History of the Newton Art Association
James King Bonnar (1883-1961)
The Newton Art Association was established in 1949 by James King Bonnar and a group of local artists who wanted to create an artistic community in this area. The idea for the NAA was Bonnar’s. He felt that artists needed the support of each other to share ideas, techniques and opportunities to paint together. The Association brought in other artists from the area to demonstrate their work. This history traces the life of James King Bonnar, founder and first president of the Newton Art Association.
Born in North Adams, MA, James King Bonnar showed unusual artistic talent from an early age, always sketching and painting during his school years. After high school, he also became interested in engraving. After studying for a couple of years with an engraver, he became manager of the Artcraft Engraving Co. in North Adams, where he spent two years doing a lot of designing and photo engraving. James Bonnar then enrolled at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, now known as the Mass. College of Art and Design, as he wanted to concentrate on oil painting and watercolor. He became very proficient at both and studied under Joseph DeCamp; when he graduated in 1907, one of his paintings was accepted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. After graduation he returned to North Adams and continued working for Artcraft Engraving until the company became unprofitable in the 1920s. He moved to Newtonville to work with his sister, Eleanor Bonnar Atwood in Bonnar Atwood Studios, and became more involved in landscape painting in oils and watercolors and began painting murals for Bonnar Atwood Studios. He met his future wife, Mary Abbe who had graduated from Pratt Institute and also worked for Bonnar Atwood.
When Bonnar and Mary married, they settled in Newtonville. Mary was a well-known interior decorator so their work complemented each other. By the 1940s he was a professional artist and well known throughout New England and many parts of the country. His paintings of New England scenes sold well. He was a member of the Copley Watercolor Society and later its president. He became friends with Perry Rathbone in the mid 1950s when the latter was the new director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
James Bonnar also became famous as a muralist. He traveled on weekends through Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, painting beautiful murals in hotels, hospitals, and for individual businesses and residences.
Bonnar has a large studio on Judkins Street, Newtonville, where his children would play, watch him painting and construct his own, beautifully carved frames. During the ’40s he had many friends in Newton who were artists. He encouraged 8-10 of them to meet every weekend and paint together. Usually it was ‘plein air’ painting, which they loved (sometimes even in winter). They spent many weekends in Rockport and Gloucester.
Besides being a gifted artist, he was a man with a mission. He decided his small group of Newton artist friends should expand and welcome other artists in a formal art group setting. So, in 1949, James King Bonnar officially formed the Newton Art Association “for the purpose of stimulating and encouraging the expression of fine arts in the community.” He believed everyone could find great pleasure through painting and similar creative work. He also believed it was important to have well-known artists come to present their work and demonstrate their techniques to the membership and their friends.
So…his mission proved successful! Within a couple of years, in the 1950s, the NAA had a membership of 200!
In spite of his pre-occupation with his own artwork, James King Bonnar was a tireless teacher and all-inclusive educator. We remain grateful today for his vision, his talent, and his earnest desire for everyone to experience the joy of art.