A few weeks ago we stumbled upon a painting on auction. A 13 x 20 inch watercolor shore scene, the painting depicts five fisherman struggling to haul in their catch in an enormous net. But what really caught our eyes was what they were wearing: long bill caps. And then we saw who painted it: Cappy Amundson, a coastal painter and Long Island legend who has long been a favorite here at Quaker Marine.
Born to the name Casper Hjalmar Emerson III, later changed to C. Hjalmar Amundson, he was only ever really known as Cappy. An influential painter and infamous New England and Long Island character, Cappy leaves a long legacy as an artist, a cultural influence, and an all-time salty character. Inspired by our recent find of the watercolor shore scene, we decided to highlight Cappy and dive a little deeper into his life and work.
Casper Emerson III was born and raised in New York City, where he studied illustration and painting at the Grand Central School of Art. Soon after he founded the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show with Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Joseph Delaney, among others. But compared to some of his more immediately successful peers, Cappy was never able to make a living as an artist. Instead he took to the waterfront, working as a commercial fisherman in seaport towns like Gloucester and Provincetown, where he became a member of the famous Beachcombers club.
Following the Second World War, which he spent gaining recognition for his paintings of U.S. Navy ships, Cappy moved to Sag Harbor. He quickly became a popular character in the coastal town, striking up instant friendships with local members of the local artistic and literary community like John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and Paul Newman. In addition to contributing to the artistic scene through his painting and later teachings as he founded several art schools, Cappy was an avid and competitive sailor. “The thing I enjoy best in life is racing boats” said Cappy once, who was reportedly almost unbeatable in races, even well into his sixties. “Everything happens fast. And another thing, it's inexpensive.”
Over the course of his time in Sag Harbor, nearly every local home, business, restaurant, and watering hole had a Cappy original hanging on its wall. He never charged much to locals, preferring instead the pleasure of seeing his own work all around town. Cappy lived day to day, relying on his prolific volume of work to put food on his table. But sadly as his eyesight began to fail, so did his painting, and he began struggling to scrape by. According to an article published in the Sag Harbor Express, “he started tearing up floorboards and carving whale forms out of them to sell.”
Infamous around Sag Harbor as a “sipper”, younger residents of the town knew of Cappy by reputation, if not by face. And even as his situation and health deteriorated, Cappy remained a vital member of the community. He was a core member of the “misfits” bowling team, an avid drinker and formidable pool player at the local bars, and above all, a beloved personality.
Cappy passed away in 2001 at the age of eighty-nine. He is survived by a legacy of seamanship, friendship, and a prolific body of work. Odds are if you have spent any time in Sag Harbor, you have seen one of Cappy’s paintings. The love of the coast, boat racing, all things ocean shines through in all of Cappy’s work, and it’s one of the main reasons we cherish his paintings. We also can never resist a famously salty character, and Cappy certainly fits that to a T. So next time you see one of Cappy’s paintings, enjoy it, knowing the history and character of the artist. And look carefully, because there might just be a long bill cap in there.
For anyone interested in finding out more about Cappy, we highly reccomend our good friend Terry Wallace's excellent book Cappy: The Life and Art of C. Hjalmar Amundson.