As town art curator, Kathie Motes Bennewitz has spent years fleshing out full narratives of our earliest generations of artists — the men and women who established Westport’s reputation as an “artists’ colony.”
The first painters and illustrators arrived around 1904. Ralph and Rebecca Boyer joined them in 1923. Like many others — then and now — they had young children, and found Westport a better place to raise a family than New York City.
You may never have heard of the Boyers. But Bennewitz has.
In fact, her essay “A Seeing Eye for Beauty in the Everyday World: Ralph L. Boyer (1879-1952) and His Daughter Rebecca Boyer Merrilees (1922-2012)” is part of a new book.
A Life in Art: The Boyer & Merrilees Families was just published by the Northern New England Museum of Contemporary Art. It includes over 100 full-color images, covering the art they created from 1907 to 2010. Most was done right here in Westport.
The Boyers lived in Coleytown. It was far from the center — but their neighbors included James and Laura Gardin Fraser, Oscar and Lila Audobon Howard, and Kerr and Phyllis Brevoori Eby. James Daugherty lived nearby, in Weston.
The Boyers’ antique saltbox had been the home of illustrator Clive Weed. Known as the Aaron Burr Adams house, it still stands on Easton Road, near Bayberry Extension.
Boyer built a small studio, on a hilltop. He had sweeping views of the Aspetuck River, where the stream widens into a lake (now part of the Newman Poses Preserve). When he was not painting, Boyer was fishing.
Boyer’s favorite drawing and etching subjects included haying on the Coley farms, trees along the Saugatuck River and fly fishing on the Aspetuck. His etchings of trout, salmon and bass capture their grace of movement.
He also painted portraits of key community members and artists. During the Depression he received important WPA mural commissions. His most famous — the “History of Fire” series — hangs in the Westport fire station today.
His daughter Becky graduated from Staples High School in 1939. Her yearbook called her “one of the town’s most expert badminton players, as well as one oits leading younger artists.”
After Pratt Institute, she became an accomplished commercial illustrator. She was most renowned for her botanic work.
In 1960 she became the first female artist with a Reader’s Digest cover (a painting of ferns). She drew 8 more covers, all botanical.
Becky and her husband Douglas Merrilees moved to Northfield, Vermont in 1961. There he developed what is now called the “Made in Vermont” movement. She continued to draw nature there.
Bennewitz’s essay was inspired by a generous donation to the Westport Public Art Collections by Becky Boyer Merrilees in 2012, just months before she died. It included etchings and sketches by her father, watercolors by her mother, and beautiful paintings by Becky, along with art by Kerr Eby.
The Boyers’ time here — particularly the early years — must have been quite something. In 1931, the Boston Evening Transcript described Westport like this:
An extensive permanent colony of painters, etchers, sculptors, typographers and printers of 20 years (who) have established themselves in the fabric of the town…
A very attractive social structure has sort of accumulated, so that Saturday evenings the year ‘round are very jolly indeed.…
They are friends, they are people. They fish and skate and ride and sail sloops and swim and have children. They gossip — dear me! How they gossip, and they are as easily friendly as any group you could imagine.
(Click here to buy A Life in Art: The Boyers & Merrilees.)