Even before the Farnsworth Art Museum opened its doors on August 15, 1948, it had already set a goal to build a collection of American art whose subjects reflected the daily experience of Rockland’s residents: the land and the sea, and scenes of work and play. Thus the museum’s earliest acquisitions often depicted the harbors, streams, fields, and forests of Maine, and boat builders, fishermen, farmers, and vacationers along the state’s scenic coastline. Since the mid-nineteenth century all of New England has been both host and inspiration to many of America's most noted painters including Thomas Cole, Fitz Henry Lane, Alvan Fisher, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Moran, and George Inness. What these and other artists experienced was an American nation that spread itself across the continent, a place that was defined by remarkable natural wonders as well as human transformation of the land and its bounty to serve people's needs. Places such as Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, and Maine’s own scenic wonders all found their way onto artists’ canvases—now part of the museum’s collection.
In Maine, the arrival of the railroad along with travel by sailboat and steamer brought more and more visitors to the state. Lane's painting of the Camden Mountains, or Gifford's of Mt. Desert Island, or John Joseph Enneking's of Mount Kineo from across Moosehead Lake captured the allure of the spectacular places increasingly accessible to America’s leisure travelers. In the summers especially, those with the necessary means were able to escape ever more populated Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and other east coast cities for these attractive sites.
A critical issue for many American artists in this period was how they defined themselves in relation to their European counterparts. American Impressionists adopted from Monet and his French contemporaries their free handling of paint, vibrant color, and the very notion of painting outdoors rather than in their studios. The Farnsworth’s paintings by Joseph DeCamp, John Twachtman, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Frank Benson, and Bruce Crane exemplify the strong hold French Impressionism had on American artists.
The influence of the French avant-garde was rekindled in 1913 when a large body of their works was exhibited at the famed Amory Show in New York, but the stunning scenery and distinctive light of Maine’s coast had their impact, too, on the American artists in the early years of the twentieth century. Rockwell Kent was one of many who followed the advice of the influential American painter and teacher Robert Henri to work on Monhegan Island, located some twenty miles off the coast from Rockland. By the 1920s and 1930s, most of the artists who worked in Maine, including Kent, adhered to an essentially realist tradition inflected only slightly by the forces that were shaping the development of the avant-garde in American and European art.
The Museum also owns a substantial collection of work by Andrew and James Wyeth, and family patriarch Newell Convers Wyeth, who first came to Maine in the 1920s and began a family association to the mid-coast area that lasts to this day. Andrew Wyeth’s work exemplifies the powerful draw Maine’s coast continued to exert on those immersed in the realist tradition, including Stephen Etnier, James Fitzgerald, and Andrew Winter.
Works produced after World War II up to the present correspond to the museum’s own still brief history. Among these are paintings by Milton Avery, Will Barnett, Lois Dodd, David Driskell, Richard Estes, David Gray, Robert Hamilton, John Imber, Robert Indiana, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, John Moore, Kenneth Noland, Fairfield Porter, David von Schlegell, Leon Polk Smith, Neil Welliver, and Jamie Wyeth. In addition, there are sculptures by John Bisbee, Robert Indiana, William Manning, Celeste Roberge, Italo Scanga, David von Schlegell, and William Zorach.
The collection is also strong in contemporary works in a variety of media by artists like Alex Katz and by donations from the Alex Katz Foundation, which include paintings by 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.