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).
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. portlandmuseum.org/about/homerstudio/visit.php
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.” hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/collections
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. usps.com, lymanallyn.org
Weir Farm National Historic Site:
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. nps.gov/wefa/index.htm