Scenes of everyday life—the wharves, dunes, fishing vessels, Commercial Street, Wellfleet Harbor, the Spit & Chatter Club—these are the subjects that intrigued LaForce Bailey (1893-1962), and the ones on which he built his paintings. They are busy compositions, combining bold strokes and broad washes of color. And their details reflect the era in which they were painted: bowler hats, a covered baby carriage, the train making its way into town. Although he was an architect by training (designing, among other things, a stadium for Kansas State University), Bailey’s buildings are often not central to his works. In one painting, a large car rolls by the old Central House. But neither the building nor the vehicle is as central to this watercolor as are the workingmen who stride down the walkway. As he explained to a contemporary, “I paint expressionistically—that is, I use objects to express the way I feel toward fundamental truths.”
A student of Charles Hawthorne, Bailey gave up architecture to be a full-time painter and teacher. From his post at the University of Illinois, he traveled to the Outer Cape each summer to paint. His student, Peter Watts, recalls driving Bailey and his wife from Illinois to Provincetown. And he recalls Bailey as an art teacher, “He did all the wrong things as a teacher. He took the brush out of your hand and painted on your painting. But you caught his excitement about painting. He lived for it!”
Bailey eschewed the university’s studios for teaching, instead taking his students outdoors, to the streets or to the train tracks to paint. For at least one of his students, those experiences were life-changing. “I was studying industrial design at the University,” Watts says. “But after meeting other artists, and because of his inspiration, all that changed.”
The world of watercolor painting was also changed by Bailey’s influence. He was one of the first artists to use larger sheets for painting—many of his works are over 20 in. x 24 in. The American Watercolor Society recognized his work with its highest awards in 1934 and 1936. And he was among the most outstanding practitioners of the “wet wash” method. He exhibited in many Chicago Art Institute shows, and created a grand mural for the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933.
Still, his family retains a large number of his works, and their gift of 54 watercolors from 1920-40 allows POBA, in partnership with PAAM, to reintroduce him to a new generation of art collectors and enthusiasts.