The Osher family name is synonymous with philanthropy in Portland.
Harold Osher said his parents taught him and his siblings that success involves giving back. A cardiologist, Harold Osher and his wife, Peggy, have done more than their share of giving. Their name is associated with the map library at the University of Southern Maine, and now the public gets the chance to view the other art-related passion of Harold and Peggy: Winslow Homer’s wood engravings related to the Civil War.
Many years ago, the Oshers began collecting Homer prints to help the Portland Museum of Art fill a void in its collection. When Charles Shipman Payson gave his institution-altering gift of Homer oils and watercolors to the museum, the Oshers decided they would begin collecting Homer prints with the sole purpose of giving them to the museum.
“Peggy was on the museum board and involved in the Payson wing at the time of his gift,” Harold Osher recalled. “When she became aware of the Payson gift, she asked whether the museum had any graphics or works on paper. The answer was no, so that inspired us to form a plan and put together a collection with the expressed purpose of giving it to the museum.
“Graphics is such an important ingredient in Winslow Homer history. You can’t understand Homer without seeing the range of his graphic work.”
Osher spoke on the eve of the opening of “Winslow Homer’s Civil War” at the museum. On view through Dec. 8, the exhibition includes Homer’s wood engravings drawn from the Osher collection. Before he became a fine artist, Homer worked as a Civil War correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, a popular magazine of that era.
Homer traveled and lived with Union troops. The images in this exhibition represent a sample of his experiences. This show is part of the statewide Maine Civil War Trail celebration that continues this fall and winter.
Homer’s evolution as an artist began with his work as an illustrator, Harold Osher said.
That aside, this exhibition also represents the legacy of Harold and Peggy Osher. Peggy has been involved with the museum since 1961, and many believe that if the museum were not around and thriving as it is, she would begin a museum on her own.
In museum circles, the PMA is considered Osher’s home away from home. She has always loved art, and she nearly raised the couple’s four children in the halls of the museum. Her husband spent long hours outside the home, and Osher turned to the museum as a refuge of sorts.
She is now an honorary trustee, in recognition of her many years of service and support. Fittingly, the museum’s education director’s position is named in Peggy Osher’s honor. She began her work in the arts by helping out in Portland schools when her children, now grown, were young. She recognized that art was a neglected subject and budgets were limited.
She bought reproductions of famous works of art, and gave them to Portland art teachers to help them educate students about the painters and paintings.
Her interest extended to the museum when she became active on the board.
In addition, the Oshers have funded a lecture series at the museum, which has included such art-world luminaries as Christo and Jean-Claude, William Wegman and Richard Estes. The Peggy L. Osher Education Endowment at the museum pays for special projects like the Artist Intervention series and the PMA Family Space in the McLellan House, and the Oshers created an endowment fund for PMA acquisitions, as well.
Mark Bessire, museum director, said it’s hard to imagine the cultural landscape of Portland without the Osher family:
“Peggy and Dr. Osher are the quintessential quiet leaders that our community reveres: They lead by example. They inspire us all to weave lives that connect our passions with practicality and results. Their vision of the museum has always been tied to their aspirations for our community and their love of Winslow Homer. Like Homer, they are the DNA of the PMA.”
Harold Osher said his family is proud of the Homer graphics gift, and pleased that the Civil War pieces are now on view. He and his wife spent about 10 years building the collection, which numbers several hundred pieces. They continue to add to it, as graphics become available.
“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “We live in Portland, and the Portland Museum of Art is a world-class small museum. It’s a very rewarding thing.
“You have to be lucky and able to do it. You have to have the time and the funds and the energy to find these things and put them together. We’re happy to donate them, because now everybody can see them. That’s the whole point. We were raised to give back, and it feels very good to be able to do it at this level in our community.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: