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A Look at the Providence Art Club

Providence Rhode Island

The rooms are lined with silhouettes. Black and white friezes of members’ heads, both living and dead, adorn the walls of the Providence Art Club in Providence Rhode Island. The No. 1 profile clearly outlines the distinctive head and beard of one of its founders, African-American landscape artist Edward Bannister. The figures both haunt and inspire today’s members, though no one seems to know how those so honored were chosen at first.

Incorporated in 1880, the Art Club became the nation’s second oldest institution, following New York City’s Salmagundi Club. On March 22, 1880, one month after its incorporation, The New York Times condescendingly gave it a one sentence nod in a column of arts odds and ends. “Providence has an art club, too,” it noted.

In the best Rhode Island tradition of inclusiveness, a group of 16 men and women, both artists and non-artists, met on a cold night in February 1880 to hammer out the charter for a society that would strive to stimulate art appreciation and exist “for art culture” in Providence specifically and Rhode Island in general. And that last phrase is still on its coat of arms.

Their first ambition was to foster a relaxed exchange among collectors, dealers, and local artists. In order to do this, they needed a permanent home where they could promote art not only in shows, but through educational programs as well. As early as 1881, the club was operating full tilt, presenting lectures on topics such as Truth in Art and Reminiscences of Jean Francois Millet. But it didn’t find a permanent home until seven years later.

The club moved into the 1790 Obadiah Brown house at 11 Thomas Street in 1887 and instantly began making the space its own. Members designed the furniture, made wrought iron andirons for the fireplace, and began painting the ubiquitous silhouettes. They paneled the reading room walls with the house’s original shutters. They established a collection of their beer steins on the shelves, hung wine bottles from the ceiling of the dining nook, and ate Johnny cakes at lunch. They presented plays, musical concerts, and lectures on the second floor of the Brown house.

Today, the club is housed in three other structures besides the original brick house. The Seril Dodge House, next to the Brown house and connected to it by an archway, is the home of the Dodge Gallery, one of the two main showcases of artists’ works. Though the house was built in 1784, it wasn’t until 1906 that it got its unique profile when the whole structure was lifted 15 feet to install a grocery store underneath. What used to be the main entrance is now a decorative feature high above street level. What appears to be a balcony for reviewing the troops was actually once the front door and porch.

The club is hard at work restoring some of the Dodge House’s brilliant features, such as the unique fireplaces with their two-story mantelpieces featuring classical Greek columns and cornices. The most dramatic of the four buildings is the Fleur de Lys Building at 7 Thomas Street. The eccentric Arts and Crafts building was erected in 1885 by artist Sydney Burleigh. In an effort to express the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement (which rejected mass production and believed that designers should be involved in creating their own works based on old principles of craftsmanship and design) he and architect Edmund Wilson created a half-timbered house on the order of English Norman-style buildings. They decorated it with textured stucco and adorned it with medallions and friezes of figures that ranged from those of graceful ladies to faces of men and animals in cabbages.

Of course, Providence horror story writer H.P. Lovecraft couldn’t help but use the odd house in his writings. In one of his most famous tales, The Call of Cthulhu, he writes, “His card bore the name of Henry Anthony Wilcox… who had latterly been studying sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and living alone in the Fleur-de-Lys building near that institution.” He then describes an eerie bas relief made by Wilcox that vaguely resembles one of those on the house.

Today, the house (designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992) is still used as artist studios as Mrs. Burleigh stipulated when she willed the building to the Art Club in 1939.

But that wasn’t the only connection Lovecraft had with the Providence Art Club. His aunt showed landscapes in the gallery’s exhibitions and he attended exhibitions there in the 1920s.

The Art Club is obviously more than the buildings that house it, though. It still promotes art in Providence by holding regular exhibits. Members can take art classes and attend lectures as well as learning from what Harley Bartlett, the current president, calls “indirect mentoring,” through which less experienced artists can hone their talent by interacting with veteran artists at work.
Today, the organization still abides by its charter and new members (both artists and non-artists) must be nominated by current members. Though the number of artist members isn’t limited, only 400 non-artists (such as former mayor Buddy Cianci) may belong at any one time.

For the casual visitor as well as members, the Providence Art Club provides an inspiring atmosphere of ever-changing creativity!

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