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This Is Tranquil Deerfield

July 2024
5min read

As it Looked Ninety Years Ago…

James Champney painted the broad and shady common in Old Deerfield after he moved there in 1876.
James Champney painted the broad and shady common in Old Deerfield after he moved there in 1876. 

Traffic is heavy on U.S. 5 running north from Springfield, Massachusetts, up into the vacation lands of Vermont and New Hampshire. Not far from the Vermont border the road signs say “Deerfield”- but most drivers neither stop nor slow down, for the village lies to one side, a quarter of a mile off the highway. They thereby miss one of the most fascinating of New England’s communities—rich in historic memories, with many old and wonderful houses and few modern “improvements” to mar the peaceful village atmosphere.

One potent force in keeping Deerfield much the way it was in the eighteenth century, when it was rebuilt alter the infamous Deerfield Massacre of 1704, has been Deerfield Academy, a distinguished school that has educated American boys steadily since its founding in 1797. Dr. Frank L. Boyden, Deerfield’s famous headmaster, and the trustees have long encouraged preservation of the character of the old village—something they have been able to do effectively because the academy owns and maintains a number of colonial houses which are inhabited by faculty members and other villagers. The result is that visitors to Deerfield today might easily recognize it from the views seen above.

The boys at Deerfield take a considerable interest in the historic surroundings of their school, though in general their enthusiasm, divided between scholarly matters and such natural concerns as skiing, electric guitars, and girls, is not especially remarkable. About two years ago, however, nine members of the junior class who happened to be unusually interested in the history of American culture put their heads together and decided to make better use of the rare advantages of Deerfielcl.∗ Almost immediately, they found a helpful ally in the Heritage Foundation (no connection with AMERICAN HERITAGE ), established at Deerfielcl in 1952 by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flynt for the purpose of preserving collections of Americana in and around Old Deerfield. Mr. Joseph Peter Spang III, associate curator of the Foundation, became an advisor to the group of inquisitive boys, and they began to meet once a week to study the village’s historical collections and its colonial architecture.

∗ Christopher P. Monkhouse was the boy most active in forming the “American Studies Group,” as they called it. The others were: Russell M. Brooks, 1). Preston Goodheart, Peter A. Halstead, Osmun R. Latrobe, Robert J. McKay III, Teri N. Towe, Maurice w. willcy, Jr., and Timothy B. Wolfe.


The enterprise went well enough, but by the spring of 1964 the boys began to itch for a specific project to work on—something through which they could themselves make a contribution in the field of American studies. They had gradually become aware that on the walls of museums and homes in the Deerfiekl Valley there were a good many attractive paintings and drawings signed “Champ,” or, more formally, “J. Wells Champney,” with dates ranging from the 1870'$ through KJOO. Who was J. Wells Champney? In a sense, answering that question, with ample illustrations, became the project the boys had been seeking. For they were not long in discovering that Champney was very much a Deerfield artist, having spent nearly all of his last thirty summers in the village, where he painted Deerfield scenes with skill and unmistakable affection. Beyond that basic fact, however, information was not so easy to come by. Champney had died in 1903, and since then had been, it seemed, largely forgotten. The boys plunged in, and by dint of many weeks of hard work, slowly assembled a mass of fads about the artist in whose life Deerfield had played such a meaningful part. But now a further project occurred to them: why not try to gather together enough Champney paintings for a full-fledged show in the Academy’s Hilson Gallery? the elm before their Decrfield home; son Frère ignores the game.

It took a year to do it, and the co-operation of many outsiders; but by April of 1965 they were ready with a representative exhibit—more than eighty of Champney’s oils, water colors, and pastels, plus many drawings and photographs, loaned from museums and private homes in various parts of New England and New York. With that accomplished, Curator Spang and the boys went to work and produced an impressive illustrated catalogue including complete descriptions of the pictures in the exhibit, as well as a biographical sketch of “Champ,” critical observations on his work, and a bibliography. A condensation of the biographical sketch, which was the work of Robert J. McKay, '65, appears on the following pages, and our captions draw heavily on the catalogue. — The Editors


James Wells Ghampney was born in Boston July if), 1843, to James Howe Champney and his wife, Sarah Wells. When the Civil War broke out, he served in the 45th Massachusetts Volunteers for a year or more before being invalided out of the army from the effects of malaria. He then taught drawing at a “Young Ladies’ Seminary” in Lexington, Massachusetts; and it was here that he met his future wife, Eli/abeth Williams. From 1867 to 1869 he studied in Europe, notably under Edouard Frère, a well-known French genre painter; by 1873 he had gained some reputation as an illustrator, and was commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly Magazine to illustrate a series of articles on the Reconstruction South. In that same year he married Miss Williams, and the couple spent a happy two years working and travelling in Europe.


In 1876 the Champneys moved into the old WiI- liains homestead in Deerfiekl, Mrs. Champney’s ancestral home, and Champney built his studio there. They lived in Deerfiekl for several years while he was professor of art at Smith College in Northampton (1877-1884), where he was one of the founders of the Art Gallery. In the summer of 1878 the artist went to Brazil to illustrate another series of articles for Scribner ’s. By now the Champneys had two children, Edouard Frère Champney, horn in France in 1874, and Maria Mitchell Champney, born in 1877 and named for Mrs. Champney’s astronomy teacher at Vassar.

In 1879 Champney opened a studio in New York City, and from that time on the Deerfiekl house became a summer home. Champney never ceased to be cosmopolitan in his habits; frequent European trips confirmed his attachment to the Old World. But his two homes, Deerfiekl and New York, remained the focal points of his life for both work and relaxation.


During these years Champney’s artistic reputation was steadily growing. While he was teaching at Smith, the inquiries of some students had led him to work in pastels, and after 1885 he devoted himself almost exclusively to that medium. He became the foremost American pastellist of his day, well known for his numerous portraits of New York society and theatre people. He exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893; his pictures, which in earlier days he often had signed simply “Champ,” were now signed “J. Wells Champney,” perhaps in recognition of increased dignity.

Mrs. Champney, who was a popular children’s author, often had her books illustrated by her husband, and everything indicates that the collaboration was a very happy one. Champney was an industrious and prolific painter during these years, but the limits of his profession could not circumscribe his boundless zest and curiosity. He was constantly in demand as a lecturer. He was an early and avid amateur photographer, and also used the camera as an aid to his work. He was fond of books and the theatre, was a member of a do/en clubs and artists’ societies, and with Mrs. Champney entertained generously at their Fifth Avenue home and at Deerfield. “When they arrived, and Mr. Champney was seen on the street, the old town always seemed to come alive,” wrote one villager.

On May 1, 1903, Champney was leaving the Camera Club in New York, when the elevator in which he was riding jammed between two floors. With typical impatience, he attempted to jump to the floor below, missed his footing, and fell down the shaft to his death. He is buried in the old cemetery in Deerfield.


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