Farnsworth Art Museum
The Farnsworth has multiple entrances, this one at the corner of Main and Elm Streets. Photo courtesy of John Hazeltine.
One Hundred Years of Maine at Work
July 13 through October 5, 1997
Excerpts from the Exhibition Brochure
by Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D., Chief Curator
Artists have always been attracted to Maine for the great physical beauty of the land and sea and the unique character of its people. many of our painters, sculptors, and photographers have been sensitive to the often harsh way of life that has also evolved from our beautiful environment. In this exhibition we explore some of the ways artists have depicted the people and working life of Maine. Their imagery reveals tough and dramatic work on board ships at sea, the many ways Mainers have used native lumber and granite, their specialized agriculture focusing upon several market crops and their devotion to small town life, which supports and is sustained by fisheries, agriculture and industry. All these make important contributions to a state that has responded time and time again to changing physical, economic and social conditions. Artists have often recorded deep and lingering economic hardship in historical times as well as our own.
Winslow Homer's inspiring and dramatic turn-of the-century images of heroic rescues at sea and hard-working fishermen and women fired the imagination of a subsequent generation of artists working in the first years of the 20th century. While New York artists chronicled the street life of city dwellers creating the warm and earthy style of the "Ashcan School," Robert Henri, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent also came to Maine, where they celebrated its rugged way of life full of energy, struggle and triumph.
Richard Kent's great painting Toilers of the Sea (1907) depicts the everyday drama of fishermen working amidst the rocky cliffs of Monhegan Island. The artist lived and worked alongside his Monhegan neighbors and remarked, "I envied them their strength, their knowledge of their work, their skill in it; I envied them their knowledge of boats and their familiarity with that awesome portion of the infinite, the sea. I envied them their worker's human dignity..."
Technology and political change greatly affected the working environment of Maine as the advent of World War II transformed the industrial and social fabric of American life. Ship-building had always been an important industry in Maine but wood had largely given way to steel, especially for the defense industry. Carroll Thayer Berry's cycle of paintings of Bath Iron Works was created from drawings made on the factory floor amidst the welders and shipbuilders. BIW constructed a record 82 destroyers and 236 Liberty ships for the war effort. Bath Iron Works would continue to supply vessels for marine transport and for defense after World War II on a scale unprecedented in the state. Berry's imagery celebrates the massive numbers of people involved and the overwhelming size of the ships.
Individual human figures function within the larger environment, a marked contrast to the more intimate and immediate world described just three decades before by George Bellows in The Teamster. Patriotism and pride in American craftsmanship is present in both works of art as it has continued to endure in Maine itself.
In our own time, artists have given us cool and awe-inspiring images of industrial landscapes found at the edges of cities and small towns across Maine. Linden Frederick's Factory Yard (1991) is an image of Belfast, Maine, that is not featured in vacation brochures but effectively describes one arena of contemporary work.
Perhaps it is surprising that we focus upon the working life of Maine during this season of vacation and leisure. Summer is a time to celebrate the fertility of the earth and the sea and the productivity of our fellow citizens. Caring for the needs of others is a part of work. Whether work occurs in the factory or the office, in a hospital or a restaurant or on Main Street or at home, it is all part of the important matrix of living exchange supporting families and communities. Over the past century, our artists have been patient and engaged observers of decades of change in the workplace and at home. They have found abundant generosity, emotion, creativity and exuberance. It is through their work that we know the thoughts and feelings of our artists who have understood, better than many of us, how great a story can be found in daily life.
Other images from the exhibition:
Text by Susan Larsen, Chief Curator, Farnsworth Art Museum. Photos courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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