The name of New England artist Ralph Cahoon, Jr. (1910-1982) is as inextricably linked with whimsical scenes of mermaids cavorting with sailors as that of his contemporary, Orville Bulman, is associated with fanciful views of elegant Caribbean ladies and children frolicking on fantastical sailing ships. Interestingly, the work of both men appealed to a similar group of collectors.
Descended from whalers and fishermen on Cape Cod, the young Cahoon displayed an early affinity for drawing. His marriage in 1932 to Martha Farham, the daughter of a gifted furniture decorator, introduced him to the art of painting furniture inspired by Swedish, Pennsylvania-German and American folk traditions. Settling in Cotuit, Massachusetts in 1945, the young couple opened an antique shop that also offered their own hand-painted furniture. With time, the Cahoons incorporated their own unique designs into their furniture, with Ralph favoring mermaids and sailors and Martha preferring rural themes and floral and shell motifs.
In 1953, when the well-connected socialite and gallerist Joan Whitney Payson urged them to create art rather than decorated furniture and offered their paintings in her Long Island based Country Art Gallery, the works were a huge hit. Clarissa Watson, the gallery’s young director, wrote with glee, “There just suddenly seems to be a run on mermaids!” By late 1960, after successful exhibitions at the Lobster Pot Gallery in Nantucket, Palm Beach Galleries in Florida, and most particularly, Vose Galleries in Boston, the Cahoons were truly launched. Ralph continued with his whimsical sailors and mermaids, and Martha focused on her more restrained themes.
The Vose exhibition appears to have been a watershed moment that inspired Ralph to dramatically expand the range and scope of his subjects. In his world, mermaids cavort with sailors in seaports and on whaling ships. They ride bicycles, go sledding on a frozen harbor, ride in hot-air balloons, and frolic with whales. They do laundry, take tea while sailors serve them, and shamelessly flirt with their seafaring admirers. The innate charm and whimsy of his subjects offset any potentially bawdy associations.
Chinese scenes were another specialty, inspired in part by the nineteenth-century China trade paintings created for the Western market. One such example in the April 5 sale of American Paintings depicts an alluring mermaid reclining in a junk steered by a trusty pipe-smoking seaman, an oar in one hand and the lines for his sail in the other. The young beauty admires her reflection in a mirror, as waterfowl with fish in their beaks swim nearby. In the distance are an elaborate Chinese gate and other inventive architectural elements.
The combination of naïveté and whimsical, slightly naughty subjects was irresistible. With time the Cahoons severed their ties with commercial galleries, finding they could market their paintings successfully from their own studio. Among their clients were Jacqueline Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith, Maxim Karolik, Lily Pulitzer, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Merriweather Post and several members of the Mellon and du Pont families.
Today, the Cahoon family home on Cape Cod endures as the Cahoon Museum of American Art. Founded in 1984, the museum includes a stellar collection of the folk paintings of Ralph and Martha Cahoon, as well as American art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ralph Eugene Cahoon, Jr.
A Mermaid and a Sailor on a Junk in China
Signed R. Cahoon / pinxt (lr)
Oil on Masonite
18 x 23 1/2 inches
Property from a New Jersey Collector
One of three works by Cahoon to be offered in the April 5, 2017 auction of American Paintings, Furniture & Decorative Arts.