An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection

by Donelson Hoopes

 



 

Like Walkowitz, Louise Nevelson was born in Russia and came to the United States as a child. Nevelson grew up in Rockland, Maine, but at twenty, she removed to New York to study painting. A trip to Germany in 1931 brought her in contact with the famed artist and theoretician, Hans Hofmann. His dynamic approach to painting was instrumental in the subsequent development of abstract expressionism in the United States. Intimations of his impact on Nevelson are apparent in Still Life, painted some two decades before her decisive move to sculpture. William Zorach also began as a painter, but in 1922 he likewise turned to sculpture for which he is remembered today. His long association with Maine began in the summer of 1919 when he rented a house at Stonington on Deer Isle. It was there he renewed a friendship with John Marin, so perhaps it is more than coincidental that Zorach turned seriously to watercolor at this time. Although he seems to have irrevocably abandoned oil painting by 1922, Zorach produced watercolors throughout his career. The majority are Maine subjects, engendered by his having acquired a seasonal property on an island near the mouth of the Kennebeck River, where he rested from the demands of his New York studio. Five Islands Ice Cream Parlor, which takes its title from a nearby village store of that name, displays Zorach's assured command of the watercolor medium, and provokes the unanswerable question about the path not taken when he committed himself to sculpture.

Newell Convers Wyeth was among the very few artists in history to elevate book illustration to the level of fine art. Together with his teacher, Howard Pyle, he brought the form into its golden age. The novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Fenimore Cooper are intimately linked with Wyeth's powerful and eloquent depictions of their stories. Some sixty years ago, Wyeth established a summer studio at Port Clyde and began to paint Maine subjects. (As an illustrator, he customarily used oils for pictures intended as colorplates in books and magazines). Always the master of disarmingly elegant design, Wyeth could convert an everyday subject as Dark Harbor Fishermen into an arresting and visually exciting composition. Dark Harbor, a village on Islesboro Island in Penobscot Bay becomes symbolized, visually, as a dark harbor, permitting heightened dramatic contrasts in the painting.

Andrew Wyeth, his son, spent his summers in Maine from the time he was a child, and grew to know intimately the moods of the country around the family's place at Port Clyde, and then, later at Cushing. The first training in art came from his father, but essentially Andrew Wyeth is self-taught. He has been quoted as explaining that he "worked everything out by trial and error." His earliest watercolors are remarkably proficient, and suggest that he had also a fine grasp of his predecessors' achievements in the medium -- with a particular nod to Winslow Homer. Acclaim came early to him; he was not yet twenty when his New York one-man show of Maine watercolors sold out within a day of its opening. Gradually he began to broaden his scope to the use of egg tempera medium, an ancient and arcane technique that Wyeth now employs better than any artist of modern times. Bridge at Martinsville (Morris Cove) is an early example of his work in tempera, and demonstrates the medium's capacity for effects of unusual chromatic subtlety in the hands of a virtuoso.

To the degree that Andrew Wyeth is associated with Maine, perhaps the artist least expected is Raphael Soyer, who is known for his sympathetic portrayals of the sometimes dismal daily life of New York City's lower east side. In Vinalhaven he turns an always gentle and poetic vision on derelicts of a kind and place far removed from his usual haunts. In outlook, no one could have contrasted more with Soyer than Fairfield Porter. No withdrawn visitor he, but the scion of privilege whose family maintained their own island -- several generations of Porters have migrated seasonally to Great Spruce Head in Penobscot Bay from Long Island, New York. Lurking behind Porter's outgoing personality whose self-assurance seems mirrored in his sunlit world of paintings, a keen intelligence was at work. True to form, Beach Flowers, No. 2 is endowed with a visual charm that masks a thorough familiarity with the historic sources of his art. A nostalgic element often lies at the core of his paintings, and by treating his subjects in a detached and somewhat formalized manner, Porter parallels the French Impressionist masters.

The islands of the Maine coast have individuality, and it is to be supposed that an artist will choose one over others in keeping with his notion of the ideal place to live and work. Deer Isle, where Karl Schrag has spent his summers for many years, is large enough to include interior acreage that seems remote from the ocean. Schrag's expressionist moonlit view of his studio in The Green Night suggests not so much an island as a place far removed from rocks and waves. In fact, Schrag's primary concern is with the purely formal elements intimated in his paintings. By contrast, John Heliker's summer studio is on Great Cranberry Island, off Mount Desert, where it lies exposed to the ocean's moods. Painting in a modified impressionist style, Heliker creates images through a fusion of light and form. A sensation of muted radiance prevails in Early Morning Landscape, conveying the notion of lifting fog over an ocean island, and lending his work a very place-specific quality.

 

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