Fine Art in the pine woods

It gets dark early in the wintertime in Rockland, Maine.One afternoon just after the first snow, I visited the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum. A dying golden light ennobled the waist-high oak wainscoting as I climbed the curving staircase. As the shadows lengthened and the snow outside went that particular dead gray that is picturesque only when seen with a bright sunset from inside a warm place, the museum's seascapes took on a chill tang of reality.

Upstairs there's a roomful of Wyeths. Under glass, old children's books are turned to N.C. Wyeth's heroic illustrations and there are some posters he painted for the Hercules Powder Company. There are Andrew Wyeth's haunting watercolors -- "Her Room," the museum's most famous example, wasn't up at the time. "It's just back from the Royal Gallery and it's resting up," said the museum's director, Marius Peladeau.

But Wyeth's "Young Fisherman and Dory" washed the room with its feeling of solitude and greenish Atlantic light. Monhegan Island, scene of this and so m any Wyeth paintings, seemed almost palpable, lying as it does off Rockland to the southeast. Though it was warm and dry in the gallery, the sea's presence was there, in the light, the backgrounds, and the feelings of those paintings, almost as tangible as a smack of errant seaspray.

John McCoy, who taught Andrew to use tempera, is represented too. And Ann Wyeth McCoy's "White Daisy," a portrait of a rock with a daisy and a perfectly peaceful field, looked, at least in that context, as if it were painted just onshore.

Down in the basement are clipper ships painted in full sail with frills of foam at their bows, keeling and bucking in front of dramatic clouds through iron-gray, tossing waves. On the shelves lie 18th- and 19th-century souvenirs of the sea, harpoons and whale teeth, as well as a case of silks and fans from the China trade.

And in the library, under the Waterford chandelier, you can sit and look at illustrations by Rockwell Kent, whose houses on Monhegan Jamie Wyeth has painted. Or read first editions of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who grew up in Rockland. Or check out the Louise Nevelson archives. She grew up there too. And her statues crouch outside in the dying light.

Not everything at the museum has to do with the sea or with Rockland. But the William A. Farnsworth Library and Museum is, in the words of Mr. Peladeau, who sports a low-on-the-chin, mustacheless beard like the ones you see in old engravings, "a good, regional museum." Just what constitutes a good regional museum?

Rockland is certainly a good region, having given the world poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, opera singer Maxine Elliott, and sculptor Louise Nevelson. What is it about Rockland that would produce three such different women artists? I ask. "Luck," says Mr. Peladeau.

And maybe landscape, too. But nothing more than that. Though you can see in the rocky coast and piney fields around you the stuff of paintings, poems, and probably songs galore (not to mention the evidence of their inspiration stacked up at the museum) when Millay, Nevelson, and Elliott and cohorts were growing up , they didn't get much official artistic inspiration from Rockland.Which is one of the things you need a good regional museum for.

The museum opened in 1948. Now there is a studio where the next generation's artists can sculpture, dance, make quilts, or do calligraphy. Even if that sort of encouragement doesn't make such difference to artists in the long run, ordinary civilians need artistic inspiration. And there are enough different views of the sea to give the visitor who would never think of painting more to look for out the window. And a library where schoolboys write papers, where summer people like to read between ferries.

What brought all this about? you may ask. The answer is simple: Lucy Farnsworth.

Or, as Mr. Peladeau affectionately (and well he might be affectionate) calls the museum's departed benefactor, Lucy. He never knew her, since she passed on in 1935, but he knows the terms of her will that provide for the museum. On the basis of those he is proud of her.

Lucy was the youngest daughter of a limestone tycoon, William A. Farnsworth, and the last surviving family member. While the elder siblings went into business or married, Lucy learned about business from her father She fits the stereotype of a "typical Yankee eccentric maiden, the last, probably unattractive," member of the family, he says. And he applauds her for learning her father's business. "She learned at her father's knee to be a business woman. She survived and ended her life compounding interest."

Interest on $1.3 million, in fact, which she put in trust at the Boston Safe Deposit Trust Company, to this day the only museum to run a graveyard. Miss Farnsworth also left them some rental properties, which, Mr. Peladeau allowed, don't bring in much. What he really finds foresighted was that she didn't specify what paintings should be on the walls, just that there be paintings on the walls. And that she left the Farnsworth homestead, to remain intact, even though its Victoriana was the quite unfashionable.

"She had good ideas. She said in her will, 'Someone will want to realize how we lived,'" says Peladeau. Thanks to the freedom of choice she left them. Robert Bellows of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was given a book of blank checks and sent out to assemble a survey collection of American art. One type of art he favored was the work of young artists working in Maine. One of the youngsters whose work he bought up at a good price was Andrew Wyeth.

Jaime Wyeth, his son, is also well represented in the museum, and apparently thinks kindly of it. He has given them his illustrations for his mother's 1979 children's book, "The Stray," and attended the opening of their exhibition there Dec. 9. Peladeau is delighted with the book, a fantasy, and chuckles as he leafs through it.

"There are dark, mysterious paintings of rainy days," he says in a lowering tone as if he were reading me a story and smiles into the book, forgetting to show me the pictures.

Along with the drawings there will be a show of 20th-century wood engravings, "Across the Grain" from the museum's substantial collection. In the spring a photographic essay on Louise Nevelson by Diane McCowen will start here and travel across the country.

Maine's first painter was Jonathan Fisher, a Congregationalist parson who also built his own simple but handy furniture, made surveying tools, and, to save paper when writing on philosophical subjects, invested his own shorthand. He would have liked Lucy Farnsworth, who, it is said, once sent a boy to the store for scrap meat for the cat, and then sent another boy to cancel the order, because the cat just caught a mouse.

Along with the personal, sea-scoured fantasies of the Wyeth paintings, the flintiness of Jonathan Fisher is very much a presence here, especially in his panoramic "A Morning View of Bluehill Village" a green spread of landscape with painstakingly reproduced town buildings. The landscape is lush, the buildings are exact as a surveyor could make them. Jonathan Fisher was a primitive painter who took care with his right angles, but could abandon himself to the swell of the hills. And in the foreground going about their daily business, are three figures. Two bonneted woman look at the village and a man kills a snake.

Everything is in its place. It's a sobering picture, probably very handy in the summer months, when it stays light so late and sea reflections dapple everything, and the scenery is almost unbearably beautiful. The museum is open seven days a week then, so you can go in and know that this landscape's measure has been taken. Meantime, as winter nights close down the horizon early, you can stand in the upstairs galleries and gaze out to sea with the Wyeths. A very good regional museum indeed.

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