When it comes to New England destinations, the cognoscenti have long favored Ocean House, a glamorous beachfront resort atop a bluff in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Instantly recognizable for its famous yellow façade, the hotel first opened in 1868—soon after the Civil War—and immediately attracted the see-and-be-seen crowd for its photogenic seaside setting, pristine white sand beach, excellent food and drink and luxury accommodations. Almost 150 years later, this legacy remains unchanged. The story of Ocean House’s art heritage, however, is ripe for discovery,established only a decade ago when husband-and-wife co-owners Charles and Deborah Royce had the property rebuilt to a standard that reflected its original glory days.
“Art is a passion for us that began as a mutual love soon after we married in 2002 and grew over the years,” says Deborah. “Chuck had a collection before, and I always appreciated good art, but then we got more serious.” For their own residence in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Royces gravitate toward works by late 19th- and early 20th-century American artists, including Naturalist landscape and portrait painter James Carroll Beckwith and Impressionists Childe Hassam, renowned for his urban and coastal depictions, and John Henry Twachtman, who, too, specialized in landscapes.
To make their Rhode Island hotel feel more like a home, the couple—he the chairman of an eponymous small-cap mutual fund and she an author and former actress—decided to use it to extend and showcase their art collection. Ocean House’s lineup, in comparison to the Royces’ abode, has a more playful, whimsical sensibility. “Our art there portrays high society life in a fun way with scenes at hotels and cafes,” says Deborah. “Naturally, these works fit right into a hotel setting.”
The more than 250 pieces the Royces have acquired for the resort are by over 20 artists, also from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Ludwig Bemelmans, the American writer and illustrator famous for his Madeline picture book series, features prominently with 90 pieces. Others include French artist Georges Goursat, American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy and Russian-Soviet painter Konstantin Rudakov. From the entryway gallery and members only club to the hallway alongside the indoor pool and spa, art is displayed in every nook and cranny of the hotel interior.
This collection began with Bemelmans, a household name for Deborah who frequently read the Madeline books to her two daughters when they were young. “The thought of him brings back the best memories, but it’s pure chance that led us to buying his works,” she explains.
The circumstance unexpectedly presented itself one day as Charles walked by the storied Bergdorf Goodman department store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and spotted a window display of the artist’s “Farewell to the Ritz” series. The 21 drawings were inspired by Bemelmans’s experiences working at the Ritz-Carlton New York, first as a busboy and eventually as an assistant banquet manager for the luxury hotel. In one illustration, Bemelmans is depicted enjoying wine, and in several, he shows employees in different hospitality roles. Enamored, Charles tracked down the owner who fortunately agreed to a sale. “From then on, we were down the Bemelmans rabbit hole and wanted to find more of his works to buy,” says Deborah.
The two fresco panels in Ocean House’s ballroom foyer are among their most significant Bemelmans purchases. They also have a fascinating backstory: through a friend, the Royces heard that the former owners of La Colombe, a small bistro in Paris, were looking to sell the frescoes the artist had painted on its plaster walls; these works, too, portrayed scenes from his time at the Ritz-Carlton. Bemelmans had owned the restaurant for two years and then sold it to the Villette family. When they subsequently sold it, they cut out the treasured frescoes and transported them to their home in the French countryside.
“We flew to Paris and drove to the country to meet them,” recalls Deborah. “We explained who we were and what we wanted to do with the frescoes. When they came out with cake and champagne, we knew we had convinced them that the art belonged at Ocean House.”
Bemelmans may be the star of the show, but Ocean House has plenty of other art to appreciate. Just outside the club room, for example, there are eight hanging drawings by Rudakov titled “The Comrades at the Cabaret.” In these, the Russian artist captures his country’s glamorous nightlife culture in the 20th century. One depicts a courtesan walking with an elegant-looking gentleman who is wearing a tuxedo and top hat; another shows a courtesan draped in red and black and posing at a table.
Also noteworthy is the Belle Epoque series by Goursat, more commonly known in art circles as SEM, at the end of the property’s grand hallway. His works here include a long rectangle illustration of wealthy men and women in their carriages. A few depictions show weak horses pulling heavyset men—images that some art experts believe reflect SEM’s thoughts on the inequality between wealth and labor.
Given the chic surroundings, it’s not hard to simply wander around Ocean House’s interiors and take in the Royces’ art at a relaxed pace, lingering at the pieces that grab you the most and travel back to the glamorous life of another era. Guests who want a more structured experience have the option to take the self-guided audio tour that delves into details about the works or can book a curator-led private tour. The hotel also hosts temporary exhibitions of works by contemporary American artists, many of which are borrowed from top galleries in the area.
The permanent art collection at Ocean House is extensive, and according to Deborah, it’s complete. “I think we’ve done a good job showing what leisure life was like in the early part of the last century,” she says. “We don’t have any plans to acquire any more works for the hotel. At least not now.”