Rose Labrie, Primitive Artist

Family Skate by Rose Labrie

Family Skate, by Rose Labrie

Discover Portsmouth,
Friday, October 19 – Sunday, December 23.
Richard M. Candee, Curator

Rose Labrie (1916-1986) was a modern “primitive” painter who lived and worked in the Portsmouth area and achieved some notoriety for her nostalgic artwork and her outreach supporting children’s art in the seacoast. This exhibition, drawn from many private and public collections as well as from her descendants, is the first retrospective look at her career that was a significant part of popular culture in the mid twentieth century.

Rose Labrie, “Primitive” Painter

Ranger. Rose LaBrieRose Cushing was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on August 31, 1916, of an Irish immigrant father and a mother from Nova Scotia. Her two careers as writer and an artist had creative roots in the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918. That disease, which weakened her brother Connie’s legs and left Rose anemic, led the family to relocate to West Hartford, Vermont.

As Rose later recalled: “Try to see all this as a bewildered Boston tot saw it suddenly. . . big, blue skies, houses a mile apart, tall fields of waving grass, calves and colts as familiar chums. Fresh eyes, fresh sights, bright, bold impressions on the mind. Growing up in the mountains of Vermont in an old gambrel farmhouse . . . and running free as the wind on 240 acres of pastures, woodlands, and pine forests had every influence on my becoming a primitive painter half a century later. . . The winters with deep snows and frosty early morning sleigh rides to the little white two-room schoolhouse three miles down in the valley of West Hartford. . . were all stored in theback of my mind as I grew up.”

During the Great Depression the family moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where Rose attended Concord High School. “I signed up for a drawing course, as I loved art. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to follow instructions. . . I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to change to a course in music appreciation. Thus ended art for me for thirty-five years.”

In 1939, she married electrician Alfred A. Labrie; the couple and their children relocated to Kittery, Maine, when Fred found work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard during WW II. Soon Rose began classes at UNH and with the well-known writer of Cape Neddick, Maine, Mrs. Doris Ricker Marston. Rose later told Marston “if it had not been for the amateur painting which she prepared for the cover of her Nubble Light booklet, with its resulting publicity, she could not have established a reputation which led her into the primitive art field.”

Starting to paint in the 1950s, Labrie first focused on past and present life along the Seacoast. She eventually earned a national reputation for her nostalgic ‘memory paintings’ of growing up in rural New England. She was represented by a Madison Avenue gallery in New York after 1977 and exhibited in Florida galleries and museums each winter. Many paintings were done on private commission and for publication, but she tried to insure each of her children had examples of her art. She attracted a biographer whose work, unfortunately, ended with her sudden death in 1986.

Toward the end of her life, two art historians summarized her career: “Rose Labrie is the quintessential memory painter. . . . She had always been interested in art, but was transferred out of an art class for refusing to follow the rules of academic art. She remains a true radical. The favored elements of her paintings—such as a horse, child, or tree–tower over the rest of the composition, violating all the rules of proportion; colors glow and clash with no regard to the rules of nature. She knows only one rule—her immediate feelings about the subject matter and how she feels it should be rendered.” [From Jay Johnson and William C. Ketchum, Jr.American Folk Art of the Twentieth Century (New York: Rizzoli, 1983).] Although Labrie was not fond of the comparison, her work led some people to regard her as the “Grandma Moses of New Hampshire.”

Containing rarely seen paintings, photographs, and printed ephemera drawn from public and private collections, including many Labrie family members, this exhibition places the life and work of this New Hampshire artist into the context of her time and place, and recognizes her significant role in the popular “primitive” art movement that resonated with the public during the last half of the twentieth century.

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Thanks to our generous donors

The Labrie Family
Anne S. Howells Charitable Trust
R. M. Davis
Bigelow & Company
DTC Lawyers
Piscataqua Savings Bank
The Fuller Foundation


Richard M. Candee, Curator

Richard M. Candee is Professor Emeritus of American and New England Studies at Boston University, former director of Preservation Studies, and co-founder of Portsmouth Advocates. He is the author of several books and many essays on the region’s history and artists. The founder of Discover Portsmouth, he has curated or co-curated sixteen exhibitions for the Portsmouth Historical Society and the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

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Piscataqua Savings Bank