Abbott Graves (1859–1936)

Leading New England Painter Famous for Flower, Garden, and Genre Scenes

By Jeanette Sisk

Graves’s most celebrated canvases document the colorful gardens of New England, South America and the Caribbean, and scenes from small-town life in coastal Maine.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Abbott Fuller Graves was Boston’s, and arguably this country’s, foremost flower and garden painter from the mid-1880s through the 1920s.[1] His early works are somewhat conventional, reflecting the tradition of Dutch and French still-lifes, while his paintings created after an extended stay in Paris from 1902 to 1905 reveal a knowledge of Impressionism, with their free brushwork and outdoor subject matter. Especially notable are his dreamy images of the leisure class relaxing in their private gardens, and the sun-dappled doorways of fine New England homes framed by cascading blossoms and lush borders. Graves also had a successful career as a genre painter of small-town life in Kennebunkport, Maine, but it is his flower paintings and garden scenes for which he is most remembered.

Abbott Fuller Graves was born on April 15, 1859 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to Elizabeth (Fuller) and James Griswold Graves, a furniture designer and maker. After the failure of his father’s business in 1875, the sixteen-year-old Abbott left school to take a job in a greenhouse, an occupation especially suited to his talents and interests, which already included flower painting.

Around 1877 he studied drawing at the Lowell School of Practical Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he likely met fellow-student Childe Hassam, who would become a lifelong friend. The talented and ambitious Graves exhibited at the Boston Art Club for the first time in 1878, and in 1881 established his own studio on Tremont Street, quickly gaining a reputation as the best flower painter in Boston.

In 1884 he took his first trip to Paris, accompanied by his former student and new fiancée, Montie May Aldrich, and her mother and brother. There he met the Boston painter Edmund Tarbell, who, like Hassam, would become a lifelong friend. Graves had hoped to study with Georges Jeannin, Europe’s foremost flower painter, and was no doubt disappointed to learn that Jeannin did not accept students. Jeannin was, however, sufficiently impressed to agree to critique Graves’s work, considering his color “very fine” but advising him to draw more flowers.[2]

Upon his return to Boston in 1886, Graves opened another studio, this time on Washington Street, and began teaching flower painting at the Cowles Art School. He married Montie in October of that year; Tarbell and Hassam, who were also teaching at the Cowles Art School, served as ushers.

Abbott and Montie returned to Europe in the spring of 1887 for an extended stay. He enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he studied figure painting with the historical painter and portraitist Fernand Cormon, and decorative painting with Henri Gervex and Jean Paul Laurens. In 1889 two of Graves’s paintings were selected for exhibition at the Paris Salon, and two at the Paris Universal Exposition.

By 1891 Graves had returned to Boston with his wife and young daughter and opened his own school of painting, before moving both family and school to Highland House in the seacoast town of Kennebunkport, Maine, where he would spend most summers for the rest of his life. He became actively involved in the community and was immediately recognized by a local newspaper as “a leader of things social as well as artistic.”[3] From 1896 through the first decade of the twentieth century, he created a series of genre paintings inspired by everyday life in the small town. These paintings were frequently used by local businesses for publicity and advertising, and were extremely popular with collectors and the Boston critics.

During the 1890s Graves exhibited widely: at the National Academy of Design, the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition, the Boston Art Club, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, and the Poland Springs Annual Exhibitions. One hundred fifty-five of his paintings were shown at Leonard and Company in Boston in the spring of 1899.

Graves spent the winters of 1902–1905 in Paris, where he became very involved with the American Art Association, of which he was appointed an honorary member. He traveled to Holland in the summer of 1903 and to St. Ives on England’s Cornwall coast the following year. His genre painting Tannage des Filets (now Portland Museum of Art), created from sketches made in St. Ives, was awarded a medal at the Paris Salon in 1905.

Back in Kennebunkport in 1906, he designed “Westlook,” a new house and studio in the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright. While continuing to paint genre scenes, he also returned to his “first love,” flower painting, but on a grander scale, reflecting a new attitude towards light and color clearly informed by Impressionism.[4] In 1913 Vose Galleries of Boston exhibited seventeen of his paintings in an exhibition titled “New England Gardens.”

Graves’s search for new gardens to paint led him to travel to South America and the Caribbean. In January 1917 the Copley Gallery in Boston hosted the single-artist exhibition “New England and South American Gardens,” and in January 1923 Babcock Galleries in New York exhibited a number of his Caribbean paintings. That same month Graves was the subject of the feature article “A Painter of Colorful Gardens” in International Studio magazine.[5]

Graves’s career reached its peak in the 1920s, when he exhibited frequently in Boston and New York, where he and Montie lived during the winter months. He joined the Salmagundi Club, the Allied Artists of America, and the National Arts Club, and was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design in 1926.

Graves suffered a heart attack in 1936 while summering in Sarasota, Florida, and died on July 17th of that year at “Westlook” in Kennebunkport.

II. Chronology

1859 Born in Weymouth, MA on April 15th
1875 Quit school to work in a greenhouse after the failure of his father’s business
1877 Studied drawing at the Lowell School of Practical Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; probable first meeting of Childe Hassam
1878 First exhibited at the Boston Art Club
1881 Opened studio at 110 Tremont Street, no. 23, Boston, and began teaching flower painting
1883 Engagement to Montie May Aldrich, daughter of well-known actor Louis Aldrich
1884 First trip to Paris, where he befriended Boston painter Edmund C. Tarbell and had his work critiqued by noted flower painter Georges Jeannin
1885 Traveled to Venice, sketched city and environs
1886 Returned to Boston, opened a studio at 433 Washington Street, and began teaching flower painting at the Cowles Art School. Married Montie Aldrich on October 16th
1887 Contributed to the Boston publication American Art Illustrated before traveling to Europe and enrolling at the Académie Julian; studied with Fernand Corman, Henri Gervex, and Jean Paul Laurens.
1888 Included in Frank T. Robinson’s New England Artists (Boston: Samuel E. Cassino)
1889 Un champ des roses à Perigny and Nature morte exhibited at Paris Salon; Peonies and Basket of Flowers exhibited at Paris Universal Exposition; birth of daughter Enid
1891 Returned to Boston, opened art school at 335 Columbus Avenue. Spent the summer in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he would summer for the next two decades
1892 First exhibited at the National Academy of Design
1893 Poppies exhibited at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition
1897 Awarded medal from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. Birth of son Louis
1902 Moved family to Paris, where they lived until 1905 in a house with a garden and attached studio in the Latin Quarter, and traveled during the summers
1903 Elected to board of governors of American Art Association in Paris. Traveled to Holland for the summer
1904 Summered in St. Ives on England’s Cornwall coast
1905 Awarded medal at the Paris Salon for Tannage des Filets after studies made in St. Ives. Appointed Honorary Member of the American Art Association in Paris. Returned to the United States, settled in Kennebunkport, and began painting flower garden subjects
1906 Designed “Westlook,” in the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright, to serve as his house and studio in Kennebunkport
1913 Single-artist exhibition at Vose Galleries in Boston, where he would continue to exhibit and sell until his death
1914 Traveled in November to Venezuela to paint gardens
1920 Death of son Louis of pneumonia in Washington, DC. Purchased the old Custom House in Kennebunkport, added an addition, and gave it to the town as the Louis T. Graves Memorial Library
1922 Began exhibiting at Babcock Galleries in New York City
1923 Featured in George Alfred Williams article “A Painter of Colorful Gardens,” in January issue of International Studio
1926 Elected Associate Member of the National Academy of Design, New York. Lived in apartment at 44 East 9th Street, New York, during winter months; resided in Kennebunkport during the rest of the year
1934 Awarded the Elizabeth Kay prize for floral painting at the National Exhibition, Palm Beach Art Center
1936 Suffered heart attack while wintering in Sarasota, Florida; returned to Kennebunkport, died at Westlook on July 17th
1937 Memorial Exhibition at Vose Galleries, Boston

III. Collections

Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY
Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, IN
The Brick Store Museum, Kennebunk, ME
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, ME
Hermitage Foundation Museum, Norfolk, VA
Kennebunkport Historical Society, ME
Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
National Arts Club, New York, NY
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, LA
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
Portland Museum of Art, ME
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL

IV. Exhibitions

1878–1909 Boston Art Club
1888–89, 1905 Paris Salon, medal 1905
1889 Paris Universal Exposition
1892, 1920s–30s National Academy of Design, New York, NY
1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition
1895, 1913–14, 1924 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, medal
1897–1920s Poland Springs Annual Exhibitions, South Poland, ME
1899 Leonard and Company, Boston
1913 Robert C. Vose Galleries, Boston
1917 Copley Gallery, Boston
1920s Babcock Galleries, New York
1930s MacBeth Gallery, New York
1933 Thumb Box Sketch Exhibition, Salmagundi Club, first prize
1934 National Exhibition, Palm Beach Art Center, Elizabeth Kay prize
1937 Robert C. Vose Galleries, Boston, Memorial Exhibition
1979 The Brick Store Museum, Kennebunk, ME
2001 Vose Galleries of Boston

V. Memberships

Allied Artists of America
American Art Association of Paris
Artists Fund
Boston Art Club
Boston Art Student’s Association
Boston Society of Watercolor Painters
Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, Hartford
Copley Society of Boston
National Academy of Design
National Arts Club
North Shore Artists Association, Gloucester, MA
Paint and Clay Club, Boston
Salmagundi Club

VI. Notes

1. William H. Gerdts, Down Garden Paths: the Floral Environment in American Art (Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983), 85.
2. Montie Aldrich Graves, Notes on her husband’s life and work, Sykes Collection. Cited in Joyce Butler, “Abbott Fuller Graves,” in Abbott Fuller Graves 1859–1936 (Kennebunk, ME: The Brick Store Museum, 1979), unpaginated, n. 5.
3. The Wave (Kennebunkport, ME, July 29, 1891), cited in Butler, n. 12.
4. In Graves’s own words, he went “back to my first love.” Cited in Butler, n. 26.
5. George Alfred Williams, “A Painter of Colorful Gardens,” International Studio 76 (January 1923): 304–9.

VII. Suggested Resources

1. Abbott Fuller Graves 1859–1936. Kennebunk, Maine: The Brick Store Museum, 1979.
2. Abbott Graves (1859–1936). Garden Masterpieces. Boston: Vose Galleries, 2001.
3. Gerdts, William H. Down Garden Paths: the Floral Environment in American Art. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.
4. Robinson, Frank T. Living New England Artists: Biographical Sketches. Boston: Samuel E. Cassino, 1888.
5. Williams, George Alfred Williams. “A Painter of Colorful Gardens.” International Studio 76 (January, 1923): 304–9.

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