Late Salem resident, born in Swampscott, was artist, statesman and Renaissance man
Local historian, writer and the unofficial Homer of Salem Jim McAllister regaled listeners with tales from the life of one of the city’s most remarkable and illustrious citizens, artist and statesman Philip Little (1857-1942).
McAllister spoke at the Hawthorne Hotel Wednesday, May 22 about this dynamic personality who helped make the North Shore an arts destination. Sadly, Little is hardly a household name these days, but McAllister’s lecture – about Little’s genius and contributions - aimed to reverse that status quo.
MacAllister supplied witty anecdotes about Little and his contemporaries and provided the historical and artistic backdrop of the times. For many years, McAllister penned a Salem News history column, and leads historical and educational tours since the 1980s with Elder Hostel (now Road Scholars).
McAllister traced Little’s beginnings as a child of wealth born in Swampscott’s Little Point to a mercantile baron who owned Pacific Mills in Lawrence. In addition to owning one of the largest mills in the country at the time, Little’s father was an incorporator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Little came from the crème de la crème of Yankee society and his ancestors came to New England on the Mayflower,” McAllister said.
Little’s father was grooming his son to take the reins of the family’s cotton and wool business.
Little obediently attended the then-new MIT for several years with the intention of “going to work for his old man,” said McAllister. Little somehow slid out of that path and ended up working at Forbes Lithography, where he learned printmaking.
“This kind of scenario played out often in those days,” McAllister said.
He added young men who were expected to take over the family business, but would abandon these expectations once the patriarch died in order to follow their own dreams.
And follow his dreams he did.
Little spent a year at Forbes. In the mid-to-late 19th century, lithography was a popular and inexpensive way to make prints, McAllister said. The medium was used in fine arts printmaking as well as advertising. Probably the most well known artist to use lithography for his unique and arresting posters of the Moulin Rouge and celebrities of the day was France’s Toulouse-Lautrec.
With a year at Forbes under his belt, Little continued his artistic momentum by entering the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1880, which had opened only a decade before. At the Museum School, Little met fellow Salem artist Frank Benson, who would go on to fame as a member of the school of American impressionists.
McAllister described how Little completed “the trinity of great artists” living and working on the North Shore which included Ross Sterling Turner and Benson.
Unlike some Americans of the time, such as Boston’s own, John Singer Sargent, or Mary Cassatt who left the United States to live and work in Europe, Little never considered this.
“In those days, people went to Europe to cut their teeth in art. But Little said, ‘I’m an American painter’ and stayed here,” said McAllister.
Little’s friend Benson did travel and study in Europe, but when he returned in the 1880s, the two hooked up again and began a collaboration that would last for the rest of their lives. McAllister described how the friends set up a studio and gallery on historic Chestnut Street, where Little lived and would generously share the space with artists of lesser means.
Little was known as a kind and generous person to his friends and neighbors, gifting his art away to anyone in his circle.
“He was a public-spirited person and used his business acumen doing for others. He was truly a unique character,” McAllister notes. “He was stylish, dashing really. A consummate gentleman’s gentleman.”
We can only speculate, but it’s not hard to imagine that Little particularly relished his position as curator of art at Salem’s Essex Institute, which was the precursor to the Peabody Essex Museum.
“It wasn’t uncommon to find Renaissance men like this back then, people who were involved in many other things,” McAllister said. “They weren’t these one-dimensional types where they just focused on business or art.”
Little’s favorite subject was the picturesque North Shore, especially the harbor and wharves as well as the Maine seashore, where he lived and worked for part of the year.
McAllister concluded the talk with a reflection on Little’s later years.
“He never pursued fame” because he was lucky to have been born into wealth. “He didn’t have to work, he painted” and was never a starving artist living in an unheated garret. Shortly before World War I, Little’s career took off with multiple exhibits around the northeast.
“This really put him on the map,” McAllister said.