Henrietta Dunn Mears (1877-1970), American
“Cesco’s Italian Inn”, Provincetown, Massachusetts, undated - probably 1916-1920
oil on canvas, 22 in. x 18 in.
(framed dimensions: 27 in. x 23 in. )
signed lower right: “Henrietta Dunn Mears”
inscribed reverse on upper stretcher bar: “Cescos Italian Inn”
This sun-filled canvas captures a brilliant sunny day in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during its heyday as a burgeoning artists’ colony at the outer tip of Cape Cod. The scene is Cesco’s Italian Restaurant, as seen from Bradford Street (Route 6A), at that time just an unpaved dirt road. Plein-air painters had come to realize that the brightest colors out of doors were impossibly out of the range of their paints. However, the darks were attainable – and if the rest of the values were keyed accordingly from that, then the brilliant effect of colors in sunlight could be approximated. Here, Mears has achieved that. Against the backdrop of a hazy blue sky, she paints the gabled ends of the house, the arbor and the bright colors of Cesco’s garden – a variety of greens sprinkled with daubs of yellow, red and lavender. The paint surface is a tour de force of staccato brushstrokes of impastoed oil paint. The warmth of the sun is evoked in the warm ochers and creams of the dusty dirt road. The viewer can imagine the clink of glassware or pans from within as the restaurant prepares for another evening serving patrons. The Boston art critic and historian Frederick W. Coburn once chose a landscape by Mrs. Mears as illustrating the proper painting of sunlight. “She has mastered the art”, he declared.
Francesco “Cesco” Ronga (1876-1947), owner and proprietor of “Cesco’s Italian Restaurant” in Provincetown, was a phenomenon in his day – known as the “Spaghetti King of Cape Cod”. The name was sometimes spelled Chesco, as it would be pronounced in Italian. The story of Cesco’s began when the artist Fred Marvin (1865-1942), a student of Charles Hawthorne, met Francesco in Naples, Italy about 1910 and took him on as a kind of ward, cook, man-Friday and companion. Marvin and Ronga would go on to live together as committed lifelong partners in Provincetown for the next 32 years. Marvin was a noted local Impressionist painter and intellectual while Ronga was said to have “the gay, volatile and changeable temperament of a true Neapolitan” who was fond of singing robust operatic arias as he walked to get groceries.
Cesco had previously traveled with Marvin on a painting excursion to Bermuda, during which he had cooked for all of the artists. After returning to Provincetown, Cesco continued “preparing all the meals for the boys” (per artist Houghton Cranford Smith). After some time, Cesco, with Marvin’s support, opened his own restaurant, which he ran from 1916 to 1934 in their comfortable home at 211 Bradford Street, which still stands today.
Cesco’s was quite popular, drawing clientele from all over New England, and even had several of its own postcards printed (2 are included with this painting). The herbs and 16 other ingredients that flavored his pasta dishes made the restaurant famous. Cesco also had a green thumb and he cultivated the delightful flower and herb gardens and the picturesque arbored walkway just outside the restaurant. It was at Cesco’s, in July of 1916, that the artists Charles Hawthorne, “Petey” Bicknell, Ambrose Webster, Lester Hornby, George Senseney and others formed the Beachcombers Club, a private social club.
An article in Cape Cod Magazine (1921) gives a vivid description of a meal at Cesco’s after a tiring day taking in the Provincetown sights:
“Can one ever forget his first impression of the place? No matter which direction he approaches, whether from down the hill or through the lane, it is always one of the joy-spots in his life to have seen the singing color of Cesco’s garden. Once inside, the visitor finds himself seated at one of the many bare tables, some of which are antiques; and as the eyes become accustomed to the dimmer light of the cool interior, he remarks the sheer artistry of the immaculate rooms … On the walls one sees a number of sketches … the work of those who have at some time known Cesco’s, and many of whom are now famous artists … a plate of spaghetti, cheese and tomatoes, which is mine by the grace of a lovely little Sicilian maid whose glowing beauty adds another bit of magic to the spell … The tables are now nearly full and it is interesting to note the diners. There are many young men and girls among them, and the bright summer frocks of the latter make brilliant splashes of color.”
