Painter Alice Stallknecht, who died at 93 in 1973, was a portraitist, a Christian, a good neighbor, an original. She was not a goody-goody, however, and there is something close to violence in the way she handled paint. Her wild colors clash and glare and her outlines writhe. Two quite different strains, one pious and communal, and the other vivid and obsessive - battle in murals that she painted for her small white, wooden church in Chatham on Cape Cod.
They are now in Washington. "A New England Town: A portrait by Alice Stallknecht" will be on view through Nov. 27 at the National portrait Gallery at 8th and F. Streets NW.
Cape Cod rules her pictures. She did not paint the sea or seabirds, but Chatham's faces; sea captains, selectmen, schoolteachers and farmers.
Her three murals are religious in subject and in feeling. Thrice we see the beardless, saddened face of Christ. He stands, checkered cap in hand, beside a box of saws and hammers in "Every Man to His Trade" (1945). In "Christ Preaching to the Multitude" (1931). He is standing in the bow of a Cape Cod dory. And the subject of "The Circle Supper" (1935-1943) is in part a church social, in part the Last Supper - seated at His table are more than 50 citizens of Chatham. They stare not at their Saviour, but at the painter.
Their calmness is suprising for she was not a peaceful painter.As she built her subjects' large heads Alice Stallknecht dipped her brush in violent colors - pink, purple, black, orange, red and green. She did not cartoon or flatter, still her portraiture seems driven. She must have stared into their faces as intensely as Ahab scanned the sea.
Alice Stallknecht was born in Manhattan in 1880. She married in 1901 and her only child, a son, was born the following year. Her husband had a severe breakdown. In 1910 the family moved north to Cape Cod.
"Alice Stallknecht," writes Frederick S. Wight, her son, "entered the lives of the Capes Codders as deeply as it was possible for a 'foreigner.' her husband fished, scalloped, and worked their five acres as a farm. The scene they had entered, and that Alice Stallknecht was to record, face after face, had hardly changed from Colonial times. Everyone related to everyone else - the town was a family. Everyone 'worked' with his hands; there were five white-collar professionals - the town lawyer, the doctor, two rival ministers, and the principal of the high school - but they 'worked,' too . . . By the 1920s, the harbor-of-refuge aspect of Alice Stallknecht's life had eased. Her husband had recovered his health and had returned to Johns Hopkins University. Here he collected requisite degrees and became a professor of Greek." By the end of that decade, for the first time since her teens, Alice Stallknecht began to paint.