Who were the Kaulas? Why have many of us never heard of them? And why is the Springfield Museums hosting a spectacular collection of their work and the first comprehensive display of the artists’ work ever?
Emerging from the Boston School of the Fenway Studios at the turn of the century and traveling throughout New England to paint beneath billowing cumulus clouds, the Kaulas resisted commercial pressures in order to pursue art purely for the love of art—and of each other. The vast collection of William Jurian Kaula and Lee Lufkin Kaula’s work, opening at the Springfield Museums May 20, 2018, speaks to the power of a passionate focus to produce art that continues to compel and capture from century to century.
“The Kaulas offer a wonderful story,” said Heather Haskell, director of the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, one of five museums situated on the downtown Springfield quadrangle. “They met while painting in Europe and fell in love. And they pursued art for the love of art, not for commercial gain. Two love stories in one.” They also allow the Springfield Museums to discuss the American Impressionists, the Boston School, and the Fenway Studios, and what made these movements distinct within the art history of New England. “Also we can explore why the Kaulas—both very talented artists—resisted imposed trends and kept out of the limelight.”
The exhibition is guest curated by Carol Scollans, Senior Lecturer of Art History for the Art Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In a preface to her book Two Lives: One Passion: The Life and Work of William Jurian Kaula and Lee Lufkin Kaula (Blue Tree: 2008), Scollans wrote: “The Kaulas lived and worked inseparably. . . . They did not paint for the pursuit of fame and fortune; rather, it was for the love of art and for the primacy of personal expression.” They painted to reach for perfection.
“They were really in sync with each other,” Scollans said in a recent interview. They talked about what they were painting, how they were painting, why they were painting. And they painted.
The Kaulas met each other in the late 1800s while painting in the countryside of Crecy, France, and they married in 1902. They were among the first occupants at the Fenway Studio Building on Ipswich Street in Boston. They shared a studio working side-by-side until William’s death in 1953. The couple painted and summered in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and both painters were influenced by Edmund C. Tarbell, leader of the Boston School of painting, an American brand of Impressionism marked by the importance of academic drawing.
William, who pursued landscape drawing and painting, sought accuracy in capturing clouds, particularly cumulus clouds. One might initially see his dozens upon dozens of landscapes as similar until one looks with the lens of scientific accuracy. Then the ideas of botany, atmospheric conditions, and the chemistry of the landscape blossom and billow in a way that makes his landscapes something far more than pigment on canvas. Scollans wrote: “He preferred to record the natural world as a shifting entity constantly in the midst of change.” He captured a spontaneous moment, through a careful, laborious process. New England atmospheric conditions were particularly conducive to his pursuit and he became an expert at the form of the cloud.
Lee’s work is immediately arresting for its emotional impact and aesthetic beauty—she concentrated on portraits of women and children, and included scenes of children at play. The women are dressed in sumptuously colorful and textured clothing, in domestic, interior settings. Contemporaneous reviewers mention the subtlety of gesture that adds a layer of joy and mystery to each portrait, drawing the viewer closer to the personality of the woman depicted. The only portraits she painted of men are of her father and her husband, both of which are wonderfully warm and emotive. The Boston Athenaeum recently acquired the portrait Lee painted of her husband William (and the work has been requested for the exhibition).
What makes Lee’s portraits stand out, in Scollans’s assessment, is that early on Lee’s compositions showed an attention to the geometry of composition. The repetition of shapes unifies the composition of her paintings, Scollans said, in ways that “the eye cannot comprehend at first glance.” Lee’s use of color and light to illuminate each portrait changed in tone over time—with her brush strokes becoming more noticeable and broad as she matured—but that fundamental structuring of the work using geometry stayed consistent.
The work of the Kaulas caught the eye of Stanley B. Fry, a resident of Peterborough, New Hampshire, near where the Kaulas spent their summers in New Ipswich. Fry’s son, who was studying with art gallery owner Peter Pelletier, asked why they didn’t have any “real” art in their home. When Fry visited Pelletier’s gallery to rectify that situation, he discovered William’s work and then Lee’s. Fry said, “Over the years our interest in the Kaulas has grown into a desire to understand and learn more about these painters who were husband and wife.” Fry has collected not only their art, but also their correspondence, photo albums, sketch books, and copies of William’s diaries.
Fry’s collection—vast and comprehensive—is the source of the upcoming exhibition. His generosity and cooperation have made it possible for Scollans to study the Kaulas in depth and offer Museum visitors a look at a rediscovered pair of American Impressionists with lasting impact. Scollans’s work with the New Ipswich Historical Society and the people of New Ipswich who still remembered the Kaulas and worked with and for them has contributed valuable information to their body of work.
When the exhibit Two Lives, One Passion: American Impressionist Paintings and Sketches by William Jurian Kaula and Lee Lufkin Kaula opens May 18, 2018, as part of the Springfield Museums’ Rediscovering American Artists series, visitors will see the Kaulas’ paintings and sketches, photographs of the artists, furniture and accessories from their homes and studios. Although the artists did not achieve a dominant place in the historiography of Boston’s art and culture, they demonstrate through there remarkable art and their story the enduring quality of an undaunted spirit, the pursuit of excellence, and the sustaining value of love.
PRAISE OF THE ARTISTS’ WORK
“His work is genuinely satisfying and stimulating to those who appreciate an artist who understands how to paint and what to paint and can put that touch of poetry and imagination into his work which appeals to every lover of nature. . . . Mr. Kaula has long been distinguished for his skies. He feels and understands cloud forms as do few artists, especially the massive beauty of the summer cumulus clouds as well as their depth and luminosity under given circumstances.” —A. J. Philpott, The Boston Daily Globe, 1913
“Although there is freedom of technique in these paintings there is also careful drawing, fine modeling in the faces and splendid character. Most of these portraits are of young women—beautiful women—in whom character is a subtle gesture of the eye, or mouth or both very often. The artist catches these subtleties of character which add s so much to the distinction of the pose.”—Review of Lee Lufkin Kaula’s exhibit at the Copley Gallery in Boston, early 1900s