Monday, July 23, 2012


Portland post-storm double rainbow from DiMillo’s upper deck.

   For the last several years I’ve occasionally sojourned in Portland on Maine’s shoreline and I’ve come to realize how much I love it there.  

     Last Monday morning, we made our Escape From New York, which truly seemed like Hell the previous evening (more about that another time soon).  Six hours later we stopped the car in Portland; the world turned about-face and seemed right again.

A plaque attached to a section of the Berlin Wall, DiMillo’s wharf.

  It’s not the city's beauty so much because Portland is not particularly beautiful.  Unlike its neighbor Manchester, New Hampshire, Portland's brick-brick-brick building style has no powerful, distinctive, if slightly oppressive, rhythm.  Rather, Portland’s appeal lies in its broad, clear sky views, hills that afford pedestrians and drivers city vistas and bring heaven closer, marine fragrances and friendly, courteous people.  Unlike everywhere I’ve ever lived or visited, Portland drivers are uniformly polite and no one seems anxious to run you over.

Painting on reverse of Berlin Wall section.

   On our next-to-last day in town, we took a morning whale watching trip out Casco Bay and into the North Atlantic.  We saw minke whales, which is always a thrill, many dolphins, harbor seals and pelagic birds.  The trip's highlight, however, was our encounter with four or five ocean sunfish.  Odyssey Voyage’s resident naturalist announced the first sighting by saying that we had a real treat in store for us – “one of the weirdest animals we would ever see” – and he was right.   I was completely unfamiliar with the species Mola mola, but I have attached the Wikipedia article here (Link) if you’re interested.  (I think you should be.)   All I can say is that these enormous, unique creatures floated close to the sides of our vessel near the ocean's surface, clearly and curiously seeking social interaction.  They stretched themselves out in the oddest conformations I had ever seen among fish and when we departed they waved at us with their fins extended in the air. They reminded me of cats.

Ocean Sunfish floating on its side with fin emerging from water, Casco Bay.

   Later that day, we visited the Portland Museum of Art for the first time and it was a revelation.  Housed in a handsome, non-officious, non-clichéd  (finally) I.M. Pei structure which suits the city’s reserved, proper, but informal style, the Portland collection is generally superb in quality.  It possesses and amplifies local integrity and accurately reflects the city of Portland and state of Maine without taking on the character of a local historical society.  Also, because it is a fairly small museum (only about 17,000 objects all told), it tells its story succinctly,  but in a way that makes you want to “read” it again.

   The exhibitions currently on view are The Draw Of The Normandy Coast 1860-1960 and Maine Sublime: Frederic Edwin Church’s Landscapes of Mount Desert and Mount Katahdin. The shows are both excellent and are complementary in the way they each draw on coastal representations, albeit views from different continents.

   They are complementary also in the way they both project – more distinctively than I’ve ever seen at any museum exhibition  – the joyous feelings that invariably accompany seaside excursions, loci where water’s visual, tactile, sonic and olfactory effects are enhanced by stony formations on land and in the surf.

Félix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard Drawing At Honfleur, 1902, Oil on cardboard.

   The Normandy Coast exhibition, with paintings, watercolors and drawings from Trouville, Deauville, Honfleur,  Étretