This 1840s lithograph shows Bath as seen from the Kennebec River. It is one of several pieces on display at a new Bowdoin College Museum of Art exhibit. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art / Luc Demers photo

BRUNSWICK — One day around 1822, Frederic Trench pushed his wheelbarrow full of gingerbread and root beer across the Bowdoin College campus, looking to make a few sales to students.

A sketch of “Uncle Trench” – from whom alumnus Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” character Uncle Venner was inspired – became the basis for an oil painting by John G. Brown. The sketch, with Bowdoin’s first four buildings in the background, was made into one of the earliest lithographs to depict a Maine landscape.

“Maine’s Lithographic Landscapes: Town & City Views” is one of five exhibits the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is showcasing this year in celebration of Maine’s bicentennial. Invented in Germany, lithography allows prints to be created from a smooth surface upon which a picture can be drawn; images could be reproduced for large distribution and at low cost, according to information provided at the exhibit.

The show at 9400 College Station is free and runs through May 31. A catalog of the collection is also available at bowdoin.edu/art-museum/catalogues/maine-lithographs.

This circa 1830 lithograph, showing the southwestern view of Bowdoin College, depicts the school’s first buildings: Massachusetts Hall, Winthrop Hall, the Chapel and Maine Hall. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art / Luc Demers photo

The advancement in printmaking made its way to the U.S. in 1819, and to New England in 1825, when John Pendleton opened a shop in Boston. Prints of Bowdoin’s campus were among the earliest made, and 23 major panoramic lithographs were produced between 1832-1866, promoting the aesthetic highlights of various towns and cities – the architectural and economic developments that sprung up during Maine’s earliest years of statehood.

Earle Shettleworth, Maine’s state historian, selected the pieces for Bowdoin’s two-room exhibit. Although some come from the college’s collection, most are from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, acquired by Shettleworth during his time as director there, according to Laura Sprague, Bowdoin’s senior consulting curator.

“Over the years I’ve been very aware of the wonderful 19th-century lithographs that were made of Maine, the ones before the Civil War primarily being these panoramic lithographs that make up the Bowdoin exhibit,” Shettleworth said.

“Bowdoin has a great works-on-paper collection, and this is a way to celebrate an important artistic tradition that’s focused on Maine at the time of the statehood celebration,” Sprague said. “The size and the quality of the prints is really extraordinary; they show how sophisticated people were, and their expectations were high in the state. And these types of prints are not well known.”

Plus they’re often rare.

“Sometimes, the view that is in the Bowdoin exhibit may be the only well-preserved copy of a particular print, or one of only a handful that have survived,” Shettleworth said.

Among those is a view of the circa 1843 “View of the Town of Bath” – city status didn’t come until 1847 – as seen from Ferry Landing. Vessels of all shapes and sizes sail or steam down the Kennebec River, and buildings such as the Baptist, North, South, Universalist and Winter Street churches dot the shore in the background.

The lithograph has a unique connection to the bicentennial, since it is based on a drawing by artist and engineer Cyrus William King – son of William King, Maine’s first governor and an ardent advocate for statehood.

Lithography was popular due to the ease of the production process, which allowed for as many as 100-300 copies to be made, depending on the size of the community and the market, Shettleworth said. Copies sold for $1-$5; according to an inflation calculator at westegg.com, $1 in 1850 is equal to $31 today.

The largest prints are more than 4 feet wide, which means the limestone on which they were drawn had to be at least that large, Sprague said. That process, along with the size, is what makes lithographs particularly important, she added.

In approaching Bowdoin about organizing the exhibit, Shettleworth said he hoped “to share with the public what Maine’s vision of itself was … in the years from statehood to the Civil War.” Photography was nascent in the 1840s and 1850s – the first landscape photograph of Bowdoin dates from 1853, the historian said – but the lithographic print of Trench at his toil is from 1830.

Along with showing people what Maine towns and cities looked like back then, he said, the exhibit also shows “the artistry behind the creation of these lithographs.”

Comments are not available on this story.