Iconic paintings capture the essence of a place or a person. American Gothic, for example, reveals the stoic plainness of the rural Midwest in the Depression. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte shows the tranquility of Parisians at leisure in the 1880s.
But what does New England offer in the way of iconic paintings? We had many from which to choose, but we went with six, one for each New England state.
If you know of other iconic paintings that reveal something essential about your state, please share them in the comments section.
Home to Thanksgiving
Many well-known artists have painted scenes from Connecticut, which had several art colonies and quite a few famous artists. But which one painted the most iconic painting?
We went with George Durrie, who painted many scenes in his native Connecticut for Currier & Ives. Home to Thanksgiving – often misidentified as Home for Thanksgiving – was easily the most popular of all his Currier & Ives paintings. It depicts a rural scene near his home in New Haven, and it captures the charm and warmth of a Connecticut farmhouse in winter. And it explores the theme of Thanksgiving, that most New England of all holidays.
Durrie, born in Hartford in 1820, taught himself to paint. He toiled in obscurity for many years, painting wintry landscapes of rural Connecticut. Finally, at the age of 40, Currier & Ives published prints of four of his paintings. Durrie could only enjoy his fame for two years, because he died in 1862. Currier & Ives printed six of his works posthumously.
The WPA Guide to Connecticut praised Durrie as a sort of poet. “One can fairly smell the wood smoke in his frosty air, hear the creak of snow under the sledge runners, the barking of distant dogs, and breathe the atmosphere of the old, snug, cheery farm life of the early nineteenth century.”
The original lithograph stones ended up as landfill for Central Park in New York.
Andrew Wyeth produced many iconic paintings, but Christina’s World tops them all. In it, Wyeth manages to combine the toughness, beauty and aspiration of a woman who runs a saltwater farm in Maine.
Andrew Wyeth met Christina Olson on the same day he met his wife, July 12, 1939. He picked her up on a date in Cushing, Maine, where he spent summers with his family. She drove him to the Olson farm. Betsy Wyeth vaguely remembered she did it because she’d just learned to drive and wanted to go somewhere. She and Andrew married the next year.
Christina and her brother Alvaro Olson let him set up a studio in a room on the second floor of their farmhouse. Looking out the window one day in 1948, Wyeth saw Christina Olson crawling in the field and got the inspiration for Christina’s World.
He worked on the background for two months, while closely sketching Christina’s hair, body and hands. Betsy posed for the figure.
Wyeth hung the painting in his house in Maine and no one reacted to it. “I thought, Boy, is this one ever a flat tire,” he said.
He was wrong. From then on he started receiving letters about Christina’s World — about one a week. Today it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Massachusetts offered us many choices for iconic paintings. Rockport’s Motif No. 1 immediately came to mind, but we decided it was the subject, not the painting, that was iconic. Then we turned to Edward Hopper, whose many lighthouses and landscapes all say ‘New England.’ But do they say, ‘Massachusetts?’
Ultimately we settled on Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up, a scene he painted of Gloucester, Mass. Critics call it one of Homer’s greatest paintings. We view it as iconic because it shows a fishing craft, such an essential part of Massachusetts’ history. We also like the forward-looking gaze of the young sailors and the challenge posed by the rough seas.
Breezing Up now hangs at the National Gallery of Art, which calls it “one of the best-known and most beloved artistic images of life in nineteenth-century America.”
Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway
John Frederick Kensett painted Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway in 1851. By doing so he gave a huge boost to tourism in the White Mountains.
Kensett belonged to the Hudson River School of Painting, which produced iconic paintings of American landscapes. An engraver made a copy of the painting, which was sold to 13,000 subscribers of the American Art Union. Artists copied the painting, and
Currier & Ives turned the engraving into a lithograph in 1860.
The monumental image of the rugged mountain appealed to American sensibilities. A curator called it “the single most effective mid-nineteenth-century advertisement for the scenic charms of the White Mountains.”
Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway now belongs to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College.
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam
Rhode Island artist Gilbert Stuart painted one of the most famous paintings in the history of the world, the so-called Athenaeum portrait of George Washington. But Washington wasn’t a Rhode Islander, so we had to look elsewhere. We found what we were looking for in an irreverent painting of Rhode Island merchants and sea captains.
We liked the roguish maritime theme and the allusion to Rhode Island’s colonial past. Despite the subjects’ barroom shenanigans depicted in the painting, they later made history.
Rhode Island merchants and sea captains commissioned this painting of themselves carousing in a Dutch Guiana tavern sometime around 1755. Then known as Surinam, it was a major Caribbean trading stop. The painter, John Greenwood, a Bostonian living in Surinam at the time, painted himself leaving the tavern with a candle.
The painting includes two future governors of Rhode Island, Capt. Nicholas Cooke, smoking a pipe at the table, and Joseph Wanton, passed out in a chair. The commander of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, talks to Cooke, and Stephen Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence, pours rum on Wanton. The painting, appropriately, bears the title Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam. It now hangs, perhaps less appropriately, in the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The Grandma Moses painting Fourth of July tempted us, as it belongs to the White House and depicts a quintessential Fourth of July in a folk style. The Bennington Museum holds the largest collection of Grandma Moses paintings, and yet we had to disqualify her for one simple reason: She was a New Yorker.
In the end we settled for one of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings. Rockwell painted them in his Arlington, Vt., studio during World War II to illustrate what the United States was fighting for: freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from fear.
Norman Rockwell, of course, painted many iconic paintings. But which of the Four Freedoms is the most iconic? We chose Freedom of Speech because it interprets the subject of Town Meeting, a uniquely New England tradition. Rockwell painted something that actually happened. Jim Edgerton stood up to oppose the selectmen’s plans to build a new school. He used his neighbors for models, and even borrowed their clothes as props.
The painting appeared in the Feb. 20, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine’s editor, Ben Hibbs, said of Rockwell’s work, “A great picture, I think is one which moves and inspires millions of people. The Four Freedoms did — do so.”
You can see all the Four Freedoms iconic paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
This story was updated in 2021.