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Maine in America: Two Hundred Years of American Art


Two years after the publication of its collection catalogue "Maine in America: American Art at the Farnsworth Art Museum," the Farnsworth Art Museum will reinstall its permanent collection as "Maine in America: Two Hundred Years of American Art." This major exhibition, which opened October 27, 2002, presents close to 140 works in seven galleries.

This reconsideration of the scholarly significance of the collection explores several themes related to Maine and American art. Moreover, as a permanent exhibition, the Farnsworth will for the first time encourage a deeper investigation and dialogue on artists, works and cultural contexts, as well as invite reflection on the collection as a whole.

From the beginning, in the early 1940s when the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company engaged fine arts advisor Robert P. Bellows to purchase artwork for the new William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, the institution has accumulated a genuine collection.  By buying at a time when American art was undervalued, Bellows assembled a remarkable collection of 19th and 20th-century works by such American masters as John Marin, Frank Benson, Eastman Johnson, Marguerite Zorach, and Winslow Homer.

For example, Bellows acquired the Maurice Prendergast watercolor "St. Mark's Square, Venice," 1898-99, one of the museum's most important and treasured works, for only $65. Bellows also donated from his own collection a small panel by Thomas Cole, "Cattle and Distant Mountain," 1822, which is now acknowledged to be Cole's earliest extant oil painting.

Bellows set tones of quality, value, and importance for the Farnsworth's next forty years of collecting. The early 1950s saw an emphasis placed on the achievements of artists who lived and worked in Maine and New England. Although acquisitions were few during this decade, the museum's reputation as a place where one could enjoy both the work of 19th and early 20th-century representational American and contemporary Maine artists represented in the collection became firmly established.

Leading 18th and 19th-century landscape painters such as Fitz Hugh Lane, Alvan Fisher, Martin Johnson Heade and Jonathan Fisher were all acquired during the 1960s, as were a pair of handsome Gilbert Stuart portraits. The museum also bought two Edward Hopper watercolors, one of a rambling old boarding house and the other of a boat, both of which were painted in Rockland in 1926. "Her Room," by Andrew Wyeth, one of the signature pieces of the Farnsworth's collection, was purchased by the museum in 1963, as well as additional works by the Wyeth family of artists.

In the 1970s and 80s, the museum significantly enhanced its collection of 20th-century representations, adding works by Louise Nevelson, Robert Indiana, Neil Welliver, Will Barnet, Alex Katz, Beverly Hallam, and Carolyn Brady, all contemporary artists who spent at least part of the year living and working in Maine. Nevelson, in fact, donated to the museum a significant number of gifts, at least 56 works of art by herself and another 31 works by other artists. Key purchases during this time included works by Nevelson, Marsden Hartley and Willard Metcalf. Additional major gifts included works by John Twachtman, Childe Hassam and Norman Rockwell.

A strong print collection was also established during these years of late 19th-century and early 20th-century prints by Winslow Homer, Frank Benson, George Bellows, John Sloan and John Marin and contemporary prints by Robert Indiana and Neil Welliver, among numerous others.   

In the 1990s, along with a major bequest of 66 important American paintings by George Bellows, Fitz Hugh Lane, Rockwell Kent, Fairfield Porter, Edward Hopper and others, the museum built its already considerable collection into one of national repute. A marked shift toward a commitment to lesser known living Maine artists such as Brett Bigbee, Alan Bray, Dennis Pinette and Mark Wethli, and numerous others has resulted, in many instances, in the Farnsworth being the first museum to acquire their works, and many of these artists have subsequently attracted a national audience, their works entering the collections of major museums throughout the United States.

In keeping with the historical collection, the Farnsworth purchased additional 19th and 20th-century works by John Marin, Marguerite Zorach, Alvan Fisher, David Johnson, Sanford R. Gifford and Walt Kuhn, among others. Significant acquisitions of Wyeth family works also entered the collection at this time, including N.C. Wyeth's "Bright and Fair - Eight Bells," Andrew Wyeth's "Turkey Pond," and James Wyeth's "Portrait of Orca Bates."

The permanent collection is a powerful source of countless thematic exhibitions, both large scale and small. In the last five years, the museum has mounted exhibitions that draw from and contextualize works from the permanent collection: "Maine at Work" in 1997; "Benson and Bellows: Reality and the Dream" in 1998, "Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert" in 1999, and in 2000, "On Island: A Century of Continuity and Change."

The reinstallation of the permanent collection as "Maine in America: Two Hundred Years of American Art," a narrative exhibition of museum-owned artwork displayed throughout multiple galleries, will provide a singular opportunity for museum visitors to celebrate Maine's artistic heritage and to assess Maine's unique role in American art. 


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Farnsworth Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

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 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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