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Masterpiece Theatres | New England Art Collections

Homer cherished the off-season, the time of year when nor’easters and powerful gales would wreak havoc on this spit of land, leading to his most vivid paintings. The Portland Museum of Art will also avoid the summer months, offering tours only during spring and fall.

Baker Memorial Library, Dartmouth College:
Hanover, New Hampshire

In the spring of 1932, Dartmouth made the shrewd move of inviting renowned Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to its campus to lecture and to demonstrate his style of fresco painting. In a corridor between Carpenter Hall and Baker Memorial Library, he created a work based on the Greek figure Daedelus, depicting a man rising from “a heap of destructive machinery.” The finished piece led quickly to a major commission for Orozco: the chance to paint the walls of the new Baker reserve reading room (now the Orozco Room of Baker-Berry Library).

The artist accepted the challenge, and over the next two years painted 24 massive panels, eschewing his original mythological theme for a much headier concept: the combined influence of indigenous and European cultures on America. Titled The Epic of American Civilization, the work is now considered by art critics to be one of the two most influential Mexican murals in America, along with Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“It’s like walking into the Sistine Chapel. It’s that spectacular,” says Sarah Powers, special-projects curator at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art. Even more so now that new state-of-the-art lighting was installed this past summer; the reds, oranges, and blues in Orozco’s work seem to pop off the walls, adding to the vibrancy of the already-dramatic work.

Orozco’s masterpiece is a scathing critique of humanity, which led to much controversy when it was unveiled in 1934. It feels just as bold today. The artist used the symmetry of the space to devote panels of the West Wing to Mesoamerican themes and the East Wing to the growing European power. The paintings jump from discordant concepts such as human sacrifice to harmonious ideals such as the pre-Columbian golden age of agriculture, arts, and sciences. No subject was spared Orozco’s scorn, from nationalism to religion to education. One panel in particular, Gods of the Modern World, must have had Dartmouth professors up in arms: Skeletons dressed in academic garb look on indifferently as another skeleton gives birth to “useless knowledge.” “This panel, in particular,” Powers notes, “had tremendous impact on Jackson Pollock when he came to look at the murals in 1936, shaping the course of modern American art.”

New London Post Office:
New London, Connecticut

Upon entering the New London post office, you might feel that it’s an odd endeavor to peer at art while other folks are standing in line to send off packages. Bring in a letter if you have to, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting this cavernous edifice, almost a block long in the heart of downtown. Look up: Below the crown molding are six panels of a mural completed by Thomas La Farge in 1938. At the height of the Great Depression, La Farge won a competition and became one of the growing number of New Deal muralists hired by the federal government “to provide work for all Americans, including artists.” La Farge’s winning theme, whaling, was perfectly suited to a community that was built on the bounty of baleen.

Above the P.O. boxes, you’ll find the two panels of Aloft. (All six panels have exactly the same dimensions: 3 feet wide by 14.5 feet long.) A shirtless sailor, strapping and as formidable as this building, climbs the mainsail. On the adjacent mural, Early Morning, a long line of men work in tandem to hoist a sail, offering Americans an uplifting message: We’re going to get through these hard times by toiling together.

La Farge was an avid sailor, but whaling was not his area of expertise. Several “old salts” still living in New London when he made his preliminary sketches questioned the anatomy of his whale. He left the large mammal out of the two panels titled Cutting-In, depicting another brawny sailor digging his harpoon into the water. The artist–a grandson of John La Farge, creator of some of the exquisite stained-glass windows of Boston’s Trinity Church–would soon commandeer his own ship, a Coast Guard cutter, during World War II. In 1942, it went down off the coast of Newfoundland, and La Farge perished at the age of 38, leaving these murals as his legacy.,

Weir Farm National Historic Site:
Branchville, Connecticut

When New York City collector Erwin Davis became obsessed with a painting owned by artist Julian Alden Weir, he made him an offer that was hard to refuse: In exchange for the painting and $10, Davis would transfer the deed to a 153-acre farm in the southern Connecticut countryside, near the hamlet of Branchville, on the Ridgefield/Wilton line. Weir arrived in the summer of 1882, was immediately enamored of the sylvan setting, and painted the first of the hundreds of works that he and his friends would create here over the next nearly 40 years.

To this day, the property remains a rural retreat that continues to inspire; it’s the only site in the National Park Service system dedicated to American painting. Walk first inside the Burlingham House Visitor Center (open two to four days per week year-round) to see a short film on the life of J. Alden Weir, considered one of the fathers of American Impressionism. That’s not to say he wasn’t disgusted with this type of painting when he first encountered it in Paris, calling an exhibition of Monet, Manet, and Degas works “worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” Yet soon enough, he was utilizing the loose brushstrokes and plein air setting that would become the trademarks of Impressionist style.

Don’t miss the evocative photos of Weir with John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam, just two of the many celebrated artists who enjoyed visiting Weir at his country home, and see the lone original Weir work in the building, The Truants (1896). Then immerse yourself in the same natural setting that inspired Weir. Trails lead to a pond, barns, old stone walls, a sunken garden, and his house and studio, which will be open to the public for the first time later this year. (Grounds are open every day, year-round.) Better yet, bring a sketchbook.

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.

Updated Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

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