May 29, 2020

Genjiro Yeto, Constant Holley, and the Cos Cob Art Colony's Influence on the American Art Scene

Built in stages between 1728-1771, the Bush-Holley House, a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Artists' Home and Studios Program, was situated in an ideal location for trade, overlooking the Cos Cob Harbor.

In the 18th and early 19th century, the house served as a home for the Bush family. By 1882, after some further architectural changes (adding a set of new windows and constructing the distinctive second-story porch), and under the ownership of Josephine and Edward Holley, the home became a boarding house frequented by artists and writers.

One such artist was Genjiro Yeto, a Japanese artist, who in the late 19th century became a regular visitor to this artist enclave, now known as the Cos Cob Art Colony. To learn more about Yeto’s influence on the early 20th century American art scene, and his relationship with the Holleys' daughter Constant Holley McRae, I talked to Maggie Dimock, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Greenwich Historical Society.

Exterior of the Bush-Holley Museum

photo by: Courtesy of the Greenwich Historical Society

Exterior of the Bush-Holley House Museum.

How did the Cos Cob Art Colony originate at Bush-Holley House? What made the colony so influential on American Art?

In the 1890s Greenwich, Connecticut, especially the Cos Cob neighborhood, became a popular destination for New York painters in search of a bucolic New England setting to paint en plein air, as many had grown accustomed while studying in France. Cos Cob was (and is) a convenient, short train ride from New York, and the sleepy coastal town provided a stark contrast to the bustling urban environment.

Julian Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman, both of whom taught at New York’s Art Students League, were among the first New York artists to visit Cos Cob. Twachtman purchased a house in Greenwich in 1890 and began offering summer painting classes to his New York students, many of whom found lodging at a local boarding house operated by Josephine and Edward Holley.

Known colloquially as “The Old House,” this 18th-century saltbox home with its gracious 2-tiered front porches overlooking the Cos Cob Harbor appealed to the young, artistic boarders. Twachtman’s continued presence and the inviting, bohemian atmosphere promoted by the Holleys attracted other rising talents of the New York art scene, many of them the progenitors of American Impressionism, including Weir, Childe Hassam, and Theodore Robinson.

Tell us about Genjiro Yeto’s arrival in the United States and how he ended up at the Holley boarding house.

Genjiro Yeto (1867-1924) came to the United States sometime around 1890 to pursue a business career, but eventually left the commercial world to become an artist. He enrolled in courses at the Art Students League of New York in 1895. Yeto became close friends with fellow student Elmer Livingston MacRae (1875-1953), and in 1896 the two young men joined their instructor John Henry Twachtman’s summer painting course in Cos Cob.

Yeto and MacRae lodged at the Holley boarding house and found there a community of like-minded artists. Both men developed an affection for Cos Cob and returned for repeated summer visits. In 1900 MacRae married Edward and Josephine Holley’s daughter Constant, and the young couple gradually took over running of the boarding house.

Yeto became a regular guest at the Holley house. In a letter written to Constant Holley in 1898, now in the Greenwich Historical Society archives, Elmer MacRae reported that Yeto declared the Holley house the “best place to study art,” and that he “consider[ed] it my home as I am treated so nicely.”

What was the extent of Genjiro Yeto’s influence on American art in the early 20th century?

Yeto arrived in the United States amid a general surge in interest for all things Japanese. Following the forced reopening of Japan to western trade in 1854, Americans and Europeans became enamored with Japanese art and design. Colorful and harmonious ukiyo-e woodblock prints were collected and imitated by many American artists, including Twachtman. At the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the Japanese Pavilion—where Yeto may have been present to promote the distinctive porcelains of his home town, Arita—was the most popular attraction.

Yeto came to New York intending to study western-style painting, but eventually found success chiefly as a watercolor artist of traditional “Japanese” subjects, including florals and genre scenes, which were popular among American buyers.

