A driving tour along Maine's coast to four museums reveals how artistic inspiration strikes
Keller + Keller

For the past 140 years, a steady stream of artists has headed to Maine. If you drive along the coast up to the city of Portland, farther north to Brunswick and Rockland, and even inland to Waterville, it becomes easy to understand what pulled them there. It is, quite simply, the landscape, the particular combination of stone, water, and forest on New England's wildest shoreline. They came for inspiration.

The American Impressionists arrived in the 1880's: Childe Hassam was a summer visitor to the Isle of Shoals, and Frank Benson taught at the Portland Society of Art (later the Portland Museum of Art) for two years before buying a summer house on North Haven Island. Winslow Homer moved to Maine permanently in 1883, living on Prouts Neck for his final 30 years, contemplating the starkly beautiful land and seascapes. The Wyeth family has worked in Maine for three generations. And contemporary painter Alex Katz still comes, summer after summer, just as he has for more than half a century, to work in the fabled August light in Lincolnville, just outside Camden.

The museums in Maine have been hoarding these artists' works for as long as they've been coming. And while it's easy to hop on the interstate to get from one destination to the next, driving along coastal Route 1 and other state roads between stops is the best way to see the surf-pounded beachhead Homer rendered and the woodland that Katz's bright palette made less dense and forbidding. A tour of the following four museums offers a rare opportunity to trace the path from landscape to artist's eye to canvas—to follow the course that inspiration takes.

Maine's largest public museum was started in 1882 by the former Portland Society of Art. In 1911, it settled into McLellan House, a Federal-era mansion left to the society by writer Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat (author of, among other things, Ethel's Love Life, described by the Folger Library as "the first sapphic novel in American history"). Sweat also left enough money to build a Beaux-Arts gallery, which—whatever her orientation—she dedicated to her husband, a Civil War—era Maine senator with the decidedly un—New Englandish name of Lorenzo de Medici Sweat.

Among the extensive collection are 17 Winslow Homer paintings, donated by Charles Shipman Payson, an industrialist and fellow local. Weatherbeaten, an 1894 view of the coast hammered by waves, is a particularly fierce example of Homer's later work. The museum also has the largest cache of European art in the state, with Impressionist canvases by Renoir and Surrealist works by Magritte, among others.

Closed for the past 22 years, McLellan House will reopen fully restored this October, linked to both the Beaux-Arts gallery and a new, postmodern redbrick addition designed by I. M. Pei and Partners. Mrs. Sweat would be proud.

Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland; 207/775-6148; open 10—5 Monday—Wednesday and Saturday—Sunday, 10—9 Thursday—Friday; admission $6.

The jewel of this collection is the structure itself. The Walker Art Building was designed by Charles Follen McKim, of McKim, Mead & White—the same New York firm responsible for that city's public library, New York's Morgan Library, and the Brooklyn Museum. In the central rotunda are four murals commissioned by McKim, allegories of the four seats of classical and Renaissance art: Athens, Florence, Rome, and Venice. It's a small masterpiece of American Neoclassicism.

The collection has been guided by that same aesthetic. Begun by James Bowdoin III after his return from a stint as Thomas Jefferson's envoy to France and Spain, it contains the Gilbert Stuart portraits of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, along with the 70 European works Bowdoin brought back with him. There's also an impressive array of antiquities—among them six Assyrian reliefs—put together by Edward Perry Warren, the classics scholar best known for commissioning Rodin's then-scandalous Kiss.

But lest you think the museum is mired in the past, it does have a sampling of contemporary art and photography, including a haunting little drawing of a mummified monkey by Kiki Smith and Robert Frank's 1955 photo New Orleans (which later appeared on the cover of his book The Americans).

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College, Walker Art Building, Brunswick; 207/725-3275; open 10—5 Tuesday—Saturday, 2—5 Sunday; free admission.

A third of the Farnsworth Art Museum is given over to the preternaturally popular Wyeth family and their work. N. C., the patriarch, was the first to summer in Maine, bringing the family to Port Clyde. In the 1920's he bought a cottage and named it Eight Bells. His portrait of the house, Bright and Fair—Eight Bells, is among the thousands of works by family members at the Wyeth Center.

