Provincetown And The Left Bank
Feature by Alan Bodian

“Bodian...haven’t seen you around lately.”

Henry Botkin said this rather cavalierly, he being a familiar presence at Tirca Karlis Gallery, at the foot of Center Street, where the flow of browsers was especially dense on Friday nights.

“We’ve been away for two years, this is our first opening since 1959.”
During our time in France, much happened in art and noticeably Provincetown which had come a long way from humble origins as a haven for working artists. In addition to the perennial Henry Hensche there were esteemed teachers, Hans Hofmann, Leo Manso and Seong Moy, who carried on the Hawthorne legacy begun earlier in the century. Galleries proliferated and some, notably HCE and Tirca Karlis, promoted Rothko, Motherwell and Avery, and new artists soon to be catapulted to celebrity status.

On arrival, it was apparent action in the art market transferred from Europe to these shores, and Provincetown, with its storied history, became a thriving center definitely worth a detour. Another change, subtle at first but discernible, was a stream of well-heeled tourists who came to browse and buy for nascent collections. On the Lower Cape, a new definitely in.

Looking back, this boom was fueled by the summer pilgrimage of card-carrying psychoanalysts deployed on the glorious beaches of Turo, now considered as “gemutlicht” as Majorca and the Cote d’Azur once were. Like bees to honey, in close pursuit came legions of analysands, those in therapy for whom angst took no holiday merely because couches were on furlough during the month of August. To add dimension to living, some therapists strongly endorsed the creative process as a link in healing the mind as well as the soul. As one regular at Longnook commented, “If they play ‘The Blue Danube’ dozens would stand at attention to pay homage to their Freudian connections!”

Back in Provincetown, some galleries, notable Tirca Karlis, were beneficiaries of these therapeutic endorsements and may explain why Henry Botkin with a keen eye for commerce was always there, hoping to spot ‘live ones,’ his labels for prospective buyers.

“Where were you?” Botkin asked.


“What section?”

“The Left Bank.”

“Which Arrondisement?”

“The 14th.”

“Where in the 14th?” Henry persisted, seeming to borrow cadences of Inspector Javert, the obsessed pursuer in “Les Miserables.”

“Villa Seurat.”

“What number?”

“18, Villa Seurat.”

“Are you sure of the address?” he asked nervously, and when I nodded in the affirmative, I became witness to a startling transformation.

A simple answer released a torrent of emotion from Botkin, whose tone normally had a thick patina of cynicism, an elder statesman who scaled the heights and touched the depths, for whom there were few surprises after threescore years on the art scene. One of life’s rare moments, when facade is stripped away to reveal identity in naked innocence.

“Mine...that was mine...I built that studio,” he said, voice quivering with a wild sense of once having done something extravagantly flamboyant in his glory days as a promising artist. For a brief moment, an older man’s voice sounded like that of a boy.

Was Henry Botkin putting us on?

No...not at his biography unfolded, this and other details continued to surprise us.

During the early 1920s, Botkin was a successful illustrator and having saved a considerable sum of money, did what any red-blooded artist did: he sailed straight for Paris to stake his claim and share in the banquet Hemingway described in “A Moveable Feast.”

It was the Roaring Twenties, a surge of unbridled euphoria, expatriates fleeing the grim landscapes of smokestack America for the boulevards and sidewalk cafes in Paris, a city which valued La Vie de Boheme above the mindless pursuit of money. For whatever reasons, this exodus was underwritten by a favorable currency exchange. If the first war left France on its knees, America was floating on exuberant waves of affluence freeing its sons and daughters to set out in search of new lifestyles. At five francs to the dollar, one dollar bought a bottle of cognac and for half that mount, a full dinner with a carafe of wine in restaurants all over the Left Bank. Even on a slim budget one managed to survive: only a few francs provided a baguette, Camembert and a liter of vin rouge from local markets in working-class neighborhoods. For a “lost generation,” it truly was la vie en rose.

It took only a modest bankroll to promote one to the privileged classes. Botkin hung out with a group of artists who found a vacant impasse, a dead-end mews not too distant from Montparnasse ideal for the construction of ateliers at affordable prices using local labor. Botkin leaped at the opportunity and drew plans for a duplex studio with skylight, spacious living quarters and beds for guests in the garret. When completed, the total cost was less that $1,500. The address: Number 18 on a mews named in honor of the neo-impressionist, Georges Seurat.

If music and art are natural relations, a very close bond between Botkin and cousin George Gershwin developed in 1917 when 21-year-old Botkin left Boston for New York “to take a fling in art circles,” as he wrote George and Ira, he was given a warm welcome by cousins close in age as well as in early phases of their careers. George in particular embraced Botkin because of a passionate interest in painting and the chance to learn from an artist of undeniable promise.

After Botkin decided to move to Paris, George became a frequent visitor on trips abroad as a fast-rising composer, especially London, where Gershwin musicals were smash hits.

Whenever possible, Gershwin dropped in at Villa Seurat to spend time with his cousin, take a few art lessons and solicit opinions on paintings he contemplated adding to a growing collection. In the summer of 1928, after London, George visited Botkin before a trip to Vienna and then New York to resume collaboration on a musical with his brother Ira. It was while on this itinerary that Gershwin began composing “An American in Paris,” his orchestral tone poem given its premiere by the New York Philharmonic, December 13, 1928.

No, Botkin wasn’t the role model for Gene Kelly nor Gershwin the inspiration for Oscar Levant, but their undisguised mutual admiration led to Gershwin seriously contemplating a career change and reliance on Botkin while acquiring Picassos, Modiglianis and especially Roualts, the French expressionist Gershwin treasured above all others.

Following the Philharmonic premiere, Botkin created a stunning collage painting titled “An American in Paris,” which Gershwin mounted on a three-panel screen and proudly installed in his bedroom at 33 Riverside Drive in New York City.
The Paris adventure came crashing down when the Depression spread globally and took over with a vengeance. Botkin, like thousands of expatriates, was compelled to sell his studio at a distress price and face the harsh realities of being an artist in the 1930s.

Despite diminished circumstances, Botkin had certain advantages being closely related to George Gershwin whose career continued to soar, opening doors to more ambitious compositions. After gaining rights to “Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin in 1933 decided to concentrate solely on an opera he believed would establish him as a composer of major importance. For authenticity of place and character, Gershwin decided to travel south to Folly Island, about ten miles from Charleston, where he invited Henry Botkin to stay with him. From June until late August they shared a spartan cottage, Gershwin at the piano in his studio and Botkin at the easel in his, enduring the sweltering heat of long afternoons. For the evening refreshment, Gershwin loved to explore the barrier islands and drop in at Gullah revival meetings on James Island. Captivated, Gershwin listened in rapt concentration to Gullah chants and complex rhythms, absorbing sounds woven into the score of what was to become his classic American folk opera. Inspiration comes in many forms and Botkin profited immensely from these excursions. James Island was a treasure trove for a future series of canvases with blacks as his subjects.

Without warning, the end came suddenly and much too soon. Henry Botkin’s life-long bond with his cousin continued until Gershwin, like Mozart and Schubert before him, was silenced in mid-career at age 39. While working on a film in Hollywood, George Gershwin died of a brain tumor in July of 1937.