I dream of having a friend like artist Gaston Longchamp.
To have received one of his illustrative letters like those preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington would have been a treasure.
Gaston learned his craft in Paris at the foot of Georges Seurat, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Signac, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Raoll Duffy, Pablo Picasso and many others.
It was stunning to me to learn recently the expressionist painter called Kintnersville in Upper Bucks his home for more than 40 years. All the while, he produced prolific works of art that remained concealed.
You could make a good case he should be ranked among Bucks’ great artists. Why he isn’t is a mystery to me.
Fernand “Gaston” Longchamp was born in 1894 in Amsterdam, New York, to a Cayuga-Iroquois decorator infuriated by the U.S. Army’s 1890 massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
He emigrated with his French wife and baby to Paris, where they led a Bohemian lifestyle intertwined with aspiring young artists. Friends regularly gathered at a dining table under the Longchamp garden arbor to discuss politics, the sciences and art.
Gaston, age 7, would hide under the table, eavesdropping. As he recalled in 1969, “When the mood was joyful, painters, musicians and poets were sure to be the majority. Some of them were extravagant enough to wear sandals barefooted. Today I could draw the feet of Paul Napoleon Rainard just as I can smell the perfumes of the ladies present.”
As an apprentice to his dad, young Gaston often bicycled to Renoir’s home to clean his brushes and watch him paint. He also began drawing the human figure, normally his mom with her cats and dogs.
By age 14, he painted alongside artists Dufy, Matisse and Georges Braque. At 17, he worked with Picasso painting stage designs for the Russian ballet and with Chagall for Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” ballet. He described idle hours filled with “impromptu concerts and musicals, wine parties and bus trips to the Left Bank, and everyone was painting.”
At the urging of friends in the 1920s, he relocated to New York to pursue modern art. On arrival, he was in demand doing set designs on Broadway. His yearning, however, was success as an oil painter. That proved to be difficult since galleries controlled the market.
Gaston tried interior design for wealthy art patrons but soon regretted surrendering artistic independence to them. “I was fed up,” he told a reporter. “I wanted to get away from the art colonies of Woodstock and Greenwich Village. I did not want to exhibit in galleries, nor play the game of art. All I wanted to do was paint in peace.”
His wife Ouida found the perfect place: Kintnersville.
Founded in the 1700s, it once was a prosperous mill town where River Road meets Route 611 on the old stagecoach line from Philadelphia to Easton. By the 1860s, the village contained 20 homes, a store, hotel, lumber factory and large…