Henry Strater’s Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Henry Strater's Masterwork
Henry Strater’s Masterwork

As a member of the “lost generation,” landscape and figure painter Henry Strater was frequently interviewed about his relationships with literary icons, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. He was frustrated that he had achieved more notoriety for his friendships than for his art.

At the dedication of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1953, Strater explained that he had built the museum to showcase his own contemporaries in the visual arts. “The works of writers are reproduced by the thousands,” he told the appreciative crowd, “whereas an artist makes only his original.”

Henry Strater, who was known to his friends as “Mike,” was a bit of a rebel during his years at Princeton. He started a movement to alter the undemocratic system of social clubs at the school and he protested American participation in World War I. Classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled the rebel-pacifist character, Burne Holiday, in “This Side of Paradise,” after Mike. “I taught Scott not to be afraid of the devil or the dark,” the painter once said of his influence over Fitzgerald.

Strater was a writer then, too. During his freshman year he won out against some pretty stiff competition to edit the Daily Princetonian. Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe once asked Strater how he chose between visual and literary arts. He responded, “I had to answer the question, did I want to spend the rest of my life looking at a beautiful typewriter, or did I want to spend the rest of my life looking at a beautiful woman?” He chose beautiful women, repeatedly.

Strater’s draft registration card lists him as a conscientious objector, but in 1917 he volunteered for Red Cross service in France. While on leave near the Swiss border he fell and injured himself, ending up on crutches. After suffering the humiliation of being treated like a war hero by women in the streets of Paris, he signed up for the Belgian Army in an effort to legitimize the perception.

While awaiting transport back to the States after the war, Strater studied art at l’Ecole Julien in Paris. He continued his artistic training at the Hamilton Easter Field School of painting in Ogunquit, during the summer of 1919. Strater spent the next five years honing his skills in exotic places. He and his first wife, Margaret Connor, travelled in Europe where they frequently dined with author James Joyce and met Earnest Hemingway at one of Ezra Pound’s afternoon teas.

Strater and Hemingway became very close. They boxed, fished and philosophized together for years. In 1936 the two men had a falling out over a 900-pound marlin. Mike had landed the giant, but when Hemingway allowed a photographer from Time Magazine to mistakenly assume he had caught the fish, the friendship fell apart.

After Hemingway died in 1961, Henry was flooded with questions about his former friend until he told a reporter for the Boston Globe to spread the word that he was “Hemingwayed out!”

Mike’s passion for competitive tuna fishing near his summer home in Ogunquit was rivaled only by his love for beautiful women. When not busy painting or fishing, he gleefully offered his services as judge of the annual Miss Ogunquit bathing suit pageant. Henry Strater and all three of his wives spent and worked tirelessly for the betterment of Ogunquit area organizations including the library and York Hospital. The Straters were also active supporters of the Ogunquit Art Association.

The more famous his “lost generation” literary friends became, the more fervent was Henry Strater’s wish that visual artists of the same era be similarly recognized. On Sept. 18, 1951, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art was incorporated. Henry Strater purchased the land on Shore Road and hired Charles Worley Jr. to design the museum. Jarvis Shibles of North Berwick was hired to oversee construction, which began in September of 1852. The 3,600 square foot building was completed halfway through the following summer.

On July 8, 1953, the Portsmouth Herald published a description of the new museum. “The low simple lines of the building give an unobtrusive yet modern appearance. The white pine pillars supporting the terrace roof were cut by Henry Strater and Joseph Weare from the old Weare woodlands.”

Mike and his fellow trustees filled the four exhibit rooms with works by Strater and his peers. A large Ogunquit crowd turned out for the dedication ceremonies on Aug. 1, 1953. Henry H. Strater gave the museum to the people of Ogunquit in memory of his parents, Adeline Helme and Charles Godfrey Strater. His realized dream is, to this day, one of Ogunquit’s crown jewels.

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