<< Previous page

 Farewell at the Dock, Martha Farham Cahoon Painting Late 1960's-early 1970's


A Martha Farham Cahoon Painting,

Farewell at the Dock,

Late 1960's-early 1970's

Oil on Masonite,

Dimensions: 25 inches x 31 inches

The large vivid, detailed painting shows a New England dock with an American sailing ship about to depart from the dockside, passengers, sailors and mermaids are standing on deck waving to those on shore.  Groups and individuals stand around watching.   A group of buildings stand across from the dock and atop one with a sign reading Whale Oil,  opposite the departing ship, are a group of people on a widow's walk waving the ship off.  Scattered around the dockside are barrels and large crates readied to be placed on board a ship.  A man on horseback is talking to those on board the departing vessel and a cart pulled by two horses approaches the ship.

Outside another store with a sign reading Captain Smalls stands a mother and a young boy with a metal hoop in his right hand.  Sitting outside the store on a bench sit two old sailors, one smokes a pipe and the other has dozed off.

 In the foreground are various figures looking at two bedraggled wet mermaids; to the left is a mermaid to whom a sailor is offered a red and orange bandana to dry herself, the other mermaid has dried off already and holds the arm of her rescuing sailor with her bandana now wrapped around her waist.  Two mothers with prams look on concerned, one pointing at the mermaids as other observers including small children and sailors sit or stand and watch.

This painting is similar to Martha's  Dockside painting from 1969 exhibited in the retrospective exhibition at the Cahoon Museum of American Art called Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon, by Cindy Nickerson.


Cindy Nickerson writes "Her repertoire soon expanded to include mermaid fantasies, country scenes, harbor scenes, aerial balloons and, really, any subject that took her fancy. Along with Ralph, she was sometimes dubbed a "sophisticated primitive." Despite the whimsy in their paintings, the couple depicted the buildings, ships, trains and costumes of the 19th century with a fairly high degree of accuracy. They studied engravings in Harper's Weekly and pored over reference books to find out how things should look.

Martha's Dockside of 1969 smoothly blends stylized authenticity with sheer fantasy. In the middle of a delightfully detailed harbor scene, a mermaid sits on a wharf, her head protected by a pink umbrella held by an obliging sailor. Other people on the wharf point or gesture in her direction. Martha not only painted New England settings, but river scenes graced by steamboats with paddle wheels. Some of these contain mermaids, too.

Martha's mermaids are more passive and ethereal creatures than Ralph's..... ".


Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon,

by Cindy Nickerson

A Retrospective Exhibition at The Cahoon Museum of American Art 2001.


Essay below from Simple Pleasures: The Art of Martha Cahoon by Cindy Nickerson.

Martha Farham Cahoon (1905-1999) lived the last 15 years of her long life in a portion of a Cape Cod art museum named in honor of her and her late husband, Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr. For her privacy's sake, it was a well-kept secret.

Located in the pleasant village of Cotuit, the Cahoon Museum of American Art resides in a 1775 Georgian Colonial that was once a tavern and overnight stagecoach stop. The old house was also the Cahoons' home, studio and gallery from 1945 until Ralph died in 1982. By then, the couple had achieved the status of local legends for their phenomenal success as primitive painters of scenes that step back in time and into the realm of fantasy. The mermaid motif, in particular, is inextricably linked with their names.

Saddened by Ralph's death and overwhelmed by the upkeep of the 14-room house, Martha put her home on the market, thinking she'd probably have to go into a nursing home. Then, Rosemary Rapp, another Cotuit resident, envisioned the place as a museum for her own collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American art, as well as for paintings by the Cahoons. She bought the house and granted Martha lifetime rights to live in four rooms on the ground floor.

Not only was Martha able to remain in her home, but activities surrounding the new museum lifted her spirits. She attended exhibitions and watched from her window as the staff put out decorative flags in the morning and took them in in the late afternoon. "She liked it because there were people to watch," says her son Franz Cahoon, a retired high school history teacher.

In addition, she had the thrill of seeing her own work hung as part of the permanent collection. And when she was 82, the museum gave Martha her first one-person show, an exhibition of recent colored-pencil drawings. In 1997, another show featured her crayon drawings. Its title, Young at Art, perfectly described the exhibit as well as Martha's delight in children, unending fascination with nature and people, and happy memories of her own girlhood.


Martha's Life

Martha was born in the Roslindale section of Boston, on June 11, 1905. Her parents, Axel and Elma (Ericsson) Farham, were Swedish immigrants who hadn't really intended to move to America. While visiting relatives in Boston in 1902, Axel Farham had contracted typhoid fever, and they exhausted their return fare on medical bills. After recovering, Farham, a talented furniture decorator, began to work for relatives.

Shortly after Martha's birth, the family moved to the Hyde Park section of Boston. Axel Farham became friends with a number of Boston painters, most notably John J. Enneking, the impressionist landscape artist. As a little girl, Martha accompanied her father and Enneking on walks through Grews Woods in Hyde Park, holding their hands and listening as they discussed art. The first time she saw one of Enneking's paintings of Grews Woods at the Cahoon Museum, she immediately recognized the location.

Martha was the third of six sisters, following Brita and Lisa and preceding Mona, Tina and Osa. In 1915, the Farhams moved to a house with a large yard on Cape Cod. Perhaps they hoped to save money by living partly off the land, for Elma Farham was a gifted gardener. As an adult, Martha wrote this vivid account of their new home:

The house... was on old Queen Anne Road in Harwich - a wagon rut road with houses not very near each other. Here was a woman with six little girls, dumped into a shack with no heat and of course no conveniences. There was an "outhouse" in a shed quite a distance from the house. There was a rusty range in the kitchen - a rusty old iron sink in the pantry - with a rusty old pump, from which we got rusty water...


My father and uncle came to the Cape and bought this old house, and my mother had not seen it. They talked a lot about the pond, which was near it - it sounded lovely!! My mother and sister Lisa cried when they saw the house. I started to polish the old range - to try to cheer her. I Was almost ten then. We soon found there was no time for crying - there was so much to do.


Former tenants had left bedbugs and filth - so when we finally had the place sparkling and antiseptically clean, it was something to be proud of. The place smelled clean. Pumping the water was fun at first, but soon became a bore.

There were two large spruce trees in front of the house and a lilac hedge behind it, and also a large grove of pine trees on our land. There were cranberry bogs and ponds galore too. These things helped us get over the shock of that house. My mother not only made the house attractive, she made the yard attractive too. She made a path from the house to the shed with stones along the edges. It was kept weeded and raked too. Thank goodness the lawn was small, as at first we clipped the grass with scissors!! The lawn mower was more welcome than a Rolls Royce would have been, when we finally got one.

Axel Farham - "Pop" to Martha - initially commuted to work in Boston and came home on weekends. Later, he opened his own shop in Harwich Center, where he restored and decorated furniture. The Farhams grew potatoes, onions, carrots, string beans, peas, tomatoes and strawberries in their own garden and gleaned cranberries from nearby bogs. They also raised chickens and one pig a year for food. Although Martha and her sisters knew the pigs' ultimate fate, they treated them as pets. When fall came and the pig had to be slaughtered, the girls hid in the attic and covered their ears to block out the squeals. The children had to work hard, and Martha's particular chore was chopping kindling for the kitchen range. The six sisters finally got a brother with the birth of Eric Farham, who eventually carried on their father's business.

Martha's father was somewhat gruff and introspective. Her mother was smart and opinionated. Despite their rural lifestyle, the Farhams certainly weren't provincial. Martha's parents were great readers, with a special interest in history. They stayed well-informed about current events and listened to recordings of symphonies and operas on the Victrola in their parlor.

Martha loved to draw as soon as she could hold a pencil. She excelled in her classes at Brooks Academy, receiving the Brooks Medal in her senior year. But although her teachers encouraged her to go to college, Martha was determined to learn the craft of furniture decoration from her father. In 1922, the year she graduated, the Farhams moved to West Harwich, where there was a fine barn for Axel Farham's busy workshop. For 10 years, Martha worked there, too, as her father's apprentice, learning to scrape and sand furniture, cut stencils and trace their designs, and decorate pieces with garlands of flowers or landscapes.

In 1932, Chatham artist Harold Dunbar wrote about the Farham family for his column in The Harwich Independent. After a paragraph or two praising Axel Farham, he added: "Associated with him in the decorative work is his daughter Martha, whose taste and talent in handling of stencil, bronze and color applied to decorated furniture is probably unsurpassed in New England. You will find their work gracing many of the finest Cape Cod summer homes, including that of [the famous author of Cape stories] Joseph Lincoln."

Old photographs show that, in her mid-20s, Martha had wavy, chin-length brown hair softly framing her pretty face. She radiated a quiet self-assurance and her eyes were lit by a twinkle of amusement - characteristics that age never diminished. In June 1930, she met the witty and charming Ralph Cahoon at a dance in his native Chatham, a town neighboring Harwich. In high school, he had played the title role in the comedy "Charlie's Aunt"; had, in his own words, "set a world's record for errors by a third baseman" and contributed cartoons to the school newspaper. Although he was five years Martha's junior, they hit it off, perhaps partly because of a shared interest in art, history and classical music. After high school, Ralph had attended the School of Practical Arts in Boston for two years.

