Bennewitz On The Boyers: Arts Pioneers Draw New Attention

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.

“Landlocked Salmon No.1 (c. 1924-1935),” etching and drypoint. Inscribed: “To my friend James Daugherty with deepest regards Ralph L. Boyer.”

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.

Along the Saugatuck (mid to late 1920s), etching and drypoint (Ralph Boyer)

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.

Artwork by Rebecca (Becky) Boyer Merrilees.

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.)

“Self-Portrait” (Ralph Boyer)

12 responses to “Bennewitz On The Boyers: Arts Pioneers Draw New Attention

  1. Kathie Bennewitz

    Dan, Thank you!. The Boyers are a fascinating family of artists to have been given the chance to explore their art and lives– plus they lived just around the corner from me which made it fun! I want to also thank Mark Waskow, of Barre VT, who was a friend of Becky Boyer Merrilees late in her life. He helped to arrange this legacy donation of artworks to the Westport Public Art Collections and he also published this book. It is his inaugural Northern New England Artist Legacy Project publication which supports the need for further research into the lives and works of artists who are under-known today, particularly from the mid to late 20th century, a time of great change in the visual arts. This is a great contribution to American art and, in this case, to understanding Westport’s artistic legacy .NNEALP: https://www.nnealp.org/

  2. Matthew Mandell

    Hats off to Kathy and all the great work she does.

  3. Thanks Kathy! I did a deep dive on Kerr Eby (a
    Pacifist) who lived on North Avenue in an antique house I represented as real estate agent to give the property more “color” He and Oscar Howard and his wife Lila were neighbors on Coleytown Road and Lila was a student of Fraser. They were very early but not as early as Boyers. There is so much art history to uncover here. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Eby did an almost identical snow scene as the one depicted here. Molly Donovan was my neighbor and friend m, and a couple of times I surprised her with a “new” old artist that was tied to a house I had sold or represented that she hadn’t heard of which, of course, was a thrill to me. The James Fraser Laura Gardin Fraser (tons of) papers are in Syracuse …and one day after the pandemic, ..I’m going to do a field trip. Wanna come? We are all stewards of these properties with histories and stories. The town is lucky to have you. You know that I’m a fan. Molly is smiling down over your good work.

    • Kathleen Bennewitz

      Thanks for your nice comment—and Yes! The house history and connections to who lived where, when they came and their friends circle is a fascinating aspect of this larger Westport story! I know how well you ferret out such facts as well. Bob Weingarten has been helpful in my research- In working on this we discovered that the house was photographed by T. O’Connor Sloane for the WPA and was one of the missing id’d houses from Bob’ earlier WHS exhibition. Love to talk And share more.

  4. Bravo Kathy! You have given us a welcome addition to the legendary history of Westport’s role in the arts and the Boyers important role. Thank you for your scholarly endeavor.

  5. Kudos Kathie! Westport is a better place to live because of your dedication to WestPAC and the local arts.
    Thank you!

  6. Thanks Dan for an interesting write-up. Just ordered the book. Always amazed at the wonderful artist who’ve lived in this incredibly artistic community!

  7. Costanza Baiocco

    Currently, does Westport have a working art community of painters and photographers?

  8. Thank You Dan for getting this news out to your followers. Ralph L Boyer was my great uncle , as Becky B. Merrilees my aunt . I met Kathie Bennewitz shortly after Becky’s passing during a day of touring Westport schools that have many of both their artwork including his large mural at Bedford Middle School cafeteria . As a child i loved spending weekends and extended summer visits on Bayberry Extension , swimming in the stream and learning about nature and art. Those memories are why i moved to Westport 30 years ago and have since raised 2 wonderful children Zach & Luci , Becky was a great inspiration to Zach cultivating his artistic skills. Ron Slater

  9. Among other artist/illustrators from the area was Ralph Crosby Smith. He and his family lived in Weston, where he worked in a studio in his home at the end of Lord’s Highway, long before Lord’s highway was completed. Smith was a illustrator and did covers for outdoor magazines such as “Outdoor Life” and “Field and Stream” during the 1950s. Often, Smith would get his son, Glenn and Glenn’s best friend (me) do don “hunter’s gear.” We would pose outdoors by his studio window. We each would hold broomsticks (pretend shotguns), as if we were hunting an eight-point stag somewhere.
    Ralph’s wife, Viretta Smith, was an illustrator of children’s books. One of her fantasy paintings was mounted on the wall behind the counter of the Weston Pharmacy. (Not sure what happened: it had been removed or covered over when I visited Weston a few years ago). Before the Smiths bought the place it had been a hunters’ lodge and was kinda rough around the edges (Like no insulation indoors). As for “payment” posing for paintings, Viretta would invite me in for supper, cooked over a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.
    Glenn’s big brother, Gayle, was a mechanic and worked for Jim Hoe. Hoe owned and ran a collection of mighty Duesenberg automobiles. Back-in-the-day, huh?

    • Kathleen Bennewitz

      These kind of articles have such great comments and lend themselves To leads for learning more about the artists and illustrators who lived here. Thank you for this nugget!!