The Farnsworth Art Museum offers an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy a comprehensive collection of American art related to Maine.
Lucy Copeland Farnsworth, last surviving member of her family and the daughter of a successful Rockland lime merchant who founded the local water company, instructed in her will that a building she owned on Main Street “be put into condition to serve as an art gallery,” which along with a library and the mid-Victorian house she grew up in were to be open to the public and named after her father. The task of creating and operating the museum was assigned by her trustee, the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, to Robert Peabody Bellows, a Harvard graduate and a partner in the Boston architectural firm of Aldrich and Bellows.
Even before the museum opened its doors to the public on August 15, 1948, it had acquired works by George Bellows, William Zorach, and Andrew Wyeth, all of whom had already established their reputations at least in part by the work they did here. Between June 1943 and July 1948, the museum acquired 915 works of art, establishing what would become the central strength of the Farnsworth, works by some of America’s foremost landscape painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early purchases by Robert Bellows included Eastman Johnson’s The American Farmer, George Inness’s In the White Mountains, and Winslow Homer’s New England Coast, followed by purchases of paintings by George Bellows, Joseph DeCamp, Frank Duveneck, John La Farge, and William Zorach. Bellows donated a small painting from his own collection by Thomas Cole, Cattle and Distant Mountains, considered to be the artist’s earliest extant oil painting. In addition, Bellows acquired six works by the then little-known twenty-seven-year-old Andrew Wyeth, one of many artists painting along the Maine coast.
In 1951, the Farnsworth organized a major exhibition of the young Wyeth’s work, further developing a relationship with the Wyeth family of artists that quickly came to include Andrew’s father, N.C., the well-known illustrator and painter, and Andrew’s son, James Browning (Jamie) Wyeth, whose own career benefited from a major exhibition at the Farnsworth in 1967.
In the years since, the Farnsworth has continued to collect and exhibit the work of nationally prominent artists whose careers have been associated closely with Maine. In the 1950s a younger generation of New York artists began to summer in Maine and eventually became identified with the work they produced here, among them the painters Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, Fairfield Porter, Lois Dodd, and Yvonne Jacquette, as well as photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burkhardt. In 1969, Robert Indiana, already nationally renowned for his prints, paintings, and sculpture, and perhaps best known for his LOVE paintings, prints and sculptures, made his first visit to Vinalhaven, an island just off the coast of Rockland, and moved there permanently in 1978. When the museum’s 1979 exhibition on the work of sculptor and former Rockland resident Louise Nevelson was followed in 1985 by major donations of her work by Nevelson and members of her family, the Farnsworth engaged itself even more deeply into the world of American contemporary art.
The museum’s holdings of contemporary art have been significantly expanded, too, by donations from the Alex Katz Foundation, which include paintings by Jennifer Bartlett, Francesco Clemente, Janet Fish, Red Grooms, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Philip Pearlstein, David Salle, and Hunt Slonem, sculptures by Bernard Langlais and William Ryman, and photographs by Rudy Burkhardt. The Friends of the Collection, a group founded in 2002, whose sole purpose is to provide funds for museum acquisitions, has brought works by contemporary artists John Bisbee, Sam Cady, David Driskell, Richard Estes, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, Alan Magee, Louise Nevelson, Brian White, and others into the collection. The museum has also formed significant holdings of twentieth-century and contemporary photography, again focusing on artists who have worked in Maine. Among this group of more than 1400 photographs are works by Berenice Abbott, Rudy Burkhardt, Paul Caponigro, Joyce Tenneson, Elliot Porter, and Rockland native Kosti Ruohomaa.
The Farnsworth collection is promoted through school visits, studio programs, teacher workshops, lectures, family programs, youth and adult docent programs, video and film programs and seasonal celebrations. The Maine in America collection catalogue, exhibition catalogues, articles in scholarly and popular journals, and the museum's Web site provide further access. The museum's collection is rooted in the history of Maine, its people, their occupations and values, central to the Farnsworth’s mission to celebrate Maine’s role in American art.