ROCKLAND — When we think of Maine art, we think of the coast. And when we think of the many generations of Maine artists who have interpreted the coast, we think of the Wyeth family.
This summer, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland explores the family’s fascination with the ocean and maritime culture with an exhibition that includes work from three generations of Wyeths as well as their peers and predecessors.
“The Wyeths, Maine and the Sea” opens Friday and runs through the end of the calendar year at the museum’s Wyeth Center.
With about 40 paintings, prints and drawings from the museum’s collection, the exhibition focuses on the explorer-adventurer tradition of Maine’s midcoast, dating to the early 1600s and continuing through the present day. The stories and lives of sea-going families are told through the eyes of the artists who followed them and captured their spirit.
“We want to give people a sense of the area’s rich maritime history as depicted by the artists who worked here,” said Angela Waldron, the museum’s registrar and organizer of the exhibition, which hangs in the second-floor gallery of the Wyeth Center.
About a quarter of the work in the exhibition is from the Wyeth family: N.C., who came to Maine in 1910; his son, Andrew; and Andrew’s son, Jamie, who lives and paints today at his home at Tenants Harbor.
Their interest in these subjects is part of a long-standing tradition shared by artists since 18th century. In addition to works by the Wyeths, the exhibition features paintings by George Bellows, Walter Dean, James Fitzgerald, Rockwell Kent, Fitz Henry Lane and Andrew Winter, all of whom came to Maine to paint in and around Rockland, Thomaston and the islands.
It also includes a small sampling of contemporary work, including a painting by North Haven’s Eric Hopkins.
There are a few ship models, which speak to the region’s shipbuilding tradition. Among the models on display is the Red Jacket clipper ship, which was built in Rockland and in 1853 crossed the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool in 13 days, a record at the time.
The array of paintings puts the Wyeths’ work in context, said the museum’s chief curator, Michael Komanecky. “They were not hermetically sealed,” he said. “This exhibition places them among their contemporaries.”
Waldron called the Wyeths “America’s first family of artists.”
When N.C. arrived at Port Clyde in 1910, he came with a friend and followed a long tradition of artists who were drawn to Maine for its beauty, isolation and ethic of the people who lived and worked here. He bought a house a few years later, named it “Eight Bells” in honor of a Winslow Homer painting and set his family down the path of art and the ocean.
The attraction was based on romance, myth and reality. The characters here seemed larger than life, dating to the 1600s and the early explorers who sailed the rivers and explored the coast. Later, came the shipbuilders and fishermen, men of brawn and courage.
The Wyeths were “inspired by the vast energy and mysterious power of the ocean,” and admired the industrious work ethic, Yankee thrift and stoicism of the people who lived here, Waldron said.
At a young age, Andrew Wyeth befriended a local fisherman, Walt Andersen, who became a recurring theme in his paintings. Jamie Wyeth continues to paint coastal motifs, including boats and birds.
This exhibition will give viewers a sense of the Wyeths’ individual interests.
A trio of large-scaled work greets visitors as they enter the gallery. We see a drawing by N.C. Wyeth called “The Rescue,” likely a study for a larger painting. A crew of five men in a dory row toward a ship in distress in the distance.
Andrew Wyeth is represented by “Young Fisherman and Dory,” a drybrush study for a later work that features his friend Walt leaning against his dory. Jamie Wyeth’s watercolor “Island Friendship” shows a boat on land, either waiting to be launched or on shore for repairs.
The trio speaks to the range of subjects and the allure of Maine: A daring ocean rescue, a fisherman preparing to work, and a pleasure craft to be admired for the integrity of its construction.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: