April 01, 2020
Ralph & Martha Cahoon's Whimsical Folk Art
“Ralph had salt water in his veins, and his artistic language carried history and paid homage to those who lived before him... Martha moved to Harwich as a young girl. They were both impacted and inspired by Cape Cod’s beauty and strong sense of place. The Cahoons were very proud to live here.” - Cape Cod Life
Ralph was born in Chatham, Massachusetts to a family with a long history in Cape Cod. As a boy, he enjoyed the spoils of the coastal lifestyle, spending a great deal of time by the water. In high school he began to develop an interest in cartooning, drawing upon his surroundings for inspiration. Upon graduation, he left to Boston where he continued his pursuit of art, but ended up returning home to the Cape, feeling somewhat discouraged by the commercial art world.
It was around this time that Ralph met Martha Farham, the daughter of a well-respected furniture decorator of Swedish descent and fellow Cape resident. They married in 1932 and Martha began showing Ralph the art of furniture decoration, drawing upon Swedish, Pennsylvania-German and American folk traditions.
Over the years, they made a name for themselves in this field and began to develop their trademark style – Ralph gravitating towards scenes with sailors and mermaids, and Martha towards country scenes and nature motifs.
In 1953, a patron of the Cahoon’s pushed them to exhibit some framed works at her Country Art Gallery on Long Island. The show was an instant success and in the subsequent years they both shifted their focus to painting canvas. Ralph’s work became more whimsical, with scenes of mermaids and sailors frolicking on the backs of whales, in hot air balloons, and aboard majestic ships. These works resonated with patrons of galleries in Palm Beach, Nantucket, and other New England towns who enjoyed the fanciful take on the coastal lifestyle. By the 1970s they had developed such a devout patronage, that they left the gallery circuit and began exclusively selling their work out of their home studio in Cape Cod.
It was in their home, the place that it all began, that they continued to paint right up until Ralph passed away in 1982. Martha sold the house to a local art collector named Rosemary Rapp, who decided to establish the house at a museum dedicated to her and her husband’s life work and art that embodied the same spirit. Martha lived and worked in the house until the day she died in 1999.
Though they’ve both left us, their whimsical spirit lives on through their work, which has often inspired us. It reminds us to step back and appreciate the beauty and charm of the sometimes-harsh East Coast shores. Next time you're out on the Cape, we encourage you to visit the Cahoon Museum to see the work at the house in which it was created. And who knows, if you spend enough time on the Cape, you may just catch a glimpse of a mermaid if you know where to look.