The Taussig Portrait

There’s a rumor of a certain paint spattered floor here in Cotuit, the kind people liked to paint in the early 60s in old houses by dipping a wooden paint stirring stick in a pot of colored paint and snapping it to create a constellation of speck and spots. The floor of the old front parlor in my house used to have such a spatter-effect, but I think that was painted over by my wife the interior designer at some point in the 1990s.

The rumor is that Jackson Pollock painted such a floor in a beachside house near Loop Beach that was recently sold to a Boston financier who tried to tear it down as all Boston financiers must tear things down, but was saved by the local historic preservationists who managed to persuade their new neighbor to move the old place back from the view of Nantucket Sound to make room for his new starter castle. Whether the floor is there or not is still a matter of myth, but I like to think of the ghosts of great artists who summered in Cotuit over the years, leaving behind some talented marks like initials carved into the bark of an old tree.

In yesterday’s Sunday New York Times I was surprised to find a story about the artist Jamie Wyeth and a portrait he painted as a young man of Cotuit’s famous summer resident, the pediatric cardiogist Helen Taussig. In August of 1963 — fifty years ago — young Wyeth arrived in Cotuit to paint the portrait of the eminent physician, a portrait commissioned by her colleagues to recognize her pioneering work saving “blue babies” — infants with cardio pulmonary defects.

The Times printed a picture of Wyeth’s portrait and Mersol describes the horrified reaction of her family and friends, one so negative that the painting was never hung in a place of honor but given to Doctor Taussig who wrapped it in a beach towel and stashed it in her attic. When it was presented to the hospital after her death in 1986 (I never met her, only knew her reputation and the racing mark named after her that the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club occasionally sails around in southerly winds), the hospital did its best to hide it in a private alcove where visitors couldn’t find it.

Wyeth billed his patrons $1000 and travel expenses for the work, and it took him two tries before he was paid.

The Times contrasts the Wyeth version with another, blander portrait painted later in the doctor’s life. I definitely prefer Wyeth’s version: her strength and intensity shines through, a hint at the ambition and intelligence of medicine’s earliest and most gifted femaile practitioners.

Anyway, I thought it worth commenting on as I read the story sitting in the cockpit of my sailboat anchored in the cove of Cotuit’s Sampson Island this morning and with a look to my left could see Doctor Taussig’s old home as well as the house with the mythical Pollock spatter floor.


Update: Thanks to Fred J. for pointing me to this piece in the Barnstable Patriot by Stew Goodwin that confirms the tale of the floor.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

One thought on “The Taussig Portrait”

  1. Long-time Cotuit resident Stew Goodwin wrote a lovely article for the Barnstable Patriot about his mother’s friendship with Pollack. As a former art history major, I found it fascinating. I have spoken with Stew about it and he maintains their relationship was mostly about drinking together (kids can be tough on their parents, as we all know), but I believe that the painting of a floor might have been involved as well. Stew would be a good source on this.

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