BRUNSWICK, Maine — An exhibit of Edward Hopper's paintings of Maine is breaking attendance records at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, but it's just one of three top-notch shows at museums around Maine this summer and fall.
Combine a trip to see all three — the others are an Andrew Wyeth show at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and a 1930s photography exhibit at Colby College in Waterville — with shopping in Freeport, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, leaf-peeping, dining and maybe a trip to a spa, and you've got an ideal itinerary for a September getaway.
In Maine and many other places, leisure travel takes on a more grown-up flavor after the kids are back to school. The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens not surprisingly gets more visitors age 55 and up after Labor Day, especially on weekdays, but September is also a lush time of year to see the garden. Perennials have had the whole season to grow, flowers stay in bloom through early fall, and the trees start to take on color. Follow a visit to the garden with a lobster lunch in Boothbay Harbor for a perfect day.
Brunswick is having a busy season with crowds coming in for "Edward Hopper's Maine," on view at the Bowdoin museum through Oct. 16. "It has indeed broken our records many times over, with total attendance in the first month of the show being open (July 15 to Aug. 15) reaching just under 15,000, plus a one-day high of almost 1,200 people on Aug. 16," said Diana Tuite, co-curator of the exhibit, which was organized in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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The show includes 30 small oil paintings of Monhegan Island, a popular tourist destination in Maine, as well as larger canvases and watercolors of classic New England scenes like lighthouses and the rocky coast. Why is the exhibit proving so popular?
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"People love seeing work that they are not familiar with by an artist that they think they know," Tuite said. "So many of the works in the show, particularly the 30 small Monhegan oils from 1916 through 1919, were not exhibited in Hopper's lifetime, and continue to exist outside the standard narrative of his career. This is the first time that they are being shown as a nearly complete series. And the color and paint handling really astonishes people. I also think people who are in Maine right now, or are passing through, are responding to the same things outdoors that Hopper was, particularly the light."
The museum exterior is also worth a look. The building is an 1894 architectural treasure designed by McKim, Mead and White. And tip your hat to the statue of Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin president who commanded Union troops when the South surrendered in the Civil War; it's located at the corner of campus, Maine Street and Bath Road. Finally, don't miss Brunswick's Gelato Fiasco at 74 Maine St., with flavors like baklava, blueberries and cream, gingersnap and dark chocolate noir.
At the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, "American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White" is on view through Oct. 2. The show of 117 photographs from the 1930s by Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans comes to Maine after a run at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The documentary-style images range from portraits of poor families surviving the Great Depression, documented for the Works Progress Administration, to shots of gleaming skyscrapers and nascent symbols of corporate America, commissioned by private companies and magazines. The images provide a thought-provoking contrast to the photos in "Andrew Moore: Detroit Disassembled," also on display at Colby, capturing Detroit's recent industrial decline.
A third outstanding museum show in Maine this summer and fall is "Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World and the Olson House" at the Farnsworth Art Museum's Wyeth Center in Rockland, through Oct. 30. You'll have to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see Wyeth's original "Christina's World," which shows Christina Olson, a crippled woman who lived in the nearby town of Cushing, dragging herself across a field toward her family farmhouse. But the exhibit in Rockland offers a rare opportunity to see 50 other paintings and drawings Wyeth produced over 30 years depicting the Olsons and their home.
The farmhouse was declared a National Historic Landmark in July, and a tour of the home offers insight into the artist's relationship with the Olsons and the choices he made in creating his paintings.
Rockland is also home to many fine restaurants, including Primo at 2 S. Main St., expensive but highly regarded. Reservations for the dining room go fast, but you can order off a small plates menu upstairs at the bar.
Other tourism news coming out of Maine this season includes a new way to enjoy spa treatments — from a treehouse at Hidden Pond, part of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection. The three climate-controlled spa treatment rooms in a treehouse setting opened in June and offer a view of paper birch, red oak, pine, maple and juniper trees. "It has a really neat feel," said Debbie Lennon, operating partner of the properties. "If you're looking out that picture window, you're looking into the forest."
Lennon said September and October are a "perfect time for couples" to visit Maine, adding that tourist demographics change once kids are back in school, not only with fewer families, but also with a wider geographic spread: "Summer is New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, but as you move into September, it'll widen to Florida, Texas, the Midwest. We even enjoy an influx of couples from Europe." Hidden Pond guests get first crack at spa appointments, with guests at other Kennebunkport Resort properties next, followed by members of the public.
Lennon said it's warm enough in southern Maine in September to allow for "quite a bit of beach activity" (though heated pools are also an option).
Peak foliage in Kennebunkport is generally the third week of September to mid-October, but those looking to chase leaf color earlier would do well to head inland. Route 201 North, also called the Old Canada Road, between Skowhegan and Quebec, is a lovely if somewhat remote fall drive. Watch out for moose!
Finally, don't forget shopping. Freeport is home to L.L. Bean and over 200 outlets, boutiques, hotels and restaurants. The Harraseeket Inn, 162 Main St., offers a popular daily buffet lunch Monday-Saturday, $18.14 with tax (the inn also offers lodging and dinner), or head to South Freeport to the Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster, 36 Main St., for a more informal meal on the waterfront, open to Oct. 15.
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