See the Evolution of Maine’s Identity at Bowdoin’s Bicentennial Art Exhibition

At First Light: Two Centuries of Artists in Maine paints a complex picture of Maine’s history.

Sunlight on the Coast, by Winslow Homer
By Will Grunewald
From our September 2022 issue

For proof that this sparsely populated and out-of-the-way state boasts an outsize artistic footprint, one need only stroll through At First Light: Two Centuries of Artists in Maine, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s show for Maine’s bicentennial, two years delayed by the pandemic. The lineup includes works from Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, Berenice Abbott, Lois Dodd, David Driskell, three generations of Wyeths — the list is nearly inexhaustible. “A lot of the time when we talk about quote-unquote ‘Maine art,’” says Anne Goodyear, codirector of the museum with her husband, Frank, “we’re talking about the canon of American art and, in many ways, international art as well.”

Abraham Hanson, ca. 1828, oil on canvas, by Jeremiah Pearson Hardy, American, 1800–1887. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA / Art Resource, NY
After the Storm, Vinalhaven, 1938–1939, oil on Academy board by Marsden Hartley, American, 1877–1943. Gift of Mrs. Charles Phillip Kuntz, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

But flaunting Maine’s artistic riches is only partly the point. The more than 100 pieces mix household names with lesser-knowns (and an unknown, in the case of a silver Wabanaki brooch of uncertain origin), and they collectively trace the evolution of the state from little more than a notion on geographer Moses Greenleaf’s 1820 Maine map to the idealized Vacationland of impressionist Frank Weston Benson’s 1909 Summer to the hardscrabble fishing economy of photographer Olive Pierce’s 1991 Benny’s Seafood. The show’s chronological flow, Goodyear says, is meant to convey “the history of Maine’s burgeoning identity.” Throughout, natural beauty and natural-resource extraction are prevailing themes. Seemingly at odds, they’re nonetheless ingrained together in Maine’s past and present, and they’ve inspired countless artists to produce remarkable work here.

Benny’s Seafood from the Portfolio: Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community, 1991, gelatin silver print, by Olive Pierce, American, 1925–2016. Gift of the photographer, Olive Pierce, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. © Olive Pierce, all rights reserved.
Wabanaki Birchbark Covered Box, 1834, birchbark and split spruce root, Ambroise St. Aubin family, known as the Bear Family, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

At First Light runs through November 6 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. 245 Maine St., Brunswick. 207-725-3275.