Masterpiece Theatres | New England Art Collections
Blame it on the majestic New England scenery that lured artists to its shores and mountains–or on savvy collectors who had the foresight to purchase the preeminent works of their time. The result is undeniable: The bounty of art found in this region is mind-boggling, from the American collection housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to the Hudson River School paintings hanging in Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, to the Impressionist gems of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Add the region’s university collections–such as the vast number of works in all media at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and Yale’s newly expanded Art Gallery–rivaling those of the finest institutions in most midrange cities, and you see how spoiled we are. Yet even with these riches, there remain hidden treasures to be discovered. Several of these sites have undergone recent refurbishing, acquired National Historic Landmark status, or simply added better lighting to enhance presentation of the works. There’s no time like the present to check them out.
St. Johnsbury Athenaeum:
St. Johnsbury, Vermont
With its requisite Irving gas station, diner, and red-brick paper mill, St. Johnsbury at first glance looks like many other small industrial towns in New England. But then you head up a hill to Main Street, and the opulence of yesteryear starts to seep into the picture. Churches share the route with the classrooms of St. Johnsbury Academy and a clutch of grand Victorian homes and venues, including the mansard-roofed public library, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. By all means, pull over, as I have countless times to the delight of any passenger held captive in my car.
Enter the library, past rows of leather-bound books, to the back room. Sunshine filters in from the cupola’s skylight onto the parlor chairs and black-walnut floors, illuminating the more than 100 paintings lining the red walls of America’s oldest unreconstructed art gallery of its type. Built in 1873, many of the gilt-framed works here are by prominent Hudson River School painters, including Asher B. Durand, Sanford Gifford, and Jasper Cropsey. Yet the collection’s crowning achievement is the immense piece that fills the entire back wall of this small space: Albert Bierstadt’s 10-by-15-foot panorama, The Domes of the Yosemite (1867).
Reviewing the mountainous vista of the Sierra Nevada, the New York Times stated that it was “worth a week’s travel to see this great picture.” The artist had been paid the then-exorbitant sum of $25,000 to create the piece for Connecticut financier LeGrand Lockwood. Lockwood would soon go bankrupt and die, forcing his widow to sell Domes at auction; future governor and Athenaeum patron Horace Fairbanks was the top bidder. “Now the Domes are doomed to the seclusion of a Vermont town, where it will astonish the natives,” the Boston Daily Globe reported in 1874. We know, however, that the Athenaeum did receive at least one out-of-town visitor: Albert Bierstadt returned every summer until his death to touch up his masterpiece. stjathenaeum.org
The Olson House:
Veer off Route 1 in Thomaston onto River Road and you soon enter the small community of Cushing, with its rich tapestry of rolling meadows, sheltered coastal inlets, and faded-red barns. This varied terrain and its inhabitants were the perfect fodder for the canvases of Andrew Wyeth. The artist would create more than 70 paintings in his lifetime just from the scenery along River Road, yet it’s the former 18th-century sea captain’s house on Hathorne Point Road that would become the backdrop for his most famous work, Christina’s World (1948).
On the same day Wyeth met his soon-to-be wife, Betsy James, she introduced him to two friends and neighbors, sister and brother Christina and Alvaro Olson. Wyeth became infatuated with the Olson farm, painting every nook and cranny of the three-story home, which became a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Walk inside the house to the smell of old wood, seasoned by salt air, and find Alvaro’s farming equipment, the woodstove that did its best to heat the structure on harsh winter nights, and a vase of fresh geraniums, placed exactly as they were during the Olsons’ lifetime, right next to the rocking chair.
Then stroll outside to the front yard and the meadow where a woman is found in the forefront of Wyeth’s iconic painting, which is now housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At first glance, she seems to be reclining in the tall grass, but then we learn that she’s actually crawling. Stricken with a neuromuscular disorder (perhaps polio), Christina Olson could not use her legs. Wyeth once wrote, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”
Finish your tour of the property by walking down the road to the Cushing docks, where lobstermen sell their fresh catch. farnsworthmuseum.org/olson-house
Winslow Homer Studio:
Prouts Neck, Maine
Acquired in 2006 by the Portland Museum of Art, Homer’s former home reopened last September after a $10 million restoration of the structure to its original intention. A refinished piazza and copper roof are just some of the touches added to the studio, which was Homer’s main residence from 1883 until his death in 1910. A tour inside (reservations required) will reveal the watercolors his mother painted; the sign he created (SNAKES! SNAKES! MICE!) to dissuade his growing fan club from interrupting his work; his signature etched into one of the glass windows; and the worn second-story floorboards, where he paced back and forth as he viewed his beloved Atlantic seascape. The interior is dark, with little natural light, and the studio feels claustrophobic, even after you spend just a few minutes inside. The monastic conditions suited the painter perfectly, since it forced him to be outside as much as possible, atop Prouts Neck’s craggy coastline, a frothy welcome mat to the fury of the sea.
Taking Homer’s cue, stroll the mile-long cliff walk (accessible with your tour) and you’ll be entering some of his most famous paintings. To the left, a cylindrical formation juts from the shoreline, similar to the rugged scene in Cannon Rock (1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art). Soon the trail starts its ascent, offering glorious ocean vistas–Homer’s inspiration for High Cliff, Coast of Maine (1894; Smithsonian American Art Museum).
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.