York native artist Stephen M. Etnier, painter of Maine and the tropics
Stephen Morgan Etnier (1903-1984) was expected to go into the family business, the hugely successful turbine manufacturing company started by his grandfather, Moravian minister and inventor Stephen Morgan Smith. Young Stephen had other ideas–he saw art, not business in his future.
Etnier grew up in York. His parents, Susan Smith Etnier and Carey Etnier, an executive in the S. Morgan Smith Co., purchased the mansion they renamed Wyndham when Stephen was around 11. They bought it from Judge Jere Black and his wife Isabel Church Black, daughter of artist Frederic Church. (Carey Etnier later had the upscale development of Wyndham Hills laid out adjoining their home.)
The Etniers had a summer home in Maine, where young Stephen learned to sail, and he evidently fell in love with the area in which he would spend much of his adult life, painting the sea and the boats, buildings and people associated with it.
Following his dream, Stephen Etnier did become a successful artist, and his legacy lives on in over 500 known paintings in private and public collections all over the United States. Many are of Maine, but a good number are from his time in the Caribbean as well as scenes of his native York County, such as the 1934 view above of East Market Street from the seventh floor of the Yorktowne Hotel. It is owned by Wellspan VNA Home Care. (Stephen’s mother, Susan Smith Etnier, was one of the founders of the local Visiting Nurse Association.)
For more on Etnier’s interesting life and career, see my recent York Sunday News column below:
Art or industry? Stephen Etnier’s choice
Stephen Morgan Etnier, grandson and namesake of famed inventor and industrialist S. Morgan Smith, definitely did not want to become an engineer and enter the family business, reportedly much to the dismay of his family.
Young engineer Carey Etnier, originally from Mount Union, Huntingdon County, took a position with the S. Morgan Smith Company in 1898 and quickly advanced. He also married Smith’s daughter, Susan Ellen in 1900. Son Stephen M. Etnier was born in 1903 and daughter Virginia in 1906.
Carey and Susan Etnier purchased the Judge Jere Black mansion when Stephen was around 11. They renamed the house Wyndham and Carey later had Wyndham Hills laid out. Stephen’s interest in art may have been influenced by seeing a Frederic Church canvas of a sunset in the house, just prior to the Etnier family moving in. (Mrs. Black was the former Isabel Church, daughter of the painter.) Later in life, Stephen said he always remembered that painting.
The Etniers had a summer home at South Harpswell, Maine, where Stephen learned to sail before he was ten. He would later spend most of his adult life in that loved locale that he painted so often.
While growing up, Stephen attended several prep schools, including the Hill School and Haverford School. He was enrolled at Yale University (twice) and Haverford College before making the move to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. By his own admission, he wasn’t interested in classroom instruction anywhere, but at PAFA he came in contact with the well-known artist Rockwell Kent. That led to a move in 1928 to Au Sable Forks, N.Y. to study privately at Kent’s home and studio. Etnier at last determined that he could and would make his living as a professional artist.
The handsome Etnier married frequently. He first wed Mathilde Grey of Greenwich, Conn. in 1926. Their two daughters, Suzanne and Penelope, were born in 1927 and 1929. After their divorce, Elizabeth Morgan Jay of Long Island became his second wife in 1933. (Elizabeth was the great-granddaughter of John Jay, the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice.)
Stephen soon bought the 70-foot schooner Morgana, and he and Elizabeth spent the next year sailing it up and down the east coast. They spent another year living on the yacht while doing the hands-on rebuilding of an old house that came with their purchase of Gilbert Head Island, near South Harpswell. Elizabeth was a writer, and her book, On Gilbert Head: Maine Days, based on her journal during the renovations, did quite well. Daughter Stephanie was born in 1936, followed by Victoria in 1940. The Etniers divorced in 1948, and then Stephen married Jane Pearce, who died tragically the next year.
Samuella Brown Rose (Brownie) became the fourth Mrs. Etnier in 1950. The marriage lasted 33 years, until they divorced in 1983. Stephen and Brownie lived in their new home “Old Cove” at South Harpswell. Son John was born in 1953 and son David in 1955. Etnier’s fifth marriage, to Marcia Hall, lasted only a few months in 1983, a year before Stephen Etnier died at his home in South Harpswell on November 7, 1984, at age 81.
Through all these family changes, Etnier kept painting and became quite successful at it. He sailed, he flew his private plane, but still he kept painting, producing enough canvases for shows nearly every year from 1931 through 1983–over fifty years. His main gallery, the Milch Galleries in New York, even mounted a couple of his one-man shows, usually with close to 20 paintings in each show, while Etnier served as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Mizpah on convoy escort duty during World War II.
Even though, at one point in the 1940s, he is said to have destroyed a good number of his unsold paintings, researcher Carol Kearney was able to identify over 500 existing Etnier paintings when doing research for the Historical Society of York County (now York County Heritage Trust) 1989 exhibit, Stephen Etnier, 1903-1984: A Retrospective. He also had several local exhibits over the years at the York Art Center, and the Historical Society of York County held a joint exhibit for two native sons, Etnier and sculptor Charles Rudy, in 1960, attended by both artists. Perhaps the York shows, as well as lasting York friendships, is why Kearney and curator Wade Lawrence were able to pull together a whopping 59 paintings for the 1989 YCHT exhibit. Besides the walls of York County, Etnier’s work is well represented in museums all across the country.
Etnier’s paintings aren’t easy to define. They range from illustrative views of his native York County to brightly colored scenes of the tropics–the West Indies, Bermuda, the Florida Keys, even Hawaii. Even the subjects of his largest body of work–the Maine paintings–range from dark, sometimes stormy seas, to calm reflective water, glowing with light. His style has been called romantic realism, but that isn’t adequate to describe his range of scenes, some peopled with portrait-like precision and some only suggested by well-placed brush strokes.
There is a wealth of information available on Etnier. The York County Heritage Trust has a sizable file on the artist, as well as still available catalogs from the 1989 show. Much more on his paintings and his life can be found at www.stephenetnier.com, a website maintained by his family. A link from that well-organized site takes you to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, where Etnier’s papers have been deposited. The SAAA site also includes a transcription of a lengthy 1973 oral history interview with the artist.