What you see: Wedding Dance, a circa 1960s oil on Masonite painting by Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr. Eldred’s estimates it at $30,000-$50,000.
The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.
Who was Ralph Cahoon? He was a noted artist who lived here on the Cape. He and his wife worked in Cotuit, Massachusetts, for several decades.
Was he self-taught? He married a woman named Martha Farham, and her father was an artist who did a lot of furniture decorated in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. The only training I know he received was through his father-in-law. He started his career painting used antique furniture with folky-inspired scenes and slowly started to incorporate whimsical nautical scenes.
When did Ralph Cahoon move from painting furniture to actual paintings? He was painting furniture in the 1940s and switched in the mid- to late 1950s. Joan Whitney Payson, a socialite, was responsible for the switch. I don’t know that she discovered him, but she was one of his early backers. She encouraged him to move from furniture to two-dimensional work, and she helped expose him to wealthy clients who bought his art.
How prolific was Ralph Cahoon? Very. I would say he made thousands of paintings. There’s no catalog raisonné for him, but a book of prices will be printed in a year or two, and the Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, which is in his former house, has all his journals and records.
Is Wedding Dance a typical Ralph Cahoon painting? It’s a consistent scene, and a popular subject. We’ve handled a fair number of Cahoons, and we’ve seen this at least 10 or 12 times in different forms.
How often do mermaids appear in Ralph Cahoon paintings? It’s more usual to have them than to not have them. It’s one of the key things in his work. If there are no mermaids, the Cahoon painting brings less money.
Why was Ralph Cahoon so into mermaids? I don’t know. There are some underwater scenes with mermaids, but most are on land, with them all doing silly things. It fits into the whole sailor narrative, though. They’re attracted to the mythical creature of the sea, which distracts them.
How are the mermaids depicted in this Ralph Cahoon painting? I don’t generally read much into them. I think his motivation is fun and whimsy. His paintings are not overly deep.
This Ralph Cahoon painting is described as “Chinese-influenced.” Does that imagery come up often in his work? It pops up now and again. Some paintings emulate the imagery of China Trade School paintings of the 19th century.
Do we know why Cahoon might have painted this? We believe it was painted for one of his first shows at the Vose Gallery in Boston. The Vose Gallery was a very early proponent of his work and gave him one or two dedicated shows in the 1960s. The family story of the consigner is it was bought in the 1960s at that gallery.
Is this landscape in the painting 100 percent fanciful, or do any features of it – say, the tea house, or the harbor – correspond to places in the real world? I think it’s 100 percent fanciful. It’s possible the backdrop is Canton, but it’s not a slam dunk.
What is the Ralph Cahoon painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It’s lovely, the colors are strong, and it has a very strong presence. He used an antique varnish to make it appear as if it’s a 19th century work.
What is your favorite detail of the painting? The kites, partly because they’re fun and partly because I haven’t seen them in a Cahoon painting before. They’re a wonderful Asian design, and it’s fun to see something new and different.
Is it possible to guess why he might have included kites that look like this? He probably did it because it pleased him. It could be similar to Chinese export paintings he saw in person, or in an image. He based some works off of 19th century prints.
What condition is the Ralph Cahoon painting in, and what condition issues do you tend to see with his works? I rarely see a Cahoon with significant condition issues. He painted almost exclusively on Masonite, which is not prone to tears.
As we speak on November 10, 2020, the painting has been bid up to $13,000. Is that meaningful at all? Not particularly. I’d say half the lots in the auction have bids. It really doesn’t tell you much, other than two people are interested in it. Some bid as a bookmark and come back later.
What’s the world auction record for a Ralph Cahoon painting? Was it set at Eldred’s? It was set with us, in August 2010, by A Shocking Incident at the Boston Public Garden. It sold for $207,000. It was very different from Wedding Dance. It has Swan Boats, mermaids and sailors, and the State House in the background. The swan boats are an iconic image of Boston. A collector had to have it.
How do Cahoon’s paintings make you feel? I think they’re fun. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to understand them. They’re lighthearted, and they don’t try too hard. They’re pleasing.
How to bid: The Ralph Cahoon painting Wedding Dance is lot 727 in The Fall Sale: Day II, which takes place at Eldred’s on Nov. 20, 2020.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.