Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts
Pierce Gallery, Hingham, Massachusetts
Private Collection (sold: Sotheby's, New York, December 5, 1985, lot 154, illustrated in color)
Arvest Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts (acquired at the above sale)
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1986
By 1904 Edmund Tarbell was firmly established as the head of the Boston School of artists, a founding member of The Ten (a group of highly influential New York and Boston artists) and head of the paintings department at the School of Drawing and Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Widely regarded as one of the leading painters of his day, Tarbell was a natural choice to teach at the Art Students League in New York City, but he declined the invitation out of a desire to firmly establish the growing tradition of art in Boston.
There was another reason behind Tarbell's decision to stay in New England, however, which was the growing affinity he and his family had developed for the small village of New Castle in northern New Hampshire. A remote and slightly ramshackle fishing village due east of Portsmouth and just south of the Maine border, New Castle had become an attractive summer destination for affluent Bostonians seeking the quiet joys of a more rural lifestyle. The Piscataqua region – named for the river on which New Castle sits – also attracted artists, whether it was to the summer colonies of Ogunquit and York, or to the ferry at Portsmouth Harbor which squired guests such as Childe Hassam out to the Isles of Shoals and Celia Thaxter's famous garden and inn at Appledore House.
The considerable success Tarbell was enjoying at this point in his career placed him firmly in the New England elite, and in 1905 he not only purchased the Cooper house in New Castle but tripled its original size and staffed it with servants and a groom for the stables. In 1907 he added a studio which was lined with copper birch trees and faced out on the Piscataqua River so that the interior was frequently flooded with northern light. While the living room at the New Castle house became the setting for the artist's most important and successful interior scenes, the studio provided a location for the subjects of commissioned portraits to sit for their paintings. As Erica Hirschler writes, "New Castle provided the setting in which Tarbell matured and established a life that became, at times, inextricably intertwined with his art" (Susan Strickler, ed., Impressionism Transformed: the Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2002, p. 127).
This statement was no more apparent than in the artist's depictions of his family enjoying the out-of-doors around New Castle. Both Edmund and his wife Emmeline, as well as their children Josephine, Mercie, Mary and Edmund A., engaged in a very active and athletic lifestyle, no doubt inspired by Tarbell's own notable athleticism. A frequent golfer, he also played tennis and rode horses, activities which were all extremely accessible thanks to New Castle's country setting. But the considerable number of paintings Tarbell did of horses and riding scenes indicate the central importance of equestrianism in his recreational life. Furthermore, Tarbell had been particularly inspired by Degas' early racing and steeplechase scenes, especially his Racehorses at Lonchamps, 1873-75, which Tarbell declared "the best drawing of horses he'd ever seen (Ibid, p. 81)."
Tellingly, the artist selected an early but ambitious horse composition, Girl and Horse, 1892, to exhibit with In the Orchard, 1891 at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, thus heralding his abilities as a painter of equestrian subjects. Routinely returning to the genre throughout his career, Tarbell's depictions of his family and their horses included more casual compositions of his children on horseback as well as comparatively formal portraiture intended to showcase their particular skills as horsewomen and men. New Castle Poppy is a charming blend of both; Tarbell's daughter Mary and her horse Poppy are posed at right as if for their own portrait, while in the background his wife Emmeline handily manages the horse and carriage, rendered in Tarbell's characteristically loose and impressionistic brushwork to suggest imminent movement.
As the Boston critic William Howe Downes wrote in 1938, "They (his family) fitted in to the fabric of his life and the composition of his paintings perfectly as if the had conceived them in a vision....One is hardly able to tell where the genius of the father lies, in the fortunate conception of his children, or in his exquisite taste and adaption in working them in to his pictures" (Ibid, p. 153).
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