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Art of Penobscot Bay: Casting Off

cover of art of penobscot bay by carl and david little

Glorious Penobscot Bay, on the coast of Maine, with its quaint mainland towns, bustling tourist centers, and island fishing villages, stands as the backdrop of daydreams. The bay’s beauty has attracted generations of artists to its shores. For Art of Penobscot Bay, brothers David and Carl Little, well-known stewards of Maine art, have selected art and artists, from history and today, that celebrate the myriad of inlets, islands, coves, and peninsulas of the region. They sought out art infused with a remarkable representation of place by more than 120 artists who have embraced the area and its people.

Portions of the excerpt below have been taken from Carl and David Little's prologue of Art of Penobscot Bay.


As we embarked on writing Art of Penobscot Bay, one of our first steps was to determine what, exactly, is Penobscot Bay. While its length and breadth are fittingly somewhat fluid, for the sake of accuracy we needed to get a grip on its dimensions.

We’re not the first to seek clarification. “Where does Penobscot Bay begin?” asks writer Gorham Munson in his book Penobscot, Downeast Paradise (1959). He starts with Matinicus Island at latitude 44° 0 '51”N and longitude 68° 0' 53”W and then draws an imaginary line just below the 44th parallel to designate where the Gulf of Maine becomes Penobscot Bay.

The authors of Penobscot: The Forest, River and Bay recognize the difficulty of defining the exact boundaries. “This is a more straightforward exercise at the head and flanks of the bay than on its seaward margin,” they explain, “where the bay merges imperceptibly with the waters of the Gulf of Maine.”

Leave it to Philip Conkling and company at the Island Institute to embrace the expanse in its entirety. “Penobscot Bay is Maine’s largest bay,” they write in the landmark Islands in Time, “measuring twenty miles across from Whitehead to Isle au Haut, and trending thirty miles north to the mouth of the equally grand river of the same name.” The bay, they note, encompasses almost one thousand miles of shoreline, and encircles 624 islands and ledges. And they brag: “Penobscot Bay is . . . the second largest embayment on the Atlantic coast of the United States, after Chesapeake Bay.”

“Embayment” is a perfect word to describe this body of water, “an indentation of a shoreline larger than a cove but smaller than a gulf,” as one dictionary defines it.

What makes Penobscot Bay so attractive to so many artists? With its unpredictable weather, the bay has awesome visual drama, days of clearest light and densest fog, sudden squalls, and pristine sunsets. Because of its many islands and the backdrop of distant hills, the bay also has a multitude of natural vantage points from where artists can set up to work.

For our own map, when it came to envisioning this book, we set out to follow artists, from history and those painting now, in their visual explorations of the myriad inlets, islands, coves, and peninsulas—the “nooks and corners” along Penobscot Bay that Samuel Adams Drake wrote about in 1875. Penobscot Bay in its vastness, far north and east of the Hudson River Valley, became part of the early unexplored American wilderness, the coastal waters and shore part of the new nation’s identity. The paintings in this book are part of this legacy.

Inspired by Penobscot Bay’s physical beauty, maritime history, and role in American art, together we dive into nature through the periods of diverse visual interpretation and style, from romantic realism through impressionism to abstraction, searching for a narrative and context that fires the imagination.

We sought to represent as many places as possible, but found that while some locales like Rockland, Stonington, Camden, and Vinalhaven are rich in images, others have seemingly yet to find their painter champion. Who will be the first to paint Nettle Island in the Muscle Ridge archipelago, Saturday Cove in Northport, or Sabbathday Harbor in Islesboro?

The prize, if you will, for a single place’s inspiration might go to Great Spruce Head Island at the center of the bay. From the photographs of Eliot Porter and the paintings of his brother Fairfield to the bounty of art created there over the past several decades by a host of visiting artists, the island keeps rousing the creative spirit.

Art of Penobscot Bay highlights various shoreline activities while showcasing pure offshore landscapes. The bay’s water- fronts are busy with all manner of marine activities, from boats being repaired to cargo ships being unloaded. 

Thanks to the Island Institute, the first advocacy group for the state’s vast archipelago, we have a much greater knowledge and appreciation of the bay and its ecology. For all its grandeur and sparkle, the bay faces many challenges. Climate change is warming its waters, threatening its fisheries. As David Platt writes in Penobscot: The Forest, River, and Bay, “The success or failure of a fishery can affect the economic health of the entire region, changing even the lives of people who live far from salt water and don’t think of themselves as ‘coastal’ residents.”

In his history of Penobscot Bay islands published in 1997, Charles McLane noted geologists estimated that the Gulf of Maine rose twenty feet in the last five thousand years, which meant, he wrote, “that most of today’s coastal islands were once part of the main or of the larger offshore islands.” The bay is sure to shift even more as temperatures rise.

To this day, word of mouth and the lure of landscape continue to draw artists with a range of experience and reputation from just about everywhere. At the same time, some painters have chosen to stay and thereby been exposed to, and inspired by, the beauty of Maine in winter.

We cast a wide net for the paintings, seeking a broad range of subject matter. To be sure, there are lighthouses, sailboats, and islands, but also rockweed, a floating house, and a parade. There are working waterfronts, but also people playing chess.

The paintings that follow represent a wide-ranging diversity of vision and aesthetics. They were chosen for their remarkable representation of place—and, more importantly, perhaps, because the chosen artists are devoted to their parts of Maine and are, in our opinion, among the most important painters on the scene today. 

Today, Penobscot Bay in all its resilient glory continues to attract and inspire a multitude of artists. As we write these words, someone is setting up an easel overlooking Camden Harbor or has his or her eyes fixed on a stretch of coastline or that distant island. The waters flash, the fog obscures, snow lends light to a midwinter view. These painters share the glory with all of us.

We invite you to expand your visual horizons and enjoy these visions of Penobscot Bay—beauty, breadth, and beyond.

Enjoy the journey.


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