The contemporary Maine art scene was largely created by groups of artists who got together following World War II to create such institutions as the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture (1946) and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (1950) and to form cooperative galleries such as the Barn Gallery (1958) in Ogunquit, Maine Coast Artists (1952) in Rockport, and the Maine Art Gallery (1958) in Wiscasset.
The prime mover behind the Maine Art Gallery was Mildred Burrage, a Portland-born artist who had moved to Wiscasset from Kennebunkport with her sister Madeline in 1947. Burrage (1890-1983) was ahead of her times for Maine, having studied abroad in France during the birth of modernism. Miss Burrage’s four extended stays abroad between 1909 and 1914 are now (through July 15) the focus of an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art entitled From Portland to Paris: Mildred Burrage’s Years in France. The show consists of approximately 70 paintings, drawings, and letters from Burrage’s formative trip abroad.
Mildred Burrage and her sister Madeline, known as Bob, came from a prominent Portland family, their mother having been heir to a lumber fortune and their father Maine’s first state historian. Burrage began her art studies in Portland under the tutelage of artist Alice H. Howes. She then attended the Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode island, where she continued to pursue art. As luck would have it, Miss Wheeler owned a cottage in Giverny, France, and it was this connection that sent 19 year old Mildred abroad in 1909.
In France, Burrage studied under Miss Wheeler and American expatriate Robert Miller. In France, Burrage met Claude Monet and her chief influence was that of French Impressionism, the infatuation with “broken color” and qualities of light that led to the liberation from naturalistic color and eventually to freedom from imitation altogether.
From Portland to Paris was co-curated by Maine State Historian Earle J. Shettleworth, Jr. and Portland Museum of Art European curator Margaret E. Burgess. The Burrage show complements The Draw of the Normandy Coast (1860-1960), another exhibition Burgess has curated which will be on view this summer (June 14 through September 3.) The exhibition features not only Burrage’s renderings of the French countryside and people, but also a selection of her letters and postcards describing her infatuation with France.
On a 1909 postcard, for example, Burrage wrote, “The river is a good deal wider than the Kennebec. It is the loveliest country you ever saw, the red brown roofs, the white houses, and the green fields. I have been painting all the morning, and we are just going to begin again. Tell mama Miss Wheeler said most encouraging things to me this morning…Probably we are going to Paris Sunday. Notre Dame. I hope we will be there for the music. I would give anything to have you here. It is so new and such fun. Heaps of love from M.”
Mildred Burrage came home in 1914 at the onset of World War I, lived with her sister in Kennebunkport from 1917 to 1947, worked in the South Portland shipyard during World War II, and moved to Wiscasset in 1947. She was instrumental not only in establishing the Maine Art Gallery, but also in restoring the historic Pownalborough Court House and the Lincoln County Museum and Jail. An ardent preservationist, she served as a director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Late in life, Mildred Burrage created a whole body of abstract works in mica. While no one would ever claim that Mildred Burrage was a major artist, she has been overlooked as an artist and she truly was an artist ahead of her time and a force to be reckoned with in Maine.
[Portland Museum of Art, Seven Congress Square, Portland ME, 207-775-6148.]