Ada Gilmore Chaffee (1882-1955)
Pioneer of American Modernism
Despite living most of her life outside of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo-born artist Ada Gilmore Chaffee was a leading pioneer as a painter and woodblock printer, known primarily for her affiliation with the Provincetown Printers and their unique advances in the use of multi-colored woodblocks.
Born in 1883 to Irish immigrants John M. and Mary Downey Gilmore, Chaffee and her three siblings became orphaned in 1895, forcing her to leave Kalamazoo for Belfast, Northern Ireland to live with an aunt. Her father was co-founder of the Gilmore Brothers Department Store. It was while living in Belfast when Gilmore developed her interest in art, studying at the Belfast School of Art.
She returned to Kalamazoo at the age of 17, but around 1906, she left for Chicago to study under Robert Henri at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she would meet her longtime friend and fellow artist, Mildred McMillen. The two friends left for Paris around 1912, but the outbreak of World War I compelled them to return to the United States, taking up residence in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown would serve as her primary home until her death in 1955, and where Gilmore and her fellow artists would contribute to the Cape Cod community becoming a haven for artists.
Provincetown Printers, 1915
In 1915, a collection of artists that included Gilmore, Mildred McMillen, Maud Squire, Juliette Nichols, and Blanche Lazzell came together in Provincetown to grow their artistic practice. Ethel Mars had introduced Gilmore and McMillen to the technique of woodblock printing while the three were in Paris, but whereas traditional woodcut prints were typically one color per block, Gilmore and her group advanced multi-color woodblock printing (aka the white-line woodcut print).
The first major exhibition of their works took place in August of 1915, an event that art historians view as the genesis of the city’s turn toward its arts-friendly character. The group’s work was considered groundbreaking at the time, a pre-cursor to the edgier Avant-garde Modernism that would develop in the United States over the following two decades. Gilmore’s woodblocks of everyday life and landscapes have been noted for their soft colors, and watercolor painting-like appearance.
“In 1915, her prints were shown at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California; the initial exhibition of the Provincetown Art Association, Massachusetts, the New York Watercolor Club, which exhibited her work annually; and the Berlin Photographic Company–both in New York City.”
—North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary (1995), p.120
In the early 1920s, Gilmore married fellow artist Oliver Newbury Chaffee, a native of Detroit. Around this time, Ada abandoned woodblock printing for painting, likely a result of her husband’s influence, as well as her contact with the work of modernist masters while visiting France. The couple returned to Provincetown in 1928.
A successful artist himself, whose work was shown at the infamous Armory Show in 1913, Chaffee passed away in 1944 while in Ashville, North Carolina. Both Ada and Oliver have work as part of the Kalamazoo Institute of Art’s permanent collection, donated by Ada’s cousin Donald S. Gilmore. The two artists are buried in Provincetown.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, September 2023
“Ada Gilmore Chaffee prints shown”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 November 1979, page B4, column 4
“Impressionism the name of the art game this season”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 September 1984, page E-3, column 1
“Kalamazoo’s gift of art accepted by Smithsonian”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 June 1981, page B-3, column 1
Local History Room Files
Name File: Chaffee, Ada Gilmore
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts