Stephen Etnier signature image

Journeys over Water
Essay for the 1998 exhibition catalog
by Daniel. E. O'Leary, curator
courtesy of Portland Museum of Art
reproduced by permission.
Presented in four parts: Introduction | I | II | III

I. Innocence: 1922 to 1941

Stephen Etnier was born to a privileged position in society and was groomed to manage his family's business. (5) Instead, Etnier created an independent identity for himself that was based on two goals: his ambition to achieve excellence as a painter and his desire to master the open sea.

Stephen Etnier was impatient with authority and institutions, Each phase of his education at prep schools, at Yale University and Yale Art School, at Haverford College, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and during apprenticeships with Rockwell Kent and John Carroll was sporadic and incomplete. (6) His existence was self-directed. He learned from doing, rather than from listening. (7)

His first paintings introduce Etnier's lifelong themes and interests: adventure, independence, travel, and fascination with the luminous effects of light on water. The early paintings show the influence of Rockwell Kent, John Sloan, and George Bellows. But Etnier gradually moved beyond emulation of other artists and embarked upon a search for subjects and techniques that met his own criteria. His paintings of the 1930s are replete with the details of his everyday life and are characterized by a mood of studied nonchalance.

Boston Public Gardens provides a prime example of Etnier's first stylistic phase. The painting's broad brushstrokes and profuse colors indicate an interest in the techniques of Impressionism. Reflections of light and movement of water dominate the foreground. Etnier's delight in style, fashion, and social context is apparent.

His early paintings are generally anecdotal and frequently represent informal social gatherings and idyllic situations. Etnier's work of the 1930s are period pieces that recall the playfulness of the films of Fred Astaire and the wholesomeness of the early movies of Jimmy Stewart.

Etnier's paintings of the 1930s and 1940s record a vision of a simple and straightforward America. They are quaint commentaries on the norms, manners and pastimes of the artist's peers during this era of innocence. Etnier responds to coy and amusing situations that could serve as New Yorker magazine covers or illustrations for Esquire. (8) Illustrative, anecdotal, and peaceful, the early works resonate with charm and insouciance.

Out for Repairs depicts the estate on Long Island at the mouth of the Kennebec River that the artist and his second wife, Elizabeth Morgan Etnier, acquired and began to restore in 1934. (9) The title of the painting refers to the dory that has been hauled up the tracks Etnier installed to lift objects and provisions to Gilbert Head from the water. (10) Stephen and Elizabeth first lived for two summers on their seventy-foot schooner, the Morgana, before succumbing to the temptation to own an island on the coast of Maine. (11)

The works of the 1930s and 1940s employ reserved colors and are often dominated by subdued greens. The paintings suggest an ear of apparent stability and repose. Etnier's choices of subjects emphasize recreation, playfulness, and gentle diversions. Photographs of serene and epic views from Gilbert Head often functioned as the preliminary studies for these paintings. He chose to employ photographs that were rather formally and carefully organized. A photograph of the period shows Etnier's friend Ellison Moody wearing a first mate's cap, and an unidentified companion in a Coast Guard cap, at Gilbert Head, above the Morgana and framed by Sugarloaf Islands, Pond Island, and Seguin Island. Many of Etnier's early paintings used photographs of this stately prospect as their starting point to celebrate its splendor. The paintings of the Gilbert Head period represent Etnier's efforts to incorporate the inspiring panoramas of the area within the traditions of American landscape painting. Stephen Etnier's career during the 1930s and early 1940s was intimately tied to the coast of Maine and to Gilbert Head until it was interrupted by World War II.

(5) It was the expectation of Etnier's father, Carey E. Etnier, that his son would study engineering and in time head the successful turbine business, based in York, Pennsylvania, that had developed from a patent for a washing machine invented by Stephen Etnier's maternal grandfather, E. Morgan Smith.

(6) Etnier's enthusiasm for Rockwell Kent began with an awareness of Kent's painting and grew when Etnier heard him speak on his work and life:

  • "I first heard of Rockwell Kent at the Pennsylvania Academy I attended one of his lectures at a club in Philadelphia. I was so impressed by his virility, his sincerity and his enthusiasm that shortly after hearing him, I decided he might be the solution I was searching for. I was not satisfied with my paintings, nor the Academy with the ugly figure models along with their strange mixture of modernity and academic art which was becoming quite boring. I thought, 'Here's a real man and an artist.'"
    From an unpublished text of the memoirs of Stephen Etnier, as told to Jean Cole, p. 117, courtesy of David and John Etnier.

Etnier presented himself at the door of Rockwell Kent's country home in Au Sable Forks, New York, in the fall of 1928 and studied with Kent until the summer of the following year. Etnier indicated that his debt to his mentor related in great part to Kent's work ethic. It was under Kent's influence that Etnier formed the habit of going out to paint early each morning and pursuing a disciplined and vigorous approach to his art. Etnier began his apprenticeship with painter John Carroll in New York City in 1929.

(7) In an interview for the Archives of American Art on February 22, 1973, Etnier remarked: "You learn by drawing. You don't learn by someone telling you how to draw."

(8) A clear indication of Etnier's growing success and acceptance can be found in the extensive article by Henry Salpeter, "Stephen Etnier: Bad Boy Artist," that appeared in the May 1939 edition of Esquire. Salpeter describes Stephen Etnier was a talented, urbane and unusually independent artist who chose to pursue his own instinctive path to success. The article was accompanied by reproductions of eight of Etnier's paintings.

(9) The house, a coastal landmark at the mouth of the Kennebec River, was built by Charles Clark in 1862. During its early history it was used as a fashionable summer boarding house. Stephen and Elizabeth purchased the house and forty-two acres on Long Island in September 1934. Stephen Etnier later provided a striking description of the house and its site:

  • "The view was the most magnificent I have ever seen in Maine, a panorama that changed with the time of day, or the season, like a magic lantern show, each moon rise or sunset more lovely and dramatic than the last, The roof of the house leaked badly, and there were a great number of repairs needing done including digging a well for water."
    From an unpublished text of the memoirs of Stephen Etnier, as told to Jean Cole, p. 163, courtesy of David and John Etnier.

(10) Elizabeth Etnier called these tracks "the railroad" and described them in her account of their time together on the island:

  • "Sunday, Oct. 21st. First trip and accident on railroad. I laughed and laughed and laughed to see Stephen's face as the car went careening backward at terrific speed. A whole keg of nails was shot off into the water and you can see them twinkling on the bottom at low tide. Fortunately I had declined the first ride."
    On Gilbert Head
    (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1937), pp. 28-29.

(11) The name of the schooner celebrated the coincidence that Elizabeth and Stephen has the same middle name, Morgan. The Morgana was sold in April, 1936. In 1939, the Etniers purchased the Hersilia, a fifty-two-foot cutter. Later sailboats that Etnier acquired during his marriage to his fourth wife, Samuella Rose, included the twenty-five foot Katydid and the forty-foot Jonda, named for their two sons, John and David. Etnier purchased the fifty-two foot cruiser Timberfish in 1960.

Boston Public Gardens
collection of William D Hamill
Out for Repairs
Collection of Gerald M. Amero