An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection

by Donelson Hoopes

 



 

"As one crosses the Piscataqua from New Hampshire into Maine,

the air changes and becomes fresh-alive.

There is a . . . unique glitter to the fields and forests, marshes and water."

 

........................................- Kenneth Roberts, Trending into Maine

 

KENNETH ROBERTS celebrated Maine, not as a painter of pictures, but in words inspired by much the same response to the incomparable beauty of the state that has long motivated artists to produce some of their best creations. Many of his books, like Trending Into Maine, were embellished by illustrations created by one of the supreme masters of the genre, N.C. Wyeth, who established a summer residence at Port Clyde and later at Cushing, Maine. Andrew Wyeth, his son, and perhaps the best known artist working in Maine today, maintains a summer studio in the same St. George River locality. This also is the setting for his most widely recognized painting, Christina's World, which has become a kind of icon of Maine's landscape and culture. Significant connections abound in this place, seeming to complete a full circle, historically speaking. For it was in this riverine estuary of the St. George that the English explorer Weymouth dropped anchor in 1605, exciting aspirations for the establishment of a colony that two centuries later would become the State of Maine.

Before Maine was able to attain statehood in 1820, however, it was a dependency of Massachusetts. As a frontier district, life was harsh, and amenities few. In the 18th century, the great "proprietors" commanded the destinies of their vast land holdings in Maine from afar, and patronized artists like Copley, Feke, and Blackburn who rendered their sitters according to the fashions of British portraiture prevailing in colonial Boston and New York. Landscape painting was unknown, for, typical of 18th century attitudes toward nature, the wilderness was regarded as unworthy of the artist's attention.

That attitude did not begin to change until 1825, when Thomas Cole almost single-handedly opened the sensibilities of artists, and the public, to the sublimity of nature, and to its validity as a subject for serious art. The so-called "Hudson River School," established under Cole's leadership, endowed the United States with its first truly original art expression. In the summer of 1844, Cole made his one trip to Maine, visiting Mount Desert Island, where he sketched views of Frenchman Bay.

This marked the first time a major American artist had visited Maine, and it would inspire others to follow -- notably his former pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, who painted on Mount Desert six years later. After a lifetime of travel and critical acclaim for his spectacular landscapes, ranging in subject from the frozen wastes of Labrador to the Andes of Ecuador, in the 1870s Church became a seasonal resident of Maine. Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, his last major painting, is a quietly poetic summation not only of his life's work, but of the Hudson River School ideal of the sublime landscape.

In the second quarter of the 19th century a number of European artists also began to exploit the potential of the American landscape. The Englishman William Henry Bartlett made watercolor drawings of the principal attractions of the east coast which were published in 1839-42 as engravings in the two-volume book, American Scenery. This source frequently served as the origin of the work of others, such as Victor de Grailly who borrowed freely from it. His Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay reveals a charming innocence about the realities of life in Down East Maine, as his depiction of the improbably elegant figures in the foreground amply attests.

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