1) Intro, New York 1886-1912, Paris 1912-1913, N.Y. 1913-14
2) Provincetown 1914-1916, New York 1916-1926
3) Lexington Kentucky 1926-1944
When war made travel to Europe impossible, New York’s cultural avant-garde summered in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Despite the community’s radical seriousness, both artistic and political, summers in Provincetown were relaxed and free spirited, a season marked by comraderie and creative endeavor. Holliday, whose Greenwich Village Inn on Washington Square was the meeting place for The Masses, opened a boarding house in Provincetown. Stuart Davis first summered there in 1913.13 The following year he was joined by Fisk and Demuth, both having just returned from Paris. Marsden Hartley joined his friends in 1916, upon his return from Germany. The playwright Eugene O’Neill also summered in Provincetown where he conscripted his fellow artists, writers, and others in The Masses crowd to join his newly created theatrical troupe, the Provincetown Players, in staging plays in the fish house on Mary Vorse’s dock.
Fisk became a regular among the Provincetown summer residents. In 1915, he roomed with Demuth at Holliday’s boarding house; O’Neill lived across the street. In 1916, Fisk and Demuth rented a cottage on the beach and spent their summer hard at work: witnesses reported that “the two men painted assiduously during the summer. . . .”14 Hartley, who was the guest of John Reed and Louise Bryant, later described the season as “the Great Provincetown Summer.”15
In his own writings, Fisk described the steamy nights and raucous parties of the summer gatherings. His thinly veiled autobiographical story titled A Provincetown Night or The free Woman starts with “The evening was fat, sensuous, and hot — it was typical of a P-town midsummer night. . . .”:
Both he and Charles had been invited to a party at Louis’ [Holliday] — it was the first big gathering of the colony at P-town. . . . They were all to appear in costume and supply their own drink. He was dressed and painted with much approval from everyone as an Arabian Prince. . . . The whole crew from the dunes will be there — Hutch [Hutchins Hapgood], Mary[Heaton Vorse] and her poet. . . . The crowd has just started the little theatre movement and held the first play at Mary !s wharf– Suppressed Desires was produced with the two authors in the cast — It was amusing and badly acted. The crowd was all at Louis’ when we arrived everybody was there, no one missing and it seemed most of them had an early start, that they had all warmed up before the hour set for the fiesta. . . .16
NEW YORK CITY 1914-1926
At the ends of these summers, the crowd returned to New York and the convivial bohemia of Provincetown merged seamlessly with their lives in Greenwich Village. The Village was welcoming to activists, artists, nonconformists, and any one else galvanized by the modern era. Boisterous gatherings at restaurants and intellectual salons buzzed with discussions about new poetry and new theater, new labor unions, Sigmund Freud and new psychology, new womanhood and birth control. As the anarchist Hippolyte Havel explained, “Greenwich Village is a state of mind, it has no boundaries.”17
Village life centered in the neighborhoods of Macdougal Street and Waverly Place. The offices for The Masses were located at 91 Greenwich Avenue and staffers frequently met in Polly Holliday’s Greenwich Village Inn on Washington Square. The Provincetown Players Group staged their productions at the Macdougal Street Theater; Christine Eli ran the restaurant upstairs. And the parties and heavy drinking that flavored the Provincetown summers continued through the winters and springs in New York. Throughout the late teens, Fisk, Demuth, and their friends among the downtown intellectual elite — John Reed, Marcel Duchamp, Carl van Vechten, and others — frequented jazz nightclubs in the Village, such as the Golden Swan on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street, popularly known as the “Hell-hole,” and uptown clubs, such as Barron Wilkin’s in Harlem and Marshall’s on West 53rd Street. Demuth made watercolors of these evenings in which he depicted himself carousing with Marcel Duchamp, Fisk, and Hartley, and several of these nightclub sketches were exhibited in Demuth’s joint exhibition with Fisk at the Daniel Gallery in New York in 1917.
Daniel Gallery represented both Fisk and Demuth, Fisk during the years 1915 to 1921 and Demuth from 1914 to 1923, and both exhibited there prior to 1917: Demuth in annual exhibitions of his watercolors and Fisk in I9 I6 when his painting In the Back of the Dunes was included in American Art of Today.18 The 1917 joint exhibition of Fisk’s paintings and Demuth’s watercolors received much positive attention.19 One sensitive viewer, however, objected to Demuth’s choice of subject matter, Henry McBride, in his review titled “An Underground Search for Higher Moralities” published in The New York Evening Sun, wrote that Demuth’s water-color studies of Village nightclubs in which “races of various colors intermingled, danced and drank” are “tinged with wit”:
I hold it was entirely right of Mr: Demuth to have studied it, so evidently in the interests of higher morality. What excuses young Mr. Duchamp and young Mr. Fisk can offer for descending into such resorts I cannot imagine. They may say they went along to protect Mr. Demuth in the performance of his duty but in that case surely it was unnecessary for Mr. Fisk to place his arm quite so caressing about the colored lady with whom he is taking wine in the picture. . . . Perhaps Mr. Fisk will say that his arm composes better in that position but I reject that explanation also as inadequate.20
Reservations about his leisure time notwithstanding, Fisk’s paintings on view in the 1917 Daniel exhibition were warmly received by the critics. On exhibition were the oils Tree Tops and other Provincetown views of dunes and sand marshes, as well as a small assortment of still life paintings. An anonymous review in The New York Times described Fisk’s landscapes as “rich in color and free in line” and his still life’s “admirable”:
. . . the commonest objects, a glass fruit dish with scalloped edge, a cheap vase, a couple of books in ordinary binding, are given their full significance in the artistic scheme and gain distinction by their beautiful subordinated contribution to the whole.21
H.C. Nelson, writing in the Globe and Commercial Advertiser, praised Fisk for painting “with considerable vigor and directness.”22 Gustav Kobbe of The New York Herald remarked on the artist being a gifted colorist:
Last year his pictures glowed with autumn colors. The present display is fresh with the green of summer. A good example of Mr. Fisk’s manner is No. 11, “Tree Top’s.” The trees cover a sheer rise of ground. Their foliage extends almost from top to bottom of the canvas. But here and there walls and roofs of houses push through and overhead is a patch of cloudy sky The picture is a piece of good, honest, vigorous painting by a man who does not waste time on finicky details.23
Earlier in the year, Fisk had participated in An Exhibition of Futurist Paintings by American Artists, the show of contemporary artists held in February 1917 at the Gamut Club in New York City.24 As described in The New York Times, the exhibitors were a “group modern enough” to include Abraham Walkowitz Andrew Dasburg, Morgan Russell, John Marin, Fisk and his friends Hartley and Demuth, as well as society patron Mabel Dodge.25
The summer of 1917 was again spent in Provincetown. Fisk shared lodgings with O’Neill and, in the fall, the two returned to New York to share an apartment in Greenwich Village at 38 Washington Square South.26 In December, Fisk enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a submarine chaser in Brooklyn. While stationed in Brooklyn, he regularly saw his friends and continued to frequent jazz clubs with Demuth and others. He was subsequently assigned to work in the coal yards at Norfolk, Virginia, a term of service he later recalled with displeasure.27 In January 1919, Fisk received an honorable discharge and returned to the life of an artist.
In 1921, he participated in the Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Tendencies in Art held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.28 Fisk was in excellent company, his work hanging alongside Ben Benn, Arthur B. Carles, Andrew Dasburg, Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Gaston Lachaise, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jules Pascin, Man Ray, Hugo Robus, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Joseph Stella, Max Weber, Stanton Macdonald Wright, Marguerite and William Zorach, and Fisk’s friends Demuth and Hartley. The following year, Fisk was included in the Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Montross Gallery in New York city.29 The thirty-three artists represented were a mixture of American and European modernists, including Georges Braque, Charles Burchfield, Arthur B. Davies, Stuart Davis, Andre Derain, William Glackens, Walt Kuhn, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, Charles and Maurice Prendergas, Diego Rivera, and Vincent van Gough. The reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and Magazine wrote that this exhibition:
. . .gathers in several of the modern artists of America and adds enough other modern artists to make a really big party. There has been no timidity. . . .
Fisk was mentioned among those being “new to the gallery and clever. . . .”30
Fisk continued to rely upon his friendships among Greenwich Village’s intellectual circles. In addition to renewing his close ties with Demuth and Hartley and others in the downtown community, Fisk also established new friendships that would enrich the rest of his life. One of these was with the feminist poet Genevieve “Jed” Taggard.31 Born in Washington State, she studied at Berkeley and moved to New York City after graduation in 1919 and stayed until 1922. Attracted by the radical life, she gravitated to Greenwich Village and the avant-garde writers and artists involved with The Masses. (Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, had been one of Taggard’s teachers at Berkeley.) An advocate for women’s emotional freedom and sexual determination, she joined Padraic Colum and Maxwell Anderson to found Measure: A Magazine of Verse in 1921. Upon marriage and motherhood, she moved briefly to California, but returned, in 1923, to New York where she settled in the Adirondacks region. She later moved to Vermont where she taught at Bennington College. Taggard and Fisk regularly exchanged letters and poems and, during the summers of 1937, ‘38, and ‘39 when Fisk rented a summer home in Vermont, visited one another. Taggard sent Fisk the draft of her poem “Letter in Solitude” with the inscription of how it reminded her of one of their visits:
Here are autumn certainties:
I will love you and the trees
Go on yellowing and the sun
Stand and pour his radiance down. . . .
I will love you as I have said:
After all the leaves are shed,
And the sky is fastened down,
And the valley depth is brown,
And the ruts begin to freeze,
There are other certainties. . . .32
Fisk subsequently wrote to Taggard about how he cherishes the time spent with her:
The past with you was delightful. I don’t think either of us fully realized at the time what we gave one another perhaps you did. But I, not being so profoundly interested in human relations and more delighted in the flavor of the place, living in a country filled with natures not related to it, was dumb often to the contact with those natures.33
Another relationship of particular importance to Fisk was with Eugene O’Neill. Before joining the Navy, Fisk had lived with O’Neill in Provincetown and in Greenwich Village. When Fisk returned to New York in 1919 the two resumed a close friendship that lasted throughout the first half of the 1920s. The writer Agnes Boulton, who became O’Neill’s second wife in 1918, described Fisk’s home-coming from the Navy:
Edward Fisk. . . . had arrived in town the day before. Fisk and Gene had been very close friends during the summer of 1917, and he and Gene and I sat in folly Holliday’s restaurant, talking of war and love and death — Gene doing most of the talking, and he and Eddie imbibing from a flask which the young painter had brought along. There was no longer any thought of taking the train for the country that night; and Polly suggested that we take our bags and go up to her apartment upstairs over the restaurant. She had an extra couch or so, and we could take the train in the morning. Eddie came with us, for he and Gene were still talking, and brought along more liquor to celebrate his return. . . . I went to sleep toward morning, still hearing the low voices of Gene and Eddie as they talked on and on. . . .34
During the period of their close friendship, O’Neill was writing one-act plays, first produced by the Provincetown Players, and his early Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas “Beyond the Horizon” (1920), “Anna Christie” (1922), and “Strange Interlude” (1928). In these and subsequent works, O’Neill developed characters doomed to a life of despair and crushing disappointment. He found inspiration in his own background as well as in the lives of his friends, With Fisk, O’Neill found a congenial companion who nourished a similarly grim perspective: Fisk’s journal details his own tragic sufferings, with such phrases as “I’m a stone that bleeds” and “I weep my life and laugh between the tears” appearing at regular intervals. Fisk’s journal also includes brief pas-sages of fiction inhabited by desperate and despairing characters. One story features a prominent author, “a small man with a huge head,” who measures his success by his huge contracts, a staff of assistants, and a posh residence on the 46th floor of “the tallest building in the largest city in America.” The author’s guest, a man suffering from a steadily worsening headache, finds himself throwing the author off the balcony:
He drops like a shot, his eyes open until he reaches the pavement. The guest saunters back. . . . reaches the street and catches sight of the mob surrounding the great American Tragedy . . . .
His headache has left him.
Another Fisk story concerns “Mamie, the great Harlot” who spends her weekends with gin-soaked men “who struggled hard to drink enough to forget the past week and if possible not to think of the next.”35
After returning to New York in 1919, Fisk met Cecil Boulton, Agnes O’Neill’s sister, at Christine Eli’s restaurant in the Village, where he and Demuth were enjoying an evening. She was nineteen, he was thirty-three. She had left a position as assistant editor on a magazine for a new job as a teacher in a dance hall and, in exchange for meals, she also helped out in Christine’s restaurant. In his journal, Fisk recalled being “swept off his feet” (in this passage, Fisk referred to himself in the third person and to Cecil as “C”):
She was a child when he first met her a lovely child that had swept him off his feet by her sheer beauty . . . .
That night at Christine’s – He had been with Charles and drinking and had wound up at Christine’s – All the people had left, the place was empty except for Christine and C who sat at the table with them – Charles was raving in his manner about Christine – said she was like a Renoir – she had the blond fullness of a Renoir. C sat at a table reading. . . . There was something about her – something of the far past – and some romantic streak in him that made her seem to fit in somewhere – to fill an emptiness that for years he had refused to admit. He sat hard and tight, he couldn’t take his eyes off her . . . . They were introduced by Christine who laughed and said meet Eddie but be careful my dear; he’s a very nice man. His eyes drank in her pure beauty – her mass of hair that was tied back in a large knot, hair when it was down that must have reached her waist –She brought back to him the past that had lain so dormant so long –The past of his childhood the past of green woods and forest odors. . . . Was he not Cornish and Welsh? The whole town had seemed aflame to him – Why couldn’t he be himself and be free. . . . Then this cool bath of this beauty – she was music to his heated over-wrought brain. . . . He rested his eyes and his mind was nourished with it all. . . .36
Information about Fisk’s relationship with Boulton, not to mention Boulton herself, is scarce and relies primarily on the occasional and typically cryptic references in letters and journals. It is presumed that early in the 192Os, Fisk and Boulton married. Passages from Fisk’s journal suggest that they traveled to Italy together in 1925, spending idyllic days touring Florence, Sienna, and small hill towns.
Places for me are the flowers that grow there . . . the poppies in the wheat, red flowers in the winter grain, flowers that are a flaming red in the sunshine. The sunbaked soil of the Tuscan hills, the grapes . . . the overripe fig . . . the shrine of the Madonna . . . the shrine that we both passed on our way to the villa in Settignano . . . the night when we would walk out of the village and sit on the wall and listen to the sound from the town and the birds h the cypress grove . . . 37
Fisk later recalled that one of the highlights of this trip was their visit with Leo Stein and viewing “a few luscious Renoirs which I had the pleasure to see in his villa in Florence.”38 Sienna was particularly enchanting:
Sundays we would hear the services ln the Duomo, then a drink and a sweet at the cafe before we strolled in the Lizza, then back to the pensione for dinner Life was sweet, soft and delicate. . . .39
After the couple resettled in New York, Fisk readied himself for his first one-person exhibition at The Artists’ Gallery.40 The reviewer of The New York Times was less than enthusiastic about Fisk’s survey of paintings, watercolors, and drawings:
There is nothing more difficult to review than work that seems to represent a composite rather than an individuality. If, centuries hence, connoisseurs are asked to pass on the painting of Edward Fisk, they will have no trouble in placing his period. Seeing these paintings, however; as part of their own time, one can do little more than proclaim that the artist has all the virtues of his time without the redeeming feature of any individual fault.41
The reviewer for The New York Post was considerably more positive, noting that the show was:
. . . a pleasant introduction to good work that promises a development quite worth watching for. . . . It is a good show and reveals both vigor of treatment, sensitive feeling for color transitions and good desire.42
By the mid- 1920s Fisk’s career as an artist was progressing well. He had been included in several important exhibitions of American modernist painters and received warm critical response. Despite such professional encouragement, Fisk was unhappy living in the city and his marriage to Cecil was under strain. Passages in his journal describe how the freewheeling and intoxicating atmosphere of Greenwich Village and summers in Provincetown were becoming a burden and that, despite close friendships with Demuth, O’Neill, and others, Fisk felt isolated and alone. He described himself as moody, depressed, and often inebriated: “dark, sullen, and at times drunk;” “Nature had not bestowed on [me] a very gay or happy temperament;” and living on the edge of the crowd, “silent and critical.” Fisk also disagreed with the libertine climate of sexual freedom of the radical community: “He was wild –but not in their fashion. . .”43 In September 1926, he left his wife in New York City and moved to Lexington, Kentucky. He reflected upon his life and pondered his regrets over leaving the life he knew:
What is the trouble with me I wonder. What is there that is lacking in me? I wish I could be amused more and delighted with simple things, How the crowd got on my nerves before I left N. Y It was hell for me. I suffered. I have suffered here too but not from the people. Here something has happened that just broke everything for me connected with the past, broken my life in two. After giving oneself to another person, having them on one’s mind always and suddenly realizing that they are not for one any more, is a terrible experience. God I don’t know what will happen or what I will do now. How can l go on alone? This person was a part of me, my very life was in her and I thought she felt the same about me. What is there left for me in other people. It’s true that we had our problems to face and I don’t believe that I did wrong in leaving her in N. Y I realize all my failings, all my faults and the fact that I have never been able to make her happy in some way. If I were to make her happy I would have to give up everything. She refused to give up anything for me; I had given her everything that I could. . . I think of the days that I spent in Sienna with her. 44
Renting an apartment on High Street, Fisk had moved to Lexington to teach drawing and painting at the University of Kentucky. An academic position had much to recommend it – financial security, professional standing – and Lexington offered itself as a calmer, more sedate refuge from the frenetic pace of life amid the Greenwich Village bohemia. (Fisk’s melancholia, however, moved with him; his students at the University of Kentucky remembered him as downcast and a loner, though with a good sense of humor and a propensity for practical jokes.45) Beginning his new life proved to be difficult and lonely, and Cecil was never far from his thoughts:
I dream of her . . . I call often at the house on Hugh Street to see if there is mail, hoping against hope there will be some. But alas there is nothing. Always the days are blank, filled with drugged memories. . . .46
Fisk returned to New York at least once to visit Cecil and his friends. Edmund Wilson described in his diary entry for December I927 a raucous scene at Julius’s, “a more or less horrible bar, which sold Prohibition beer [and] was the only place open all night”:
Polk Halliday [sic] presently emerged from a crowd where I’d thought I knew nobody – she seemed to know everybody; knew old man with big black shoestring bow tie and beard, who turned out to be editor of an Anarchist paper (Hippolyte Havel). Cecil Fiske [sic] (Agnes O’Neil’s sister) also appeared in corner – red-eyed, very drunk, indiscriminately amorous, but still with her pre-Raphaelite hair: Her husband – I couldn’t tell whether he was the same one I had seen before with Hemingway in the cab, who had merely shaved his beard and acquired a Hemingway line – as he told me how much he admired Hemingway; when I mentioned him, and kept saying, “Have another drink!” and then not ordering any. He treated her abominably. , . and abandoned her completely He kept wanting to drink to Herman Melville: “Drink to the same man!”47
Source: Rachael Sadinsky, “Edward Fisk: A Modern Life,” from Edward Fisk: American Modernist (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1998). Exhibition catalogue available from the Museum.
1) Intro, New York 1886-1912, Paris 1912-1913, N.Y. 1913-14
2) Provincetown 1914-1916, New York 1916-1926
3) Lexington Kentucky 1926-1944
A MODERN LIFE: NOTES
13. Though among the earliest of the Provincetown habitues, Stuart Davis spent the summers of I9 I5 to I9 I8 at the ‘Red Cottage’ in East Gloucester with Dolly and John Sloan, Alice and Charles Winter, and his mother Helen Stuart Davis and his nine-year-old brother Wyatt. In subsequent years, he stayed with other artist couples in East Gloucester until the mid- 1920s when his parents bought their own residence. See Patricia Hills, Stuart Davis (NY Harry N. Abrams and NMAA, 1996) p. 40.
15. Haskell, Hartley, p. 55. During Hartley’s stay with John Reed, the leftist activist Hippolyte Have1 was the cook. Hartley and Demuth remained in Provincetown for September and October, staying rent-free in Reed’s house after Reed returned to New York, and until the two artists decided to go to Bermuda for the winter.
19. Watercolors by Charles Demuth, Paintings by Edward&k, Daniel Gallery, 2 West 47th Street, New York City, November – December 4, I9 17. See Haskell, Demuth, color plates I7- I9 for Demuth’s watercolors of jazz clubs. Another one, titled At Marshall?, appeared at Sotheby’s, June 6, 1997, lot 115.
25. “New Exhibitions cover a Wide Range –French Artists’ Fund,” New York T7mes (February 16, I9 17): 10. The article lists Hartley’s participation, however this exhibition is not included in the chronology in Haskell, Demuth.
26. Fisk shared quarters with O’Neill after the latter’s brief affair with Louise Bryant. During the spring of I9 17, the couple lived at 43 Washington Square South. They parted by the summer when she traveled to Europe and then left for Russia with John Reed, whom she later married.
27. Transcript of interview by William G. Sackett with Clay Lancaster and John Hunsaker, May 22, 1990, p, 18. Taped interview and transcript are In Fisk family archives. Fisk received an honorable dis-charged on 9 January 1919, and was awarded the Victory Button and Victory Medal.
28. Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Show-ltig the Later Tendencies I~I Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, April I6 through May 15, I 92 I Fisk showed Adirondack Lake, Stillife, Mountain Lake, The Mountain, and The Farm.
29. Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Montross Gallery, 550 Fifth Avenue, New York City, April 1922. Fisk exhibits the oils Elms, The cloud, September Afternoon, and the watercolors The Deserted House, The Bridge, and Old Cottages.
31. For background on Taggard (I 894- 1948) see William Drake, The t%St Wave: Women Poe& in America, /9/5-/945 (NY MacMillan Publishing, 1987) pp. 170-84. See also miscellaneous letters and notes in Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives.
32. Genevieve Taggard, “Letter in Solitude,” Ed-ward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives. The poem is inscribed “Is this like New Preston?”, presumably referring to their joint visit to the Connecticut town.
35. The artist’s general malaise is a thread running through the Fisk journal. The story about the author’s death is in the journal’s loose pages (pp. 4-5 transcription) and Mamie’s story appears three times with minor variations, pp. 72, 82-4, 86, 93-8 (pp. 3 I , 34-6, and 4 I-2 transcription).
36. Fisk journal, loose pages (pp. I-3 transcript). Passage continues with drunken antics of Charles and Christine who, when compared by Charles to a Renoir, strips off her clothes and stands there “blond, nude and radiant.” When Christine passes out, Cecil puts her to bed, Charles wanders off “murmuring some drunken farewell,” and Eddie and Cecil remain to talk. Fisk family archives has photo of Cecil given by her to Fisk and dated December 25, 1920.
47. Edmund Wilson, The Twentl’es. From Note-books and D12rl& of the Period, ed Leon Edel, (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I975), pp, 418-20. Wilson’s account, while detailed, offers a muddled description of Cecil’s husband as “an Irish man come from Ohio” which is a close approximation of Fisk, a man of English heritage from Kentucky.
1) Intro, New York 1886-1912, Paris 1912-1913, N.Y. 1913-14
2) Provincetown 1914-1916, New York 1916-1926
3) Lexington Kentucky 1926-1944