Artful Homecoming

James Fitzgerald carefully studied the sea. As a result, even those not taken by Fitzgerald’s pieces must admit his paintings can make one seasick.

There are two popular spots in Monterey where his work can be seen.

James Fitzgerald’s large mural painting titled “Net Menders” still hangs in the dining room of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It is 6 feet high and 14 feet long and it’s pretty hard to miss,” says Dan Broeckelmann, chairman of the James Fitzgerald Legacy Committee at the Monhegan Museum of Art & History in Maine, Fitzgerald’s second home – or third, if you include his native Boston.

The second example of Fitzgerald’s work can be found at Ed Ricketts’ lab on Cannery Row. The information panel at the side of the building includes portraits of Ricketts and John Steinbeck. “Both of these were done by Fitzgerald and were cherished gifts to his friends,” Broeckelmann says. “When Ricketts’ lab burned down, he grabbed his typewriter and his portrait. Ed’s original is with his daughter Nancy. John’s original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.”

Soon, more work by Fitzgerald (1899-1971) will be on display at the Monterey Museum of Art. The exhibit opens Thursday, Jan. 13 and is a welcome back to this watercolor painter after years of absence from the West Coast. While widely recognized in Maine and established on the East Coast, Fitzgerald is yet to be re-discovered in California.

Fitzgerald never planned for his 15-year-long “Monterey period.” He set out from New York City, a solid traditional painter, with a goal to sail to Alaska. He sailed to Monterey instead, built a studio, got married and started to “find his voice,” Broeckelmann says. While in Monterey, he got interested in Eastern philosophy and through it he developed a desire to simplify his art. He relied on a great ability to focus and intense observation of the ocean. The effect is “deceptively simple,” Broeckelmann says.

With his marriage failing and seeking an even more simple life, Fitzgerald ended up on the island of Monhegan, in Maine. That was his final destination and that’s where he left a catalog of hundreds watercolors. Some of them are now coming to Monterey.

“He was confident in his work,” Broeckelmann says. “He knew that if the work is good, it will carry itself.”

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