Ralph and Martha Cahoon Biography

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Ralph and Martha Cahoon

Born in Chatham in 1910, Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr. was descended from sea captains, fishermen, and whalers and grew up fishing and digging clams. But as strong as his affinity for the sea, he loved drawing, even more, taking a correspondence course in cartooning while still in high school. Following graduation, he studied for two years at the School of Practical Art in Boston, then discontinued for financial reasons. Around the same time, he met Martha Farham, a Harwich woman five years his senior. Also artistically inclined, she was apprenticed to her father, Axel Farham, a Swedish immigrant and respected furniture decorator. Martha taught Ralph their trade; and, after marrying in 1932, they started a successful business decorating furniture and selling antiques in Osterville. Following World War II, they purchased a large Georgian Colonial home in Cotuit (which became the Cahoon Museum of American Art in 1984).

In 1953, Joan Whitney Payson — a New York art collector and future co-owner of the New York Mets — convinced them to paint some primitive pictures that could be framed. She even offered to show their work at her Country Art Gallery on Long Island. When their paintings quickly sold, Payton called, asking for more. Ralph was soon known for witty scenes with saucy mermaids and admiring sailors, Martha for her country scenes, shorebirds and flowers. In addition to being the “stars” at Country Art Gallery, by 1960 the Cahoons were also showing at seasonal galleries in Palm Beach and on Nantucket. Their appeal to wealthy, old-moneyed families was further ensured when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy purchased two of Ralph’s paintings.

Ralph painted up until shortly before his death in 1982. Martha stopped painting soon after but continued to produce colored pencil drawings until her death in 1999.

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