What was Portland like in Maine’s first 100 years of statehood? Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.’s bright new publication, “A Century of Portland Artists, 1820-1920: Landscape Paintings from the Maine Historical Society Collection” gives us a fascinating picture. As Shettleworth himself said in a 2021 lecture of the same name, “The paintings in the Society’s collection trace the evolution of a great New England city through its art.”

From 1820 to 1866, Portland was the cultural rival of Boston, even supporting more professional painters during one decade of that period – the 1830s – than Beantown did. The art scene was made up of native artists who sought careers elsewhere, established national artists who found Portland a congenial place to work and a multitude of gifted amateurs, who – in more favorable economic times – would have been considered professional. Works by all three classes of artists eventually found their way into local institutions. Despite the Great Fire of 1866 that burned down much of the city, as well as the decline of local patronage, a sustained local landscape painting tradition managed to endure through 1920.

“A Century of Portland Artists” perfectly captures this period, as one might expect from Shettleworth, a Portland native who serves as the State Historian and is former Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Among the many books, catalogues and articles dating back to the 1960s that he has produced, “A Century of Portland Artists, 1820-1920” stands as one of his most attractive and comprehensive.

Shettleworth choose 53 works from among the 100 in the Maine Historical Society’s collection for his book, encompassing works from 23 painters. All but six of the artists are also are pictured in the book, along with a scattering of related images that further illuminate the painters and their time.

Similar collections at the Colby College Museum and the Portland Museum of Art might have served as the focus for such a project. In fact, some 50 years ago, when Shettleworth was a student at Colby, he did the bulk of the research for the Portland Museum’s exhibition catalogue on the same subject, “A Century of Portland Painters, 1820-1920.” That 1970 publication included many works, but was merely a small black and white catalogue.

This new generously sized volume contains some of the finest works of the era in full page color. The paintings are mostly flanked by likenesses of the artists as well as biographies that put them in the context of history. In the half century between these two publications, scholars have learned far more and developed sharper insights into the period and have also rediscovered painters from that time. For anyone interested in the development of 19th century art or in Maine history, “A Century of Portland Artists” is essential reading.


As those who know about the century in Portland painting might expect, Shettleworth’s volume includes works (mostly oils) by the old masters such as Charles Codman (1800-1842), Harrison B. Brown (1831-1915), Charles F. Kimball (1831-1903), J. B. Hudson (1832-1903) and Walter Griffin (1861-1935). It also makes space for artists and works that were unknown when Shettleworth (or for that matter I) first worked with these collections. Full disclosure: I’ve worked on a similar track for both the Portland Museum of Art and the Maine Historical Society.

Among the lesser-known artists is Anna L.P. Skillings (1825-1905), whose View of “Simintons Cove” (1852), bears comparison with J.B. Hudson’s well-known canvas of the same place in 1878. Another revelation is Harriet C. Shaw (1853-1955), whose “Stream with Fence” (1885) shows her to be as adept as most of her regional contemporaries. Portlander Thomas F. O’Neil (1851-1922)’s grisaille (a painting in shades of gray) of “Market Square” (1884) is accomplished, though it must be said that most of his other work is sub-par, for instance, “Nor’easter” (1920), an oil he painted by plotting out on a grid a Winslow Homer painting (Nor’easter, 1895) that he came across in a periodical. O’Neil’s inept work demonstrates the folly of an unskilled artist attempting to copy a master – it’s an inspired inclusion in this publication.

In the appendix, Shettleworth includes a story he wrote for the Maine Sunday Telegram in 1972 based on an interview with Portland framemaker Frank Laing:  “The Man Who Knew Harrison Brown, Fred Kimball and Walter Griffin and (George M.) Hathaway.” It’s the perfect anchor for Shettleworth’s understanding of Portland’s Golden Age of Art. But judging by the material in this volume – images, text and bibliography – in the intervening time, Shettleworth and a handful of others have taken us so much further on this delightful, ongoing quest to understand the city’s early arts scene.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” and is now at work on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.