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The Artful Traveler: All We Need is Maine

Portlandafterbath  

Yasuo Kuniyoshi's "After the Bath" (1923). Courtesy Portland Museum of Art.

Reviewed by Steve Jermanok

The rugged and raw beauty of Maine has been a lure to many of America's foremost landscape artists. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, first visited Mount Desert Island in 1844. When he returned home to New York with a bounty of canvases, Cole's affluent patrons were astounded by the mix of mountains and sea.  Man versus the chaotic forces of nature, particularly fishermen struggling against powerful nor'easters, kept Winslow Homer busy on the boulder-strewn shores of Prouts Neck for more than two decades. Ten years after Homer's death, Georgia O' Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin all came to the Maine coast for inspiration, changing the landscape to fit their modernist styles.
    So when I heard that the Portland Museum of Art was putting on an exhibition called Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England (now through October 12), I jumped at the opportunity to see some of these great works. Much to my surprise, none of these artists are on display. Instead of focusing on the superb Maine art collection the Portland Museum of Art possesses, curator Thomas Denenberg chose to focus half the exhibition on the art colonies of Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut. 

    There are some gems from this part of the show, like Matilda Browne's "Saltbox by Moonlight," where a small white house is shadowed by the dense brush work and dark palette of the oil painting. "Long Point Marsh" (1910), created by the founder of the Old Lyme colony, Henry Ward Ranger, has the feel of a Boudin, with dreamy clouds looming over the small figures walking alongside the marsh.

Portlandkentwreckof dt sheridan1949

"Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan" Rockwell Kent (1949). Courtesy Portland Museum of Art.

     Yet, the Connecticut portion of the show feels slight. It's not until we reach Maine, first at the art colony in Ogunquit and then north to Monhegan Island that viewers get their money's worth. Like Old Lyme, Ogunquit was founded as an art colony in the 1890s, primarily by Boston artist Charles Woodbury. In Woodbury's "Ogunquit Bath House with Lady and Dog" (1912), we begin to see the appeal of the Maine beach for sun worshippers. Yasuo Kuniyoshi's "After the Bath" (1923) is a modernist work of a woman at the mirror combing her hair as the quintessential Maine image of a schooner passes by in the window.
    Robert Henri first arrived on the shores of Monhegan Island in 1903, returning often with students he taught at the New York School of Art, including Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows.
    In the token Hopper work in the show, "Monhegan Houses, Maine" (1916), we already see the artist more interested in the simple architecture than the surrounding coast. Kent's hyper-realist portrait of a tug boat overturned under seagulls and a ribbon of blue sky can be viewed in "Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan" (1949).

Portlandmatinicusbellows

"Matinicus" George Bellows (1916). Courtesy Portland Museum of Art. 

But the highlight of the show has to be a work by Bellows simply titled "Matinicus" (1916). Best known for his gritty boxing paintings, Bellows has fun with this one, showing lobstermen on their docked boats, backed by seaside shanties, as a duck and cow look on.
    This only whets your appetite for more Maine works, like Hartley, Marin, and the rest of the Stieglitz crew who ventured to Deer Isle in the 1920s.  You'll have to wander upstairs into the permanent collection to see a sampling of those wares.

Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England can be seen through October 12, 2009 at the Portland Museum of Art.

    In his former life when print was king, Steve Jermanok was a columnist on the arts for Boston Magazine, a contributing editor for Art & Antiques, and guest editor of the arts issue for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.  Now he's happy to share his passion with the readers of Everett Potter's Travel Report. He blogs daily at Active Travels.

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