As a matter of record, the new book “Paintings of Portland” by Carl Little and David Little is a valuable tool and resource. It is a recording of a beautiful city, told through the vision of artists who have worked here more than 200 years.
As Portland changes, these paintings become a history of the way things were and document a city in transition.
The brothers wrote the book with a subtle but clear agenda. “Portland is a beautiful place. Let’s keep it as is,” said Carl Little, who has written more than a dozen art books and lives on Mount Desert Island. “At the same time, the book recognizes change. Things are changing, but there is still an essence, and we see some of that in Custom House Wharf and down on the waterfront and how important it is to maintain that as much as we can, under all the pressure of cruise ships and all kinds of development.”
David Little, a painter and writer, lives in Portland. They collaborated on “The Art of Acadia,” and David Little wrote “The Art of Katahdin.” To research the Portland book, the brothers spent a lot of time together.
“I know Portland pretty well, but at one point David said, ‘Let’s just drive around.’ We drove the city, end to end and in and out and here and there, to get a better sense of the borders and the neighborhoods. It really is a wonderful city,” Carl Little said.
They will launch their book with a gathering from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland. Greenhut is the proper spot for the book launch, because the Little brothers went there first after inking their contract with Down East Books. Greenhut has hosted an exhibition of contemporary paintings of Portland for years. “They had all these great files of all the work in the ‘Portland Show’ over the years. We were off to the races – we said, ‘We’ll take one of those, one of those, one of those.’ I think we had 30 pieces from the previous ‘Portland’ shows right off the bat.”
The book includes more than 120 images and is broken in two sections, the past and the present.
David Little did most of the research for the early-Portland paintings, which date to an 1832 watercolor by Ann Bucknam. All the important early painters of Portland are here, including Harrison Bird Brown, Charles Codman, John Calvin Stevens, Charles Frederick Kimball, Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer.
The sleeper of the bunch is a delicate watercolor, “Portland Skyline,” by Mary King Longfellow, the poet’s niece, from 1885. The painting is in the collection of the Maine Historical Society, and it’s a beauty. Longfellow renders Portland in the soft tones of summer, giving the city’s skyline a romantic treatment that makes it feel like Venice.
Choosing paintings for the contemporary section was challenging, Carl Little said, “As is the fate with any anthologist, you worry about the ones you left out and missed. I went to the recent iteration of the ‘Portland Show’ this spring (after the book the was finished), and there were so many pieces I would like in the book,” he said.
Among the highlights:
Bernard Langlais’s wood panel collage “Portland,” completed in the mid-1970s, reminds people what Portland used to look like not long ago, He includes many of the landmarks important to the cultural life of the city, including prominent art galleries, architectural gems, WBLM, the Longfellow statue and the Porteous department store, which became Maine College of Art a decade or so after Langlais made the piece. The five-panel collage is part of the KeyBank Collection downtown, as is Alfred Chadbourne’s painting “Welcome to Portland,” which shows the old elevated highway sign for the former Exit 7 Truck Stop off I-295 in Bayside. It’s hard to imagine a truck stop there now, let alone an elevated highway sign.
The Littles could have included any one among dozens of paintings of the Custom House, including Hopper’s. They chose a watercolor by Marsha Donahue. Alice Spencer’s abstract piece “Portland Zoning Map #2” was inspired by her frequent trips to the Planning Office at City Hall, thanks to her service on the Portland Public Art Committee. “She told me she was fascinated by the maps on the walls of the office. She just started riffing on it.”
Many of the city’s most faithful contemporary interpreters are represented, including Thomas Crotty, Joseph Nicoletti, C. Michael Lewis and Thomas Connolly. Linden Frederick’s “Watcher” shows a viewfinder looking not out to the sea but back to an apartment building on the mainland, which happens to be where the Littles’ mother lived. Typically, Frederick fills his painting with mystery and intrigue.
“It’s sort of like Alfred Hitchcock. Why is the viewfinder pointed toward the building and not the water,” Little asked.
There are four latter-day impressionist paintings by the late Paul Black, the most paintings by any artist. He moved to Portland in 1987 and painted in and around the Old Port with rare devotion, showing the cobblestone streets, quiet parks, winter scenes and bay views. “He was a Portland painter through and through,” Little said.
Appropriately, there’s also a waterfront painting by Tina Ingraham. She lives in Bath and has painted around Custom House Wharf more than a decade. She’s made about 50 paintings down there over the years. “She is so devoted to one motif that you hope will remain,” Little said. “Maybe her painting will have an impact, so it does not become a historical rendering of a place that was.”
WHEN: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, June 14
WHERE: Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland