The Portland Museum of Art closed for a month this winter to give Jessica May and her curatorial team the opportunity to take a fresh look at the galleries, with the idea of creating more harmony among common works.

“I thought in terms of music: Every work must sing its own song but be in concert with one another,” said May, who recently became deputy museum director in addition to her role as chief curator.

Instead of sculpture in one room, paintings in another and glass downstairs, there’s more integration of the work across all galleries, with paintings hung alongside works on paper, which share space with decorative arts and sculpture.

Justin Rachel’s towering “Endless Column” is part of a grouping of glass and ceramics in the McLellan House.

May estimates the museum is showing 20 percent more work now than a year ago. The museum is using more of its space and trying to make smarter use of existing galleries. For the first time, the Federal-style 1801 McLellan House, which was restored in 2002 and has mostly served as a study in period architecture, now serves as a showcase for art. Temporary walls have been added to existing galleries in the Payson wing, and there are many more examples of decorative arts throughout the museum.

Some changes are subtle, with updates signs directing visitors from gallery to the next. Many galleries include short printed narratives that explain groupings of artists and paintings or art movements.

Other changes are obvious. Mark Wethli’s “Transom,” a color grid painting on a Great Hall wall that was always intended to be temporary, has been painted over. Hanging in the hall instead are large paintings by Alex Katz and Katherine Bradford, among others. “The Dead Pearl Diver,” a marble sculpture by Maine native and European-trained sculptor Benjamin Paul Akers has been moved from its longtime home to a second floor gallery among work by his contemporaries, both in time and location.


And the paintings of Winslow Homer, the crown jewel of the museum’s collection, are spread among several galleries. Often in the past, the Homer paintings were grouped together. “Homer is genius,” said Director Mark Bessire, “but we want him to be part of a bigger conversation. We want to share him with the rest of our story.”

With that in mind, here’s a gallery guide of things to see in the updated museum.

Benjamin Paul Akers’ “The Dead Pearl Diver” has been relocated from the first floor to a second-floor space called the Nature Gallery.

“THE DEAD PEARL DIVER,” Benjamin Paul Akers, Gallery 208

One of the biggest surprises is the relocation of this 1858 sculpture from a first-floor sculpture gallery to the second floor. “It was beloved in its former location, but we wanted to put it in a broader context,” Bessire said.

It now anchors what the museum is calling its Nature Gallery, surrounded by other examples of artists exploring the environment of the expanding continent in the mid-1800s. Akers, born in Westbrook in 1825, died at age 35 but packed a lot of living into a short life.

He was working in a printing shop in Exchange Street in Portland when the idea of becoming a sculptor motivated him to move to Boston to begin his training. He traveled to Europe and opened a studio in Florence, Italy, where he studied the work of the masters.


He carved “The Dead Pearl Diver” in 1858 in Rome as a tribute to a drowned youth who was seeking a perfect pearl. The sculpture is noteworthy for its fine detail – notice the small shells and seaweed. Many consider it Akers’ finest work. Then known as the Portland Society of Art, the museum acquired it in 1888 as the first piece in its collection.

Akers suffered from exhaustion attributed to long hours in a sunless studio. He returned to the United States in 1858 after carving “The Dead Pearl Diver.” He married in 1860 and died a year later.

Winslow Homer’s “Weatherbeaten,” his view of rocks and surf outside his Prouts Neck Studio, dominates a temporary wall in Gallery 208.

“WEATHERBEATEN,” Winslow Homer, Gallery 208

The museum has constructed a temporary wall in this large second floor gallery, bisecting the room. “The Dead Pearl Diver” is on one side and Homer’s epic painting of rocks and surf outside his Prouts Neck studio is on the other, among an array of mostly Maine paintings by George Bellows, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, Mardsen Hartley and Edward Hopper tied together by a common theme of the “The Great Atlantic.” The Homer painting is the showpiece, but the volume of exceptional paintings hanging near it makes this an engrossing gallery.

MORE HOMER, Gallery 203

On one wall in this small second-floor gallery hang several more Homers, creating a mini-spotlight show. The small grouping includes “Wild Geese in Flight,” “Sharpshooter” and a recent acquisition, “An Open Window.” It’s a beautiful gallery, with dark green walls.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Miss Florence Leyland” benefits from being hung in a more prominent location in
better light.

“MISS FLORENCE LEYLAND,” James McNeill Whistler, Gallery 205

This is another gallery that helps one appreciate the depth of the museum’s collection. The painting by James McNeill Whistler, “Miss Florence Leyland,” is something of a revelation. It’s hung for years in a lightly traveled area between the Sweat Galleries and the McLellan House, where it was seen by few. And those who did see it couldn’t fully appreciate it, because it wasn’t well lit. It’s a thinly painted portrait of the daughter of one of Whistler’s patrons, painted in 1873. The colors are subtle and the painting is moody. Hung in better light and in a more prominent location, Whistler’s figure emerges from the canvas like a ghost.

The gallery, nicknamed “Cosmopolitans,” explores the urban, sophisticated culture of the second half of the 19th century, reflected by refined social mores and high fashion. The installation also includes portraits from the 1880s by John Singer Sargent and period furniture that creates a sense of the interiors of gilded age homes.

Lauren Fensterstock’s stalactite-like sculpture “Grotto” looms at the end of a long hallway-gallery on the second floor.

“GROTTO,” Lauren Fensterstock, Galley 204

For the curators, a reward of reinstalling the galleries was the opportunity to create little surprises. As visitors arrive at the second floor landing, straight ahead at the end of a long, narrow hallway-gallery hangs Lauren Fensterstock’s “Grotto.” It’s a dark, stalactite-like sculpture that drips down the wall from the ceiling. Fensterstock lives in Portland and shows her work nationally. The museum acquired this piece in 2014.

Look closely, and you’ll see she uses mostly shells that are glued together and covered with a dark resin. Even though it hangs in a lit room, the viewer experiences the darkness of enclosed space, and references the grottoes of the European tradition, which involved making caves usable by humans. This piece, in this location so close paintings by Homer and Whistler, serves as contemporary counterpoint to the PMA’s collection of historic marine paintings and ship portraits.


Frank Simmons’ statue of Ulysses S. Grant has been placed on a lower pedestal and rotated 45 degrees so that he greets visitors from both the McLellan House and the Sweat Galleries.

“ULYSSES S. GRANT,” Franklin Simmons, Gallery L114

On the way to the McLellan House, one must pass through the Sweat Galleries, which in its rotunda houses a dramatic sculpture of Ulysses S. Grant by Maine native Franklin B. Simmons, the same artist who made the Longfellow sculpture at Longfellow Square in Portland and many more prominent pieces across the country. Notice anything different about Grant?

The museum rotated him 45 degrees so that he welcomes visitors from both the McLellan House and the Sweat Galleries. His previous pedestal, which had been square, has been replaced with one that is more round and also lower. Grant is still larger than life, but feels more approachable. The lighting in the gallery also has been improved.

A another marble statue of Grant by Simmons is in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. This one was intended for the Capitol but was rejected because Grant didn’t look heroic enough. Washington’s loss was Portland’s gain.

Simmons died in Rome, where he spent most of his career, in 1913 at age 74.



The “M” refers to the McLellan House, which hasn’t housed a lot of art since it reopened to the public in 2002. It’s worth stopping in, if only to see Justin Richel’s ceramic tower of confections, “Endless Column.”

Richel is a contemporary artist from Maine, working in a similar tradition as the glass blowers and ceramicists of a century ago, but with whimsy.

This is a Dr. Seussian column of pancakes, cakes, bundts and teapots, displayed among other modern and contemporary glass and ceramics.

“Is,” an abstract bronze sculpture from Jean Arp.

“IS,” Jean Arp, Gallery 306

The abstract bronze sculpture “Is” by Jean Arp is notable for its simple, shiny beauty and the artist’s personal history. Curators have placed it among other examples of European and American abstraction. This piece has an oddly human, organic bearing, which creates curiosity. Is it a figure or just an upright form that looks suggestively humanistic? It is what it is, which may explain its title.

Arp didn’t begin his sculptures with a subject and never titled his pieces until he finished them. He worried about conscious influence if he named his pieces before they were finished or if he started with an idea about what the finished piece might look like.


Arp, who was born in Germany to a French mother and German father, went by the name Jean when he spoke in French and Hans when used German. He was a founder of the Dada movement and also participated in Surrealism. This piece, which he made in 1964 two years before his death, represents the link between these movements and their relationship to abstraction.

“Movement in Red, Blue, Green, and Umber” by John Marin hangs in the third-floor Gallery 307.

“MOVEMENT IN RED, BLUE, GREEN, AND UMBER,” John Marin, Gallery 307

This late-career painting by John Marin truly is a must-see. An oil painting, it’s a brilliant example of American abstraction, with hints of realism in Marin’s blocky brush strokes and color choices. It’s an elemental painting, built around color and form and the suggestion of movement on the water. A pivotal figure in the Stieglitz circle, Marin spent most of his professional life in Maine and was profoundly influenced by the challenge of painting rocks, trees and water.

The third-floor gallery is dedicated to American Modernism and includes several Hartley oils and a plaster head of Marin by the sculptor Gaston Lachaise. (The museum has a display of Lachaise’s tool on the first floor).

“An Awkward Meeting of Painting and Sculpture” by Aaron T Stephan.


This gallery is dedicated to the broad topic of contemporary art and takes its name from an Aaron T Stephan sculpture called “An Awkward Meeting of Painting and Sculpture,” wherein he hung a large splash of “paint,” made with silicone rubber, over a finely crafted sawhorse. The piece is a study in contradictions and challenges conventional ideas about art, materials and how they intersect.


Other artists with work in the gallery include Jenny Holzer, William Pope L., and Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Chris Martin’s “Red Yellow Green #2” is among selections from the Alex Katz Foundation.


Alex Katz is a generous painter, exhibited by his loyalty to Maine museums over his career. Since he formed the Alex Katz Foundation in 2004, the painter, through his foundation, has bought the work of living artists and donated them to museums. The PMA has received many paintings and dedicates a third-floor gallery to their rotating display. The unifier among these paintings is their lack of unity.

A favorite is Chris Martin’s “Red Yellow Green #2,” with its fragments of color arranged in grids and complemented with the residue of life, like street debris.

Patrick Jacobs’ “Fly Agaric Mushroom Cluster with Branch and Lichen” is a small revelation in the museum’s Great Hall.


This one is easy to miss. Bend down and take a peek. This muffin-size work is embedded in the wall near the PMA store, asking viewers to lean in to take a look at Jacobs’ meticulous diorama of a forest floor. Lit from behind, it’s one of the treasures worth hunting for in the new galleries of the PMA.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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