over Marblehead Harbor recently, the Arnould Gallery’s cozy second floor on Washington Street was packed with artists, their friends and family, and aficionados from the community gingerly making their way around newly-hung, still-wet canvases, the fruit of three days of plein air painting by the Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters.
Plein air painting (from the French for “in the open air”) is the practice of painting in nature, getting outside of one’s studio and working with natural light. It was made famous by French Impressionist masters of the 19th century including Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Pissaro.
For three consecutive days, the Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters were scattered about the town with their easels and tubes of acrylic and oils, capturing such iconic vistas as Fort Sewell, the baseball field at Seaside Park, Little Harbor Lobster Company, Chandler Hovey Park and the lighthouse, as well as street scenes and shops in the historic district, such as the Bus Stop and the corner of Pleasant Street with the Arnould Gallery and Mud Puddle Toys.
“We have some of the finest artists in New England,” stresses gallery owner Gene Arnould. “They come from Marblehead, Swampscott, Rockport, Gloucester, Southern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and even New Jersey. They just love coming here, the camaraderie surrounded by all this natural beauty.”
The Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters began in 2006, explains Arnould. That’s when a Connecticut-based artist, the late Yves Parent, who was part of the prestigious Plein Air Painters of New England, selected Marblehead as the group’s creative destination that year.
Parent, an avid sailor who crossed the Atlantic many times, reportedly fell head over heels for this scenic and historic coastal town. “He was what you would call a local artist with a number of ports,” Arnould recalls fondly. “We had a great show with the Plein Air Painters of New England and we decided we wanted to keep this going.”
Although Parent died in 2011, the group of roughly 20 artists continues its yearly artistic pilgrimage to Marblehead. Arnould provides the hospitality and a ceremonial dinner at his home for the members of the group. “We always start our dinner with a toast to Yves for bringing us all together.”
Artist Bob Noreika, who has been with the Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters for 15 years and is a member of the original group, recalls Yves as a “larger than life” personality. Noreika created three paintings over the course of the three days and speaks warmly of the warm, supportive, family-like atmosphere in the group.
Al Barker, a Bordentown, New Jersey-based artist, is also a member of the original group. Barker painted five oils, two of which sold at the reception. Barker, who is in his early 80s and is a forester by training, states that he doesn’t mind the eight-hour drive to Marblehead from New Jersey to be with his friends and fellow plein air painters.
While plein air painting offers remarkable opportunities to capture natural light in all its inimitable beauty, it is not without risks, as Arnould acknowledges. “The biggest challenge is the wind. A strong gust will turn your easel into a sail and off it goes into the sand or the leaves.”
“Plein air is improvisation in paint, just as musicians Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck did in jazz,” artist Howard Park reflected at Friday evening’s reception.
Standing in front of his still-damp oil poetically capturing the cloudy harbor, “Bright Morning,” artist Gray Park spoke about his favorite light to do plein air painting. “Sundown or ‘the golden hour’ but also dawn.” Park, who hails from Stonington, Connecticut, and is Howard’s son, has been with the Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters for 15 years. “I like being outside and in the elements. I love being here in Marblehead. The ocean, the marshes, the quaint, historic buildings, the harbor and the boats.”
Artist Brechlin Morgan of Milford, Connecticut, concurred. “This is the most beautiful town in New England and this time is my favorite week of the year, coming up here to be with my friends. These people are like family to me. It feels like coming home.”
Morgan, his hands still covered with smears of orange and blue paint, spent two days working on “Stairs at Lookout Court,” an experience he describes as magical. “For me, plein air painting cleans the dirt off the windshield, metaphorically speaking.
“Having a full week to be able to stand, stare and paint is energizing,” he adds. “There is no other way to see the world more clearly than to stand in front of a canvas and try to reproduce what you see.”
Artist Doug Smith from Rockland, Maine, is another member of the original group and a close friend of Yves Parent. Smith painted four canvases over the three days including two of a skiff near Fort Sewell. “My favorite light to paint in is early morning or late afternoon sunlight.” Smith enjoys answering questions from curious onlookers while he is working from his trusty pochade box, the essential tool for plein air painters.
“Me? I paint the walls, ceilings and fences,” says Arnould when asked if he is an artist. “I do love art but I’m not an artist.”
Now in its 45 year, the Arnould Gallery provides framing services as well as classes and a small gallery upstairs.
Arnould characterizes the Marblehead art scene as “a very idiosyncratic community. We love the streets, the harbors, Fort Sewell, Crocker Park. And I want to stress that it’s not the tourists who buy the art, it’s the people who live in Marblehead.”
He recalls that even as a kid he was interested in art. While the idea of opening a gallery was something he had reserved for his retirement years, a series of auspicious events enabled him to open the gallery in 1978, much sooner than he had planned. These days he manages the gallery and does framing, as well as runs the historic Brimblecomb Hill Bed and Breakfast Guest House.
What hangs on his walls? “I am an avid collector of Samuel V. Chamberlain’s etchings. He was a Marblehead artist who was a big influence.
“We’re so blessed having coasts all around us and these historic buildings,” Arnould added when asked what draws artists to Marblehead. “We’re a beautiful town.”
The complete works of the Arnould Gallery Plein Air Painters will be on exhibit through July 4 at the Arnould Gallery, 111 Washington St.