“In late years there has been a return current which has given Salem an artist colony including such names as Philip Little, the late Ross Turner, Frank W. Benson, I.H. Caliga, and L.H. Bridgman, the illustrator.”
— A Handbook of
New England, 1916
That “artist colony” had been a long time in the making, dating back to at least to the fifth annual Essex Institute art exhibition, held in 1881. According to the American Art Review, which covered the event, it was the first time the institute’s show featured work by local contemporary artists. Among the many exhibitors mentioned in the piece were Annie Agge, Helen Osborne, Frank Weston Benson and John J. Redmond. The two men were students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and also taught evening art classes offered by the city of Salem.
Five years later, Benson, just back from studying in Paris, and Swampscott native Philip Little, another friend from his Museum School days, rented the third floor at 2 Chestnut St. in Salem. Among the many other tenants in the “Studio Block” were up-and-coming painters Mary Mason Brooks and Charles Whitney and two friends from the Essex Institute show, Helen Osborne and Annie Agge.
By 1891, Benson was teaching at the Museum School and renting a Boston studio while continuing to live in Salem. A number of young artists from his hometown would study under Benson, including George Elmer Browne (who would later live in Paris and New York while summering in Provincetown), Martha Silsbee and former “Studio Blocker” Charlie Whitney.
Ross Sterling Turner, a resident of Bridge Street in Salem since the 1880s, also taught in Boston at MIT and later at the Massachusetts College of Art. Turner, Benson and the Midwestern artist Isaac Caliga, who lived for nearly two decades on Chestnut Street and Federal Street, all commuted by train to Boston and served as Salem’s ongoing connections to that city’s lively art scene.