At one point in their courtship, Martha told Ralph she didn't want to see him any more because of their age difference. He stayed away for a while, but finally reappeared on her doorstep, asking, in his humorous way, "Aren't you going to let this baby take you out anymore?" She relented, and in October 1932, they ran off to nearby Truro to be married by a justice of the peace.

Martha taught Ralph her trade, and they bought a house in Osterville where they opened an antiques shop and restored and decorated furniture. The combination was a natural as they were constantly seeking old furniture to decorate. In the midst of the Depression, they were thrilled when they did $99 in business their first year. "Another remarkable thing was that we never felt poor - we always felt rich," Martha later noted.

Franz, named for Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, was born in 1935. He was their only child. "Before I married I wanted to have six children" Martha once wrote. "Franz was such a live wire that another would have been too much."

Their move to their Cotuit home in 1945 gave the Cahoons considerably more space to display their work. They undertook a painstaking restoration of the old Colonial, which included stenciling some of the walls and floors with early-American designs. These remain part of the museum's charm today.

In decorating furniture and such home accessories as trays and buckets, Martha continued to use the floral and fruit designs she'd learned from her father Seashells and butterflies were other favorite motifs, and she expressed her love of animals in decorating children's furniture with images of Noah's Ark. In decorating larger pieces of furniture, she sometimes used unbroken surfaces to paint completely realized primitive scenes of early-American life. Ralph, who had more time to devote to their business, painted many elaborate scenes, frequently inspired by Swedish or Pennsylvania-Dutch designs.

One patron who admired their work was Joan Whitney Payson, owner of the Country Art Gallery in Westbury on Long Island. Feeling the Cahoons were wasting their talents on furniture decorating, she encouraged them to paint pictures that could be framed. Finding ready customers for the Cahoons' paintings in her gallery, she gave Ralph and Martha their first two-person show around 1954. It was a sell-out - as were most of their shows at Country Art Gallery over the next 25 or so years.

The Cahoons continued to produce some decorated furniture until around 1957, when their transition to easel painting was more or less complete. The artists were happy to dispense with the drudgery of refinishing old furniture and focus on their artwork. At first they tried painting on plywood and canvas, but soon discovered they preferred masonite. It gave them a surface that was as hard and smooth as the furniture they were used to.

In addition to showing at Country Art Gallery, Cahoons also had sell-out exhibitions at George E. Vigouroux's two galleries, the Lobster Pot Gallery on Nantucket and Palm Beach Galleries in Florida. (The Florida venue accounts for the palm trees in some of their beach scenes.) Even Vose Galleries of Boston, which did not usually show primitive paintings, gave them an exhibit in 1960. They also had shows at the John Nelson Bergstrom Art Center and Museum in Neenah, Wis., Myer Galleries in West Hartford, Conn., and the Lester Kierstead Henderson Gallery in Monterey, Calif., so their work traveled all over the country.

Their Cotuit gallery itself attracted many customers, including a fair number of the rich and famous. From nearby Hyannisport came members of the Kennedy clan, including first lady Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr. in tow. Members of the Mellon and Du Pont families also purchased Cahoon paintings. Josiah K. Lilly III and his wife, Josephine, founders of the Cape museum complex Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, were avid collectors of the Cahoons' paintings and friends of the artists. The Plantation assembled an exhibition of Cahoon paintings to inaugurate its new art museum in 1972 and gave them another show in 1980.

The Cahoons apparently took their success in stride. They graciously painted small and less complicated pictures for admirers of moderate means. They contributed many paintings to community fund-raisers. Martha, who kept a journal for decades, usually mentioned - in a cursory way - what paintings she was working on. But she was lust as likely to write about a chat with a friend, how early she'd let the cat in, the daffodils coming up in the yard or what she'd paid for bacon at the grocery store. She saw herself as a wife and mother first, an artist second.

Although the couple almost always exhibited together and were generally given equal attention in articles, Ralph was certainly the more lionized of the two. While Martha doesn't seem to have begrudged him his greater popularity, she did bridle over slights to her own talent. For instance, customers who admired one of her paintings occasionally reneged on buying it after realizing it was hers, not Ralph's. It also miffed Martha when people commended her husband as the more prolific artist. She would complain to intimates that, well, of course he was, because he didn't have to cook or clean or take care of Franz.

Only Martha's art was naïve. Martha herself remained intellectually curious all of her life. She particularly enjoyed Scandinavian operas and Tchaikovsky. She took Franz to see ballets in Boston while he was growing up. In her reading, she favored philosophy, poetry and biographies of such people as Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi, whom she admired for their goodness and humility. A number of Martha's paintings reflect her interest in Buddhism and Oriental culture.