THE AMERICAN TRADITION
William Congdon’s roots were deep in the Anglo-Saxon Puritanism of New England, which shaped his childhood and education. His parents, Gilbert Maurice and Caroline Grosvenor, belonged to two illustrious WASP dynasties of steel and cotton industrialists, respectively. Together with his brothers, William spent his childhood at his parent’s house in Providence, with long summer breaks at the sea at the up-market resorts of Bristol and Newport.
Boats populated his childhood and adolescence as did a love of the ocean passed on to him by his mother. However, despite this privileged and protected atmosphere, his difficult relationship with his father created a deep inner wound. William sought in his sweet and refined mother, and in his love for his older brother Gilbert, compensation for the emotional rejection suffered at the hands of his father, a stiff and distant figure, who was the ultimate incarnation of the ethical and economic discipline of Protestant Puritanism.
«My first childhood memory was that of feeling myself inwardly alone, even though surrounded by many family members and servants. Solitude was linked to my father’s emotional rejection. I was frightened. (…) It was this frustrated, aborted relationship that awoke my creative gift. I was like a bottle, blocked up inside with inhibitions and introspections that set up dangerous complexes, which much later on I had to recognize were helpful for my art, even though disastrous for my relationships with others».
Following in the footsteps of his brother Gilbert, Congdon enrolled at Yale, where he took courses in English and Spanish literature, cultivating his growing interest in theatre, poetry, opera and orchestral music. Travels, music, studies in what were seen as fringe subjects, but also the practice of solitary and non-competitive sports, thus became the expression of an irrevocable and increasingly radical rebellion against his origins.
His love of music and his passion for big steamships and for the sea came together in a series of European trips, to Bayreuth, to attend the Wagnerian festivals. As with all upper middle class young Americans, there were plenty of opportunities to attend parties, go to the opera and to the ballet in New York.The New England environment, too closely linked with his family and childhood experience, did not allow for the full explosion of his artistic talent, which in this phase could not yet express his most intimate and pressing needs.