By Annette Hinkle
The sheer volume of high quality sea and coastal village themed paintings on view right now at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum is astounding. The work is by a select group of artists such as André Picot, Dennis Ainsley, W. Hughes, F.H. Mackay and William Ward Jr.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the exhibition of maritime-themed works is the fact that every painting on view was painted by a single individual — the late Casper Hjalmar Emerson, who, as an adult, went by the name C. Hjalmar Amundsen, but was known locally around Sag Harbor simply as “Cappy.”
Cappy Amundsen died in January 2001, at the age of 89, but he left behind a huge body of work, and to anyone who’s been in Sag Harbor for a while, he remains a local legend. Destitute toward the end of his life, Amundsen bartered paintings locally to survive in his later years, eventually resorting to tearing up the floorboards of his home on Jermain Avenue and Madison Street to serve as his canvas.
But his scenes of New England fishing villages, whale hunts and coastal dock life are top notch, and no doubt there are still many Amundsen paintings hanging on walls or stored in attics of Sag Harbor homes.
There’s a good chance that not all of them are signed “Amundsen.”
A contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, with both of whom he co-founded the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show in 1932, as those artists were moving toward Abstract Expressionism in their work, Amundsen formed his own reputation as a prolific painter of realism. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Amundsen used some 20 different aliases on his paintings.
With so many alternative monikers, Amundsen cleverly avoided saturating the market with his own work and he assigned relative values based on “who” had signed the piece. For example, while Amundsen’s work fetched the highest prices (and still do), potential buyers who balked at the cost would often be steered by the artist toward less expensive Enwrights, McKays or Picots. In this way, he was able to sell much more work while protecting the value of pieces created under his real name. Amundsen even went to the trouble of creating phony biographies for the aliases, which he often attached to the backs of the paintings.
It all makes for a fascinating exhibition. “The Art and Aliases of ‘Cappy’ Amundsen” features 20 or so paintings which will be on view in the Whaling Museum’s main gallery until it closes for the season in October. All the works featured are on loan from collector Robert J. Jahoda. Also on view are photographs of Amundsen taken by Linda K. Alpern in the 1990s, and an Amundsen painting depicting a whaling scene that was recently gifted to the museum by collector and artist Robert Hooke.
“This was a commissioned painting for a specific scene from Moby Dick,” explained Richard Doctorow, director of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. “We’re delighted to have received it.”
In 2011, East Hampton art dealer Terry Wallace wrote a book about Amundsen and his many aliases and during a recent interview at his gallery, Wallace spoke about the artist’s motivation for painting under so many different names. While the aliases were, indeed, an effective marketing tool for Amundsen, Wallace suspects there may have also been a more political reason for his many names.
In 1934, Amundsen took part in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured work by unemployed artists. For the show, Amundsen, who was 23 at the time, submitted a caricature of Hitler that depicted him as a cloven-hoofed beast who was half-man, half-devil. Though praised by Jewish organizations in New York, the work was controversial and it was removed from the show after being deemed too political by, among others, the wife of the German ambassador. At this early date, it seemed that most Americans did not yet recognize the danger Hitler posed to the world. But Amundsen did, and in the years that followed, he became even more political in his personal views, even if his work tended toward non-controversial sea themes.
A few years later, Amundsen joined up with a group of Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishermen who were extreme in their political views and he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies). In the early ’40s, Amundsen relocated to Conway, New Hampshire, where he joined the World Fellowship camp, an organization whose slogan was “In a Time of War Prepare For Peace.”
Though the stated goal of the camp was to encourage friendship among people of different countries and to end war, poverty, hunger and bigotry, there were known socialists and Marxists among their ranks. It’s likely a few communists hid out on the secluded 455-acre property as well.
Wallace notes this is around the time Amundsen began painting under an even wide range of aliases and he suspects it may have been to avoid detection by those who would label him as a political enemy.
“The sheriff in Conway was named John James Enwrite. Cappy started making paintings signed J.J. Enwright,” explained Wallace. “He started to send them to the art publisher in New York. Because of his political involvement and the fact he was 4F and against the war, he soon started being looked at by McCarthy and also began painting under the names Ward and Mackay.”
William Ward, notes Wallace, was a painter living in England that Amundsen admired. Often on the backs of these paintings, Amundsen would put a bogus inventory number, and an official looking copyright stamp that included verbiage in which only the letters “C” and the “A” were capitalized — for Cappy Amundsen. Wallace adds that Amundsen also began painting more patriotic paintings under his own name to deflect suspicions about his loyalty and political leanings, some of which may have been inherited.
Amundsen’s father, Norwegian-born Casper Emerson Jr., was an accomplished artist in his own right. A newspaper and magazine illustrator, during World War I, the elder Emerson took home a prize for a Treasury Department war savings poster he had created. Though he was raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Amundsen and his father often headed out to the East End for rest and relaxation.
“Cappy had a picture of himself at the Sag Harbor bridge at age 2,” explained Wallace. “His whole life he had a relationship to the community. Though he was married, Cappy’s father would bring girls out to the [American] hotel. He’d give Cappy a fishing rod and boat and send him out so he could meet the girls.”
In those early years, Amundsen got to know many local boys who became his lifelong friends and who protected him when he moved to Sag Harbor later in his life.
“He came to Sag Harbor for good in 1945. Once Cappy got back here, he was outspoken,” said Wallace. “Cappy came to a meeting of the waterfront group and they wanted to buy an ambulance. He said, ‘I don’t feel sorry for you because you have the greatest waterfront and you don’t use it.’ He helped start the first HarborFest in Sag Harbor.
“Cappy was an amazing guy,” said Wallace, who adds that another major issue in Sag Harbor that Amundsen became involved with had to do with the Pierson High School basketball team.
“The team went out drinking and the coach and principal expelled the players and people were upset,” said Wallace. “Cappy was an alcoholic himself, and they had a big meeting and he said, ‘What good does it do to kick the kids out of school? They’ll just get in more trouble.’ So he started a sea scout program for the local youth.”
Today, Wallace notes that all these years later, the pricing structure Amundsen developed for the works of his many aliases remains true to this day.
“The Cappy paintings are expensive. But you can buy an alias for much less by the same artist,” said Wallace. “Cappys sell for the most, then others sell for less. There are a lot of buyers now for Hughes, Mackays and Wards.
“That’s how he lived,” he said. “All he needed to do was trade or barter paintings.”
Interestingly enough, in all his years, Wallace has not come across a single whaling scene by Amundsen that was painted under an alias. It would seem that Amundsen had a special affinity for the topic and opted to keep that subject for himself. Wallace also suspects there is a lot more work by Amundsen out there that has yet to be discovered.
“I believe there are a whole bunch of Cappys out there painted under a different name that are Abstract Expressionist works,” he said. “He taught abstract painting. I think there’s possibly a body of work out there we don’t know about.”
Maybe, just maybe, those works are tucked away in some attics in Sag Harbor.
“The Art and Aliases of ‘Cappy’ Amundsen” remains on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum through October. Admission is by staggered entry and reservations may be made at 631-725-0770, or visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org for information. The museum is at 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor and open Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (last entry 4 p.m.).