N. C. always said he loved Maine because it gave him a respite from being an illustrator, and a chance to delve into avant-garde techniques like abstraction. Of course, the elder Wyeth didn't exactly become a Cubist under the influence of the rocky coast, but his brushwork did loosen up a little (you can find traces of that movement's characteristic blockiness in his jagged shapes).

To his son, Andrew, visiting Maine was "like going to the surface of the moon. Things are just hanging on the surface and it's all going to blow away . . . everything seems to be dwindling at terrific speed." That seems to be the feeling the middle Wyeth had in mind when he painted Christina's World, the most iconic image of rural desolation since American Gothic. The Olson House—the structure the crippled Christina is facing—is maintained by the Farnsworth in isolated splendor some 20 miles away in the town of Cushing. Fans of the artist and Americana alike shouldn't miss it.

If the Wyeths sometimes veer toward the sentimental, the museum's surprisingly large Louise Nevelson collection offers a welcome austerity. One of the most prolific female sculptors of the 20th century, Nevelson got her first arts education here and in nearby Portland (her family emigrated from Russia to Rockland in 1905). Her work at the Farnsworth moves from early Cezanne-like landscapes to her monolithic, monochromatic assemblage sculptures.

Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center, 16 Museum St., Rockland; 207/596-6457; open 9—5 daily; admission $9.

Colby College should have a small, regional museum with a small, local collection. It doesn't.

Instead, it has 28,000 square feet of exhibition space and a continually expanding array of contemporary art. The enormous modern wing (designed by Max Gordon, who also did London's Saatchi Gallery, and completed by local architect Scott Teas) houses the largest group of Alex Katz's paintings anywhere: more than 500 of his works, including his trademark brilliantly colored, monumental landscapes and portraits, covering his entire 50-plus-year career in Maine (he went to the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture). There's enough here to comprise what the artist himself describes as "a research center and an archive" rather than just a retrospective.

The rest of the museum consists of a new wing designed by Frederick Fisher, the L.A.—based architect who renovated PS 1 in New York, displaying American art—the museum's primary focus, according to its first and only director, the eccentric Hugh Gourley. During Gourley's tenure, which began in 1966, the museum's holdings have grown to include a selection of American folk art as well as works from masters such as Winslow Homer, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart. Gourley has also acquired many works of contemporary art, among them one of Sol LeWitt's wall-sized drawings and a Richard Serra sculpture, three forged steel blocks that loom in the museum's courtyard.

And in case that's not enough to entice you to stop, every other year the Colby shows the Joan Whitney Payson Collection, a group of 26 French and American Impressionist canvases, among them Degas' Leçon de Danse and Monet's Printemps à Argenteuil. This year, it's on display through June 23.

Colby College Museum of Art, Colby College, Waterville; 207/872-3228; open 10—4:30 Monday—Saturday, 2—4:30 Sunday; free admission.

Mark Van de Walle has written on art and pop culture for Artforum and Art and Auction. He is currently at work on a book about trailer park disasters in America.

The Itinerary
Day 1 Take I-95 north into Maine, toward Portland and its museum. Want to see where Winslow Homer lived?Take a side trip to Prouts Neck on Route 114 and turn onto Route 207.
Day 2 Leaving Portland, take I-295, then Route 1. Head for Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick.
Day 3 To reach the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, follow Route 1 north about 45 miles.
Day 4 Take Route 17 west for about an hour toward Augusta, where you'll pick up Route 201 north. Follow 201 to Colby College in Waterville, 20 miles or so up the road.

The Facts
Where to Stay
Black Point Inn 510 Black Point Rd., Prouts Neck (15 miles south of Portland); 800/258-0003 or 207/883-2500; doubles from $200.
White Barn Inn 37 Beach Ave., Kennebunkport (30 miles south of Portland); 207/967-2321; doubles from $285.
Five Gables Inn 107 Murray Hill Rd., East Boothbay (30 miles north of Brunswick); 800/451-5048 or 207/633-4551; doubles from $130.
Norumbega 63 High St., Camden (10 miles north of Rockland); 207/236-4646; doubles from $95.

Where to Eat
Commissary 25 Preble St., Portland; 207/228-2057; dinner for two $80. White Barn Inn Dinner for two $160.
Lobsterman's Co-Op Atlantic Ave., Boothbay Harbor; 207/633-4900; dinner for two $40.
Primo 2 S. Main St., Rockland; 207/596-0770; dinner for two $90.