Pat de Groot, Seascape Painter and Doyenne of the Dunes, Dies at 88
Posted July 30, 2018 5:08 p.m. EDT
Pat de Groot, a painter who embodied an era when the beaches and dunes at the tip of Cape Cod were peopled with artistic geniuses and incorrigible eccentrics — often in the form of the same person — died Thursday in Brewster, Massachusetts. She was 88.
The cause was a stroke, Jen Bradley, a friend, said.
“Bohemian royalty” was how director John Waters described de Groot in a 2016 interview with The Provincetown Banner. She certainly had the carriage of royalty, or at least of someone who did not much care what you thought about her. Few of her neighbors in the East End of Provincetown knew she was actually descended from American royalty: Isidor Straus of New York, the co-owner of Macy’s, who died on the Titanic.
De Groot came late to painting, in her mid-40s. But for the next four decades she was prolific, using a palette knife to etch dozens and dozens of scintillating, layered, small-scale seascapes of Provincetown Harbor as seen from the home and studio she designed for herself and her husband, Nanno de Groot, in 1962.
“I want to grab a piece of all this, of this sacred place, and say something with paint about the sky and the sea and the horizon and how it affects me,” de Groot said on the occasion of a 2015 show at the Acme Fine Art gallery in Boston.
Until she was well in her 80s, de Groot would kayak out to the harbor breakwater, where hundreds of cormorants congregate. From close-up observation, she used a black marker to portray birds of individual distinction, “each profile worthy of a Hapsburg prince,” Philip Hoare wrote in a 2017 memoir, “RisingTideFallingStar.”
For respite, de Groot would sunbathe, naked, in the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which virtually surrounds Provincetown.
“National park rangers have threatened to issue her with a ticket for flouting the bylaws,” Hoare wrote. “Pat tells them they can do what they like; she’s been doing this for 70 years, and she’s not about to stop now.”
Patricia Richardson was born June 14, 1930, in London. Her father, Ernald W.A. Richardson, came from landed gentry and was a keen Alpine skier, Hoare wrote. On a trip to the United States, Ernald Richardson met Evelyn Weil, a granddaughter of Straus. They were wed in 1929 and divorced not long after.
After marrying George Backer in 1946, de Groot’s mother was known as Evie Backer or Eve Backer. More than a society hostess — though she played that role, too — Backer was an interior decorator. She designed Truman Capote’s Manhattan apartment and his famous Black and White masquerade ball at the Plaza hotel in 1966.
Patricia Richardson earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953, worked in Paris for The Paris Review, then moved to New York to design books for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (Yes, the same Straus family.) She created eye-catching covers for the poet F.D. Reeve’s “The Blue Cat” and the French writer Violette Leduc’s “The Taxi,” among others.
But Provincetown, to which she had been introduced in 1946, held greater allure than Manhattan, especially after she met the dashing painter Nanno de Groot there in 1956. They were married in 1958. Four years later, they built a home and studio, based on her drawings, in the East End of town.
Nanno de Groot only had a year to spend in the house. He died of lung cancer in 1963. Patricia de Groot is survived by her brother, Peter Richardson, and a niece and nephew.
Armed with a chisel but no experience as a sculptor, de Groot created her husband’s tombstone: an abstract female figure of soft white marble, hands clasped above its head — the most instantly recognizable marker in Provincetown’s municipal cemetery.
“I figured he needed a dancing woman on his grave,” de Groot told Ann Wood of The Banner in 2016. De Groot, often in the company of a German shepherd and usually barefoot, cut a formidable figure around town, even at 100 pounds, her deeply weathered face framed in stringy bangs of gray hair. And she could be prickly.
But she presided over a vibrant artistic salon for many years, giving parties that never stopped sounding like the ‘60s, as she played her conga drums and her extensive collection of jazz LPs through the night.
Over the years, her own works joined those of her husband’s on the walls of her home. “The place is so dense with art that it is possible to overlook even a 6-foot wooden sculpture,” author John Skoyles wrote in a profile of de Groot for The Boston Globe in 2003.
With room to spare under an M-shaped double-gable roof, de Groot often played summer landlord to creative figures like Waters, Hoare, painter Richard Baker and gallerists Pat Hearn and Colin de Land.
It was Hearn who presented de Groot’s first solo exhibition in New York, in 2000. The nearly unvarying format of the seascapes — 12-by-11-inch canvases in which two fields were broken by a horizon line — sounds monotonous.
The paintings were anything but, Ken Johnson said in a review for The New York Times.
“The whiteout of a dense, bright fog,” he wrote, “the crisp contrasts of a sunny day with cumulus clouds mounded under a clear blue sky; the thickly scumbled whitecaps on a dull green sea beneath a turbulent gray ceiling: in these, one feels the sensual reality of both the world and the paint the way one does with Monet or Pissarro.”
Rugged as her reputation was, de Groot discernibly slowed in recent years.
“Her energy has become concentrated,” Hoare wrote in “RisingTideFallingStar,” “as if everything was working to some Zen-like point of absolute and discard; the apparent nothingness of her paintings, the seeming emptiness of the beach; as if she has conjured it all up herself, and is content with what she has done. She needs to do no more.”