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By the Shore, Holland
Gouache on paper, 14 1/2 x 16 in.
Signed (at lower right): eleanor parke custis
Executed about 1928
EXHIBITED: James R. Bakker Antiques, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986, Eleanor Parke Custis (1897–1983): A Retrospective Exhibition, [n.p.] no. 27 illus.
Eleanor Park Custis painted scenes as varied as the artist's travels: from her hometown of Washington, D.C., to the coastal towns of New England; from the prosperous fishing villages of Brittany, to Venice and the mountain villages and lakes of northern Italy.
While Custis's subjects are diverse, her style is consistent and distinctive throughout this body of work. Her use of flat areas of color delineated by dark contours is reminiscent of the aesthetics of woodblock printing. Like many artists of the day, she was profoundly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, and her adaptation of the aesthetic by 1924 led to her most productive artistic period.
Eleanor Custis hailed from a socially prominent Washington, D.C., family. She was distantly related to Martha Custis Washington, America's first First Lady. Custis began three years of formal art training in the autumn of 1915 at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, and was guided and inspired by Impressionist artist Edmund C. Tarbell, one of the Ten American Painters, who became the Corcoran School's principal in 1918. Custis exhibited widely in many of the Washington art societies and clubs for much of her career. She was also a frequent exhibitor at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City; her last one-woman show there was in April 1945.
Custis's mature style emerged in scenes of the streets, wharves, and drydocks of seacoast villages from Maine to Massachusetts, which she visited during the summers of 1924 and 1925. She was working in Gloucester in August 1924, and painted several gouaches of the town's wharves and winding streets, including In Gloucester Harbor and At the Drydock, Gloucester. During her stay, Custis may have met Jane Peterson or at least must have seen her work, the best of which was executed in Gloucester during the preceding ten years. The similarity between their styles is unmistakable, but while it is tempting to suggest that Custis was influenced by Peterson during her summer in Gloucester, the connection between their work is probably more a case of shared aesthetics and common European influences.
Custis expanded her subject repertoire with three trips to Europe between 1926 and 1929, and was inspired by the Old World charm of Holland, northern France, Switzerland, and Italy, leading to such works as New Kirk, Delft, Holland, Market Day in Quimper, At the Foot of the Matterhorn, and The Town Square, Varenna. A Mediterranean cruise in 1934 introduced her to the Near East, and the bustling, colorful streets and bazaars of Cairo, captured in works like A Street in Cairo, Egypt and A Moroccan Jug Market, added an exotic flair to her paintings.
Eleanor Custis gradually moved on to photography during the 1930s, and her picturesque camera technique, rooted in her training and experience as an accomplished watercolorist, earned her the title of "First Lady of Pictorial Photography" by 1935. Her gouaches from this period exhibit a candid, photojournalistic compositional quality with the introduction of figures cut off by the picture's edge. Some of Custis's last works in the gouache medium were picturesque scenes of life in Old New England in works like Old Town Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts and Village Green (Court House, Wiscasset, Maine).