Painting for posterity

Courtesy photo
‘Long Island Farm,’ an oil on board by Otto J. Kurth (1883-1965).

Driving through sleepy downtown Mattituck, it’s hard to tell that a wide-ranging artists’ movement once existed there. But just south of the Waldbaum’s shopping center, in a small studio called The Anchorage on Marlene Lane, two accomplished painters, Helen M. Kroeger and Otto J. Kurth, spent the middle of the 20th century honing their craft and teaching an ever-expanding number of local artists.

Terry Wallace, an East Hampton art dealer, began collecting their work in the early 1980s and later dubbed the group of plein air painters the Peconic Bay Impressionists.

Paintings from his collection are on display through October at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead. The exhibit focuses primarily on those two painters from Marlene Lane who both drew their inspiration from North Fork locales.

The origins of the same local school were the subject of an earlier exhibit curated by Mr. Wallace that was on view for over a year at the historical society in 2006 and 2007, focusing on works by Caroline Bell and her students. Ms. Bell taught at the Old Town Art and Crafts Guild in Cutchogue during the first half of the 20th century and was in her 60s when she met Helen Kroeger, a retired schoolteacher from New York who was in her 40s when she moved to Mattituck in 1940. The older artist quickly took the younger apprentice painter under her wing.

Ms. Kroeger, in turn, shared the skills she learned with Otto Kurth, an illustrator and mapmaker for the New York Times. He lived with Ms. Kroeger in Mattituck from 1940 to 1965, despite the fact that he was married to another woman.

“Helen Kroeger taught him how to paint. Before he painted in a very European style, more like you would paint in the studio,” Mr. Wallace said. “She inspired him, taught him, and he became a really good plein air painter.

“They must have really trusted the people of Mattituck,” with the open secret of their relationship, he added.

By the early 1960s, Ms. Kroeger was sharing her technique with other artists.

One of those painters was Larry Waitz of Cutchogue, who recently turned 100, and who shared with Mr. Wallace much of the information about the group and the relationship between Ms. Kroeger and Mr. Kurth’s relationship.

“Two men got me into it, Ron Edeen in East Marion and Bill Guyton, an antiques dealer in Mattituck,” said Mr. Wallace. “They knew a little bit of local history and they encouraged me to learn more about local artists. I later went to cemeteries to get their genealogies. The great thing about the North Fork is people don’t move around very much.”

Many of the artists who worked with Ms. Bell and Ms. Kroeger were women from local families. Their works are among those in the show at the historical society. Rachel Beebe, Julia Wickham, Annie G. Young, Dorothy Tuthill and Marguerite Moore Hawkins were among the daughters of farmers and townspeople who not only took up paintbrushes but also worked behind the scenes of most of the North Fork’s cultural and civic organizations.

“These artists were mainly local residents. People didn’t look at them as unapproachable,” said Mr. Wallace. “The painters did all of the other cultural events on the North Fork. The girls were singers, directors. They were very involved with the war effort. The studio in Mattituck was a gathering place on the North Fork.”

Ms. Kroeger’s students frequently painted New Suffolk, which at the time was a village of scallop shacks along Peconic Bay south of Cutchogue.

“There were many reasons they chose New Suffolk,” Mr. Wallace explained. “The girls were painters and there were mostly men working there. The women wanted to spend time with the guys. It also wasn’t far from Mattituck or Cutchogue, where they lived.

“I think they tried to paint it to preserve it for future generations,” he added.

“A few years ago, there was no name for this group of artists. The reason I called them the Peconic Bay Impressionists was they were plein air painters who painted for posterity,” he said.

Indeed, he said, Ms. Kroeger and Mr. Kurth often sold paintings for as little as $5. Mr. Wallace, however, has met many North Fork residents who have paintings by these artists in their homes that they refuse to sell for any amount of money.

“But you can still find these painters in garage sales on the North Fork,” he said.

The show will hang until Oct. 31. Mr. Wallace will give a related lecture at the historical society on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. and will be on hand there for painting appraisal workshops from 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 25 and Oct. 2.

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Helen M. Kroeger &

Otto J. Kurth

The Anchorage Studio and Peconic Bay Impressionism

On view through Oct. 31

at the Suffolk County Historical Society

300 W. Main St., Riverhead