Other artists of the time had pictured Cesco’s in their work, such as Mary Coulter, Lester G. Hornby, Vollian Rann and Randolph Coats. The latter’s (Coats’) painting was referenced in the Indianapolis Star in September, 1924:
“Many an artist who paints at Provincetown has taken his stand in front of Cesco’s, has entered the door, sat down at a table and ordered viands that take him back to the days when he dined and painted in foreign lands. Cesco’s is an Italian restaurant at Provincetown. The gay flowers in front of the purple-shadowed house-wall and the feeling of sunlight and fresh air from the ocean make this a picture that one would like to live with.”
* * *
Henrietta Whitfield Dunn, the daughter of a Civil War veteran, was born in Milwaukee and spent her early childhood growing up in Seattle.
She showed an early interest in art and moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League with Charles Hawthorne (assistant to William Merritt Chase) and later in Boston with Eric Pape. While in New York, Chase commented favorably on her work. In Boston, she is also listed as having attended the Lowell School of Design at MIT in 1896. She often traveled across the ocean with her mother and while in Paris studied with the female painter Real del Sartre, and sending back to America 100 pictures, all of which sold before her return.
Early in her career, in her 20’s, Mears was well-known for her watercolor paintings of the so-called “Frivolous Girls”, breezy depictions of “typical beauties of the Pacific Coast” (The Pacific Monthly, 1905) similar to the famous Gibson Girls. Apparently, Harvard and Yale students were especially enamored with these works and adorned their rooms with them (they were copied on sofa pillows, tapestries, candy boxes and calendars over five continents).
An interview with Kate Hall of the Pacific Monthly in 1905 gives an impression of Miss Dunn at the age of 28:
“There tripped into my presence the smiling vision of a little Vandyke blonde in a brown silk suit, with laughing brown eyes and a large brown velvet bonnet, trimmed with autumn leaves, tied under a laughing, dimpled mouth. The very pleasantest of greetings made me feel acquainted with the whole family of “Frivolous Girls”. Later, in her studio, the artist hinted at wanting to do something more: “I am not afraid to strike out in original lines, and I am not afraid to work … Next Spring I am going to Italy again. I want to study with a master who paints strongly-lined, haggard faces full of character.”
The L.A. Times noted that “She possesses a bright, sunny temperament which readily wins friends and is a brilliant conversationalist. She speaks French fluently, swims, plays golf and is also musical.”
In 1907 she married William Burtis Mears of Boston, a member of the brokerage and banking firm Paine, Webber & Co. In reporting on the wedding, the Los Angeles Times presumptively titled the column “Artist Exchanges Brush for Broom”. While Henrietta gave birth to two children, a son Donald in 1908 and a daughter Marguerite in 1918, she clearly continued to paint and to improve as an artist.
As Mears’ oeuvre matured over the next twenty years, her early watercolor paintings would give way to easel and plein air oil paintings and the occasional etchings which would “find themselves in notable galleries instead of on candy boxes and magazine covers” as noted in the Milwaukee Journal in 1926.
Mears later lived in Boston, Massachusetts and summered in Provincetown for many years, where she studied again with Charles Hawthorne. She had a solo exhibition at Boston’s Copley Society in 1917, when the American Art News reported that her paintings of “brightly sunlit glimpses at Provincetown” were exhibited “in the front gallery” (*perhaps including “Cesco’s Italian Inn”). In Spring of 1917 she also exhibited two paintings at the First Exhibition of the Society of Artists in New York City, titled “A Sunny Lane” and “Street in Provincetown”. She also showed "a group of excellently done subjects, mostly of Provincetown" (Boston Globe) in March, 1917 at the Brookline, Massachusetts Public Library.
Mears visited Bermuda in the winter of 1925-1926 with Margeurite, then 6. She finished a number of excellent seascapes while there and was quite taken with the island, describing it as an “enchanted isle” with “such elusive beauty. The colors baffle description and implore the painter to put them down before they are lost … we lived in a little white doll house. It was a fairy life befitting the charming island a thousand miles out in the ocean.” The Milwaukee Journal said, “Her Bermuda seas are liquid turquoise with tincture of violet, with faint and exquisite horizons.”
The family moved from Massachusetts to St. Paul, Minnesota about 1926 and Henrietta continued to paint and exhibit. She and her family moved again to California in 1945 where she found new inspiration for her paintings in the local mountains and missions.
About the mid 1920’s, the Milwaukee Journal reported that “Friends of the artist say that her facility and habit of painting sunny, pleasing landscapes rather than those in which nature appears in a harsh mood, is a reflection of her own sunny, unselfish disposition.”
In Henrietta’s own words: “I paint because I cannot help it and I find great joy in the happiness my pictures seem to give to my friends. When you are painting you strive to see only truth, beauty and gladness. This naturally shuts out all discordant thoughts. You must give to the world your own vision purified. And when this vision is shared by others it becomes a real joy.”
Henrietta and William had two children, Donald Whitfield Mears (1908-1979) who would also be an artist at least as a hobby, and Marguerite Mears (Lloyd) (1918-2002).
Mears passed away in the Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1970 at the age of 93 and is buried in the Hollywood Hills.
In 2018, her work was exhibited at the Hyde Collection museum in Glenns Falls, New York in an exhibition titled “Changing the Landscape: Women Impressionists from the Thomas Clark Collection”. The exhibition examined the work of various female artists who were just as good as male artists of their time, yet the women may not have been granted the recognition they deserved.
* * *
Cesco worked day and night taking care of his partner during the time that he was ill and helpless right up until Fred Marvin’s death in 1942. The house and money went to Cesco and he continued to live in Provincetown and help his community. After discussion with the local parish priest, Cesco used his resources to pay it forward by sending 4 sons of Provincetown fishermen to college. He explained his later life thus: “So now I have four sons who go to college in Boston… everything is the same like before. I still live in the little room downstairs and I cook and feed the chickens and make the garden. And every morning I go to shop for the neighbors. I am a servant, signor. Always I have been a servant …”
Cesco himself passed peacefully in 1947. When asked by a contemporary interviewer in the local paper, a Mrs. Gonzales had suggested a tombstone epitaph for Francesco:
“To the memory of Francesco Ronga, THE ETERNAL SERVANT, Born: Naples, 1876, Departed this life 1947, Everyone Loved Him”
Finally, regarding the house that was Cesco’s on Bradford Street, the artist Harvey Dodd lived in the building in the 1960s and the sculptor Richard Pepitone ran an art school there in the 1970s. Today, it is a private residence.
* * *
Mears exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists, New York; the Copley Society, Boston (1917 solo show); the Brookline (Mass.) Civic Society; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Minnesota State Fair (won prize 1927); the Minnesota State Agricultural Society; the St. Paul Institute School of Art (won prize 1930); the Berkeley League of Fine Arts; the Portland (Maine) Art Museum; the Boston Arts Club; the National Academy of Design; the Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.; the Newport Art Association; the Milwaukee Journal Gallery of Wisconsin Art; and the New Haven Paint and Clay Club.
She was a member of the American Allied Arts Association; the Copley Society, Boston; the Provincetown Art Association; the West Coast Artists, San Francisco; the Professional Women’s Club, Boston; the American Federation of Fine Arts and the Berkeley League of Fine Arts.
Her work is held in the collection of the Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin (a painting titled “The Three Masts” of a schooner moored dockside, probably in Provincetown) and in private collections.
The painting is in very good, original condition. The canvas is unlined and attached to its original stretcher bars. The paint surface is in excellent condition owing to the alla-prima painting technique. There are no repairs or paint losses. The paint is clean and the colors are fresh. The painting is unvarnished and has a matte surface with extensive impasto in the areas of foreground flowers and shrubbery. There is a faint stretcher bar impression along the top stretcher and another faint impression along the upper right stretcher bar - there is a small amount of minute, very stable craquelure associated with the right stile impression. When the painting is properly lit, both of these are mitigated. The painting is housed in a custom 22/23 karat gold leaf frame by Guido Frames of Dedham, Massachusetts.
Henrietta Dunn Mears, "Cesco's Italian Inn", Provincetown, oil on canvas, 1916-1920