When you think of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, you think of paintings and sculptures. Such Maine art luminaries as Andrew Wyeth, Robert Indiana and Will Barnet are the names that pop to the top of your head.
Books do not come first to mind. But an ongoing exhibition at the Rockland institution may change the museum’s perception.
“The Art of the Book,” on view through April 3, explores the museum’s extensive and surprising collection of rare, first-edition and out-of-print illustrated books.
The collection is one of the museum’s hidden treasures, says Farnsworth registrar Angela Waldron, who organized and researched the show.
“The Farnsworth is rightly known for its amazing collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art and our two historical properties,” she said. “But the library is a big part of the museum too. Our goal in doing this exhibition is to bring attention to that aspect of our operation.”
The Farnsworth owns more than 5,000 books, periodicals and archive material, but “The Art of the Book” marks the first time it has focused attention on them. With a few exceptions, the show is drawn entirely from the museum collection, and features a selection of first-edition classics such as “Legends of Charlemagne” by Thomas Bullfinch, “Drawings” by C. D. Gibson, “Poems of Childhood” by Maxfield Parrish and “The Wonder Clock” by Howard Pyle.
Waldron will lead a gallery talk at 1 p.m. Saturday. She will give an overview of the library’s history and collection, with a focus on books by artists and authors connected to Maine, such as John Josselyn’s “New England Rarities Discovered”; Frederick J. Waugh’s lost children’s classic, “The Clan of Munes”; and Rockwell Kent’s iconic wood engravings for Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
The library and museum were established in tandem through a 1936 bequest of Lucy Farnsworth, who stipulated in her will that a museum and library be founded in her father’s memory. Her father was a Rockland businessman.
The Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Co., Farnsworth’s executor, enlisted Boston art consultant Robert Bellows to begin building the library and art collection.
“He did this before the museum opened,” Waldron said. “From 1943 to 1948, he went on a buying spree in Boston and New York City. As he was buying works of art for the museum, he was also purchasing books for the collection. He was consciously selecting books that meshed well with his vision for the collection.”
The museum opened in 1948.
“We are still adding to the collection, very much so,” Waldron said. “Not all the books were purchased by Bellows. He purchased 400. The museum has relied over the years on gifts and bequests of books for the library. We have a very modest book acquisition fund, so we rely on bequests and gifts, primarily.”
The exhibition includes about 70 books, which are displayed under glass in nine cases. Collectively, the show represents what Waldron calls “the very best examples of American illustrations.”
The prime example is a three-volume set of “Moby-Dick” designed and illustrated by Kent and published in 1930.
“It was a gift to us in 1999. At the time the book was published, only 1,000 copies were produced. It sold out immediately,” Waldron said. “It tells you how very important Rockwell Kent was. He was a bridge between the Victorian and modern eras. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful examples of American modernist illustration in the exhibition.”
The exhibition also includes five original drawings that Kent completed for the book.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: