Mention the name Emile Gruppe to just about anyone in Massachusetts art circles and their eyes instantly brighten. Gruppe (1896-1978) was born in Rochester, New York, raised in the Netherlands, and in the early 1930s made his way to the picturesque fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. There, he embarked on a long and prolific career, first as a tonalist painter and later as a Monet-inspired impressionist, a hallmark style for which he became famous. Gruppe’s vivid depictions of life on the water, especially fishing boat scenes, earned him a nice living.
You could say Emile Gruppe had a head start in life. His father, Charles P. Gruppe, painted with the Hague School of art in Holland and served as a dealer for Dutch painters in the United States. He actively encouraged Emile’s artistic interests (as well as those of siblings Karl, a sculptor; Virginia, a watercolorist; and Paul, a cellist). Emile would watch his father create Barbizon-inspired landscapes and in so doing learn the rudiments of painting and drawing.
The family moved to the United States permanently in 1913 because of growing tensions in Europe. Young Emile’s formal training, such as it was, began in Rochester, where his parents apprenticed him to a sign painter. But he had larger ambitions for himself. He enrolled at the National Academy in New York City and later the Grande Chaumiere in Paris. He also attended classes at the Art Students League. In Provincetown, Massachusetts, he learned from the landscape painter Charles Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art. But his most influential teacher was John Carlson, whom he met at the Art Student League’s summer school in Woodstock, New York.
“John Carlson turned me into a painter,” Gruppe once said. “He taught me to see all the pictorial possibilities of a subject.” By the time he arrived in Gloucester, his style had been pretty well cemented. He was a bold, robust Impressionist, one who earned places in gallery shows and exhibitions throughout the United States. While based in Gloucester, Gruppe also maintained a studio in Carnegie Hall in New York and had vacation retreats in Jeffersonville, Vermont and Naples, Florida. He painted every day, completing around 200 paintings a year for 60 years.
Mary Westcott of Kaminski Auctions in Beverly, Massachusetts, said Emile Gruppe is revered in the New England area for his outstanding contribution as a local artist who taught and mentored many other artists. “Whenever one of his paintings comes to auction, it is given prominent advertising and always photographed,” she said. “Although he painted other subjects and locations, he is best known for his ‘Ships in Harbor’ scenes. He’s often compared to William Lester Stevens, Aldro Hibbard and Anthony Thieme, and his work is most easily recognized. He is a giant among giants and continues to be sought by collectors and museums.”
Alexa Malvino of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said Emile Gruppe benefited from being able to create art alongside a collection of other talented American artists, adapting and experimenting with impressionistic plein air painting. “The California artist Armin Hansen comes to mind first,” Malvino said. “Not only is their subject matter very similar, but even the color palettes of their works align. Small details like the execution of the hats on their fishermen make you wonder how familiar they were with each other’s work, despite working on separate sides of the country.”
The American Impressionist landscape was a subject often seen coming out of California from painters such as the Society of Six, Mary DeNeale Morgan and William Ritschel, the latter of whom spent much time in New York but created many of his great works after his move to Carmel in 1918. “Gruppe’s work also had a similar feel to the paintings coming out of Canada during that time,” Malvino observed. “The Group of Seven included artists like A.Y. Jackson and Tom Thomson – who passed before the creation of the group but whose work greatly influenced it – were also capturing the fantastic fall landscapes of the East Coast.”
As for the current demand for paintings by Gruppe, Alexa Malvino said the painter’s auction market has been fairly consistent for the past 10 to f15 years, with works selling for a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, contingent on the provenance, subject matter and condition of the works. “Despite the current demand for contemporary and Pop Art,” she added, “I don’t see his market softening in the coming years. His themes and beautiful execution of the Impressionist style seem to be timeless. The Impressionist era was such an important part of American art history and given his talent and many contributions to the movement, it’s likely the demand for his works will remain steady.”
Mary Westcott said there continues to be a demand for Gruppe’s work. “The prices realized are on a broad spectrum and depend mostly on subject matter, early or late work and quality. Rarely are any of his paintings not sold. The demand for his work is still here and likely to continue.” Matt Cottone of Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, New York, concurred, remarking, “There has been a recent resurgence in the Gruppe market, with new interest on a national level.”
Emile Gruppe was as much a teacher as he was a painter. He founded the Gloucester School of Painting in 1942, operating it until his death, with a faculty that not only included himself but many of his own teachers, including Carlson. He wrote books for artists on brushwork, color and technique. His paintings can be found in major auction galleries, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Skinner. His son, Robert Gruppe, a painter, maintains the Gruppe Gallery at Rocky Neck in Gloucester, while his daughter, Emilie, maintains the Emile A. Gruppe Gallery in Jericho, Vermont.