Genjiro Yeto and fellow Cos Cob art students clad in Japanese kimonos, ca. 1897

photo by: Greenwich Historical Society, Photograph Collection

Genjiro Yeto and fellow Cos Cob art students clad in Japanese kimonos, ca. 1897

In his New York years, Yeto also developed a fruitful career as an illustrator, often for books with Japanese subjects including A Japanese Nightingale (1901) and Tama (1910) by Onoto Watanna—a pen name utilized by the Chinese-Canadian writer Winnifred Eaton—and The American Diary of a Japanese Girl (1902), published under the name “Miss Morning Glory,” but in actuality the work of Japanese writer Yone Noguchi, father of noted sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Yeto’s influence on American culture extended beyond his own artwork; he worked as a creative consultant for the Broadway staging of the play Madam Butterfly in 1900, which inspired the later Puccini opera. He also assisted pioneering curator Steward Culin in assembling the Japanese Art Collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Who was Constant Holley, and what was her relationship with Genjiro Yeto? What was her role in founding the Cos Cob Art Colony?

After her marriage to artist Elmer Livingston MacRae, Constant Holley MacRae (1871-1965) became the proprietress of the Holley boarding house and a key figure in the development of the Cos Cob Art Colony. Constant planned meals and activities for the artist-boarders and provided entertainment and structure to their days.

Like her husband, Constant Holley MacRae had a deep admiration for Yeto. The craze for all things Japanese was rampant among Cos Cob colony artists, but through her relationship with Yeto, Constant developed a deeper interest in Japanese culture. With his cooperation Constant staged tea ceremonies, hung Japanese-inspired paper lanterns on the porches of the Holley House, and created origami cranes to hang from ceilings in the Holley house.

Probably under Yeto’s guidance, Constant was introduced to ikebana, the delicate Japanese art of flower arranging. Over her lifetime Constant became an accomplished floral arranger, winning top prizes in national competitions and even contributing arrangements for display in the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Genjiro Yeto, Untitled [Peony], 1915

photo by: Greenwich Historical Society, Gift of Yukiko Tanaka in memory of her grandfather Genjiro Yeto/Kataoka

Genjiro Yeto, Untitled [Peony], 1915

In what way do visitors to the Greenwich Historical Society learn about Yeto’s story?

Today, the Greenwich Historical Society’s museum campus consists of a Library & Archives, exhibition galleries, and the Bush-Holley House museum, which is open by guided tour. The Archives are home to several first-editions of books illustrated by Yeto, and visitors to our galleries may view examples of Yeto’s watercolor paintings.

The Bush-Holley House follows a dual-period interpretation reflecting the early residency of the Bush family (from 1755 to 1848), and the Art Colony period lasting from ca. 1890 to 1920. The Art Colony rooms are furnished to reflect the activities of the Holley-MacRae family and their artist friends and boarders. Yeto’s story is integral to our guided house tour, and while we lack physical objects or possessions that belonged to Yeto, his presence is intentionally evoked by many Japanese objects owned by the MacRaes. In Elmer MacRae’s studio, origami birds dangle above an easel, and paper lanterns, delicate porcelains, Japanese prints, and recreations of Contant Holley’s ikebana arrangements speak to Yeto’s influence.

Interpreting the legacy of Genjiro Yeto at the Bush-Holley house has yielded meaningful opportunities to connect with our local Japanese community, and to offer programs exploring Japanese culture. We have been extremely fortunate to have the support of art historian Susan G. Larkin, a leading authority on the Cos Cob Art Colony whose research into Yeto’s life and work has informed much of our interpretation. (If you want to learn more, check out her book The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore.)

Through the efforts of dedicated volunteers Harry Sakamaki and the late Noboru Uezumi, the Greenwich Historical Society developed relationships with the New York Japanese School and has offered Japanese-language programs on Yeto and the Bush-Holley House. Children in our summer camps learn sumi-e ink wash painting, ikebana floral arranging, and origami, and our annual Fall Festival has incorporated kite-making and karate and Japanese dance demonstrations.

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