“Beware the ides of March,” Shakespeare’s soothsayer warned Julius Caesar in the days leading up to his assassination at the hands of Brutus and his senatorial co-conspirators. March 15 was thus forever ingrained in our hearts and minds as a day of infamy. Mainers, however, have local reason to celebrate the Ides of March, as it happened to be the date, in 1820, on which the District of Maine was admitted as the twenty-third state in the Union.
Today’s bicentennial of Maine’s statehood is the impetus of two publications from Rizzoli that celebrate Maine’s long history as a home to artists: At First Light: Two Centuries of Maine Artists, Their Homes and Studios, and Maine and American Art: The Farnsworth Museum. With its abundance of mostly untouched coastlines, islands, mountains, forests, and rivers, Maine has long attracted painters, photographers, and sculptors from more populated regions in search of both subject and solitude.
One institution dedicated to the celebration of this rich local tradition is the Farnsworth Art Museum, in the small coastal city (population ~7,000) of Rockland, Maine. The Farnsworth was founded upon the 1935 death of Lucy Copeland Farnsworth, a businesswoman and heiress to a limestone fortune, who stipulated in her will that her fortune of more than $1 million be used to build and establish a museum and library in memory of her father, William A. Farnsworth. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1948; now, the collection includes more than fifteen thousand objects and the library, the only public library in Maine devoted specifically to art books, includes more than ten thousand volumes.
Maine and American Art includes an introductory essay by Michael F. Komanecky, the Farnsworth’s chief curator, on the efforts made by Lucy Farnsworth before she died to ensure the establishment and longstanding success of her museum. Using newly unearthed correspondences between Farnsworth, her lawyers, and various Rockland town entities, Komanecky’s essay paints a rich portrait of a woman whose vision outstripped her fellow Rocklanders, who were usually baffled by her desire to spend her vast fortune on the creation of a cultural institution in such a remote corner of the country.
The volume follows with a series of seventeen thematic essays by Komanecky and two of his colleagues at the Farnsworth, Angela Waldron and Jane Bianco. On topics such as “Maine’s Woods and Waters,” “The Henri Circle,” “The Wyeths,” and “Slab City Scene,” the essays are richly illustrated by reproductions of artworks from the Farnsworth collection. Through these objects we are given a visual history of the state as artistic enclave, from its colonial beginnings with the primitive explorations of the Congregational minister Jonathan Fisher; through its gradual development in the nineteenth century, encouraging the likes of Winslow Homer to settle along the coast; to the mid-twentieth century, which brought modern artists—many of whom bravely resisted the contemporary orthodoxy of abstraction—to the state’s shores and wooded interior.
Much of this history is also traced by At First Light, which pairs photographs by Walter Smalling, Jr., of surviving Maine artist’s homes and studios with the works they created there. These juxtapositions demonstrate—to gorgeous and illuminating effect—just how the light and geography of Maine inspired and influenced these artists in unique ways. Focusing on those artists whose studios still stand to this day, the book includes, among others, Fisher, Homer, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, the Wyeth family, the photographer Bernice Abbott, Eliot and Fairfield Porter, Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette, Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Richard Tuttle, and David Driskell. The volume includes a forward by the Poet Laureate of Maine, Stuart Kestenbaum, as well as individual introductions by Frank H. and Anne Collins Goodyear, the co-directors of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
No discussion of art in the Pine Tree State would be complete without Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), the self-proclaimed “Painter of Maine.” To Hartley, this was “a strong, simple, stately, and perhaps brutal country, you get directness of demeanor, and you know where you stand, for lying is a detestation, as it is not in the cities.” At First Light includes a number of photographs that give a sense for the kinds of docks, churches, and shorelines that Hartley immortalized in his late Maine paintings. Looking at Hartley’s majestic portraits of Mount Katahdin, one thinks of the famous lines from Thoreau’s Maine Woods: “The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
Then there are the Porter brothers—Fairfield (painter, 1907–75) and Eliot (photographer, 1901–90)—whose father, James Porter, designed and built a large home on the uninhabited Great Spruce Island in Penobscot Bay. The Porters, originally based in Winnetka, Illinois, spent every summer on the island, a tradition that continued through most of the artists’ adult lives. In Smalling’s photographs of the house, which is still used by the Porter family, we find the characteristic lived-in clutter that Fairfield, preferring to paint a breakfast table or kitchen counter as it happened to be, so convincingly conveyed in his works. It’s interesting to compare the color and atmosphere of Smalling’s photographs with similarly situated paintings that Fairfield made of the Great Spruce house and landscape, and then to compare both of these with Eliot Porter’s innovative color photographs of the same environs.
One of the great Maine artists still working today is Lois Dodd (born 1927), who first went to the state in the summer of 1949 to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. She was soon back, with Skowhegan classmate Alex Katz and their respective spouses, and other artists soon followed: those who would at various times visit and work in the nearby region included the landscapist Neil Welliver, the poet Edwin Denby, Burkhardt and Jacquette, and Red Grooms and Mimi Gross. One of the jolliest revelations of At First Light is the interior photograph of the painted murals Dodd made in the guest room of her house in Cushing Maine—of a pine-filled, sunny wooded scene. In the book this sits opposite to a painting from the Farnsworth collection that Dodd herself then made of a window in the guestroom, playfully merging painted wall with painted landscape, adding to a long tradition of observational interior/exterior window paintings.
Countless other exceptional painters, sculptors, and photographers are discussed in these two books, and their contribution to the tradition of art in Maine are worth serious investigation. The two volumes are a fitting tribute to this beautiful state as it enters its third century.