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Artists lured tourists to Mount Desert Island, Maine

By Nancy M. Kendall / June 11, 1999



If a national park is on your vacation itinerary this summer, you may have an artist to thank, says Pamela Belanger of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. American artists explored and popularized many of America's sites of scenic beauty.

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Starting this Sunday, and continuing through Oct. 24, the Farnsworth is exhibiting "Inventing Acadia," which includes works from 19th-century landscape painters of the Hudson River School. Artist-explorers like Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford were among the first to record the primitive beauty of Mount Desert Island, Maine, the site of Acadia National Park since 1919. The striking images they made of this wilderness quickly captured the imagination and interest of their countrymen.

The wilderness frontier had a special allure at the time of the Civil War, as artists sought distant horizons for solace and solitude. In exhibiting Acadia's wonders to wide audiences in New York and Boston, these artist-pioneers drew attention to a rugged, barren area of lofty promontories. It became a popular travel destination and then a national park.

"This is a good example of how painting does cultural work," Ms. Belanger explains. Other great geographic areas associated with artists include Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Niagara Falls.

Critics point to Sanford Gifford's "The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine" as one of the most beautiful images created of the island. The hazy summer light, the seated artist, his umbrella pointed skyward, and the miniature painting already conceived in the paint box (forming a canvas within a canvas) contribute to a feeling of restorative contemplation and creation; they firmly place the artist within his own work.

"Inventing Acadia" includes 35 major paintings and related drawings, plus artists' letters, photographs, journals, and maps.