The Farnsworth, a ‘Must See’ and an Old Friend

The elevator doors open and a bright sign in florescent-pink flowing neon script orders me to “Eat Flowers.” The sign, by Cig Harvey, is reminiscent of a sign on Joe’s Diner but is on the wall of the Farnsworth Museum, in Rockland, Maine. Wait a minute — what flowers, where and why should I eat flowers? And, what was this sign doing in a museum featuring Monhegan School painters and the works of the three Wyeths? Stay tuned.

Picking your summer vacation destination doesn’t usually induce euphoria — at least not until Covid removed the possibility of traveling for fifteen months. But euphoric we were as we discussed possibilities. Seeking to escape high temperatures, overheated political rhetoric and general pandemic weariness, we headed for Maine. And, the Pine Tree State met our criteria of being within reasonable driving distance, cool and offering plenty of things to do and see. We loaded the luggage and the two pups and headed north.

High on my list of things to see — the Farnsworth Museum – like visiting an old friend. The village of Rockland proudly declares itself one of the five world capitals of art, along with London, Paris, New York and Florence. The home of two museums, and 15 art galleries, Rockland’s motto is (perhaps more realistically) “Art Capital of Maine.” The highly respected Farnsworth, concentrating on American art, is a “must see” for mid-coast visitors.

The Farnsworth Museum is celebrating its 70th year. Lucy Copeland Farnsworth donated a building on Main Street as well as her home and its belongings. She was the last surviving member of her family which had acquired its fortune through quarrying limestone. Her wishes were carried out and a museum was opened to the public in 1951. Her home, with 1500 original objects, is also open to the public.

“With more than 20,000 square feet of gallery space and more than 15,000 works in the collection,” The Farnsworth’s website boasts, “there is always something new on view at the Farnsworth. The museum has one of the nation’s largest collections of works by sculptor Louise Nevelson. Its Wyeth Center features works by Andrew, N.C., and Jamie Wyeth. The Farnsworth’s library is also housed in its Rockland, Maine, campus. Two historic buildings, the Farnsworth Homestead and the Olson House, as well as Julia’s Gallery for Young Artists complete the museum complex.”

The current Farnsworth Museum consists of several restored and interconnected buildings plus the Wyeth Center across the street in a restored and remodeled church. The physical buildings are lovely and include an inviting library with a big fireplace, and a piano which was being beautifully played by a visitor the day I was there. The tasteful gift shop makes you want to pull out your holiday gift list and start buying. You have to love a museum that gently reminds you “Please Do Not Touch.” The “Please” sets the tone for the whole museum. The museum staff is delighted to share their precious belongings with you — almost as if you are visiting a family home full of wonderful things. Although there is no audio tour, pieces that have information you can listen to on your phone are marked. Docent-led tours run at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., which I highly recommend. On mine, a jolly resident of Rockland shared her love of the art, and lots of good stories about Rockland and the artists whose works are shown. The Farnsworth is also a great size —enough to occupy a morning but not enough to leave you needing an afternoon nap to recover.

Most of the Museum’s collection is focused on the renowned artist colony that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries on the island of Monhegan, off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Artists from Boston, Philadelphia and New York summered there, enjoying the cool weather and perfect light. The island is still reachable by ferry today and is noted for hiking trails, art studios and a lighthouse.

The Farnsworth features American art starting with the oldest painting in the collection, Jonathan Fisher’s “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village” (1824). Jonathan was a local minister in Blue Hill who also farmed and painted. The collection spans works from three centuries and includes 21st century art including Harvey’s mysterious “Eat Flowers.”

It’s a banner year to visit the Farnsworth. Perhaps the pandemic closure gave extra time to prepare four special exhibits, all interesting. In the Wyeth Center, the photography of George Tice is featured alongside the works of N.C. (father), Andrew (son), and Jamie Wyeth (grandson). George Tice was a friend of Andrew Wyeth and photographed the same scenes Wyeth painted. For instance, an evocative painting of the Olsen house (the house and family were painted 300 times by Andrew Wyeth) is accompanied by several photos of the same home, showing the strengths and limitations of each medium while allowing the viewer to fully appreciate Wyeth’s creativity.

Betsy Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s wife, is featured in another exhibit. She is responsible for buying Southern Island and restoring the lighthouse that became their residence. She also astutely handled the business side of Andrew’s art and obtained copyrights on all his works. Betsy introduced Andrew to the Olsen family — soon to be his favorite subjects. The room features his many paintings of her as she often served as his model. My favorite was Magma’s Daughter showing Betsy as a lovely young woman, however, the painting also conveys a sense of confidence and determination. Betsy Wyeth died in 2020 and bequeathed an additional 27 paintings by the three Wyeths to the museum.

Women are also featured in “Women of Vision” a tribute to female artists and leaders that helped found and grow the Farnsworth. Artist Louise Nevelson’s works are highlighted as is the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Farnsworth board members, contributors, and community members who worked to open the Museum are honored.

An exhibit entitled “Maine” selects highlights of the 15,000-piece collection to celebrate the 70-year anniversary. The selections are varied, including a ship’s model, a panorama of Rockland’s main street in 1849, a replica of Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” model, a few requisite seascapes, and a room of portraits. The portraits are generally of ordinary Maine people working, enjoying home or recreation, exploring clam flats or fishing. Two of the portraits reflect a more European style of portraiture. A Spanish lady in elaborate costume and a society matron in an equally elaborate costume seem a bit out of place with the portraits of Maine residents featured in working garb. Maine modern edges in with Jamie Wyeth’s “Andy Warhol in White,” a watercolor on cardboard.

Robert Indiana’s “Elegy” is shown in another room. The complex, highly symbolic paintings are beautiful but would take more time than a morning to fully appreciate. Our docent mentioned respectfully one artist, Kent Rockwell, who stayed in Maine year-round on Monhegan Island. I noted all three of his displayed paintings were of ice and snow.

Finally: the Wyeth paintings. The Farnsworth has been criticized for concentrating too heavily on the paintings of W.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth. I don’t agree. The Wyeth paintings are about Maine, by Maine artists and emotionally accessible to most people. Who hasn’t felt the loneliness portrayed in “Christina’s World” (now at the MoMA), or appreciated the beauty of a sea coast? The Museum displays its Wyeths judiciously and seeing the artistic evolution through three generations is fascinating.

So, I still don’t know about eating flowers but I had a great morning revisiting the Farnsworth and recommend it to all.





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