RUSSELL CHENEY: ARTIST OF THE PISCATAQUA
by Patricia L. Heard and Richard M. Candee
This essay was prepared by Patricia Heard for the 1996 Portsmouth Athenaeum exhibition catalog for Russell Cheney: Artist of the Piscataqua and expanded with new information by Richard Candee for use on this Website and a large Portsmouth, N.H. exhibition of Cheney’s New England paintings in 2008.
Russell Cheney was one of the first artists to bring the Modernist approach to the painting of Portsmouth and its environs. His paintings remain as fresh and undated today as when he painted them in the twenties, thirties and forties. Despite their varying stylesfrom the decoratively linear to a more painterly mode with rapid brush strokeseach is unmistakably a Russell Cheney. From still lifes, to portraits, to landscapes, he painted what pleased him about life, thus his paintings all have an integrity not always present in the works of more flamboyant artists. As the painter Willem de Kooning said, “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself: It’s not self evidentit needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it’s part of a whole man’s life.” This then is Cheney’s story.
The Young Russell
Russell Cheney was the eleventh and youngest child of Knight Dexter Cheney and Ednah Dow Smith Cheney of South Manchester, Connecticut. The year of his birth was 1881 and the young Russell could well be said to have been swaddled in silk. His grandfather and his three great-uncles had founded the Cheney silk mills in Manchester in 1831 and the family led a prosperous and comfortable existence. In the words of Helen Knapp, Russell’s well-loved niece, “They practiced benevolent feudalism in a town made up of mill hands with no labor unions. They had little if any religious faith. They believed absolutely in a High Protective Tariff and the Republican Party. All of them had goodness, kindness and generosity and a sense of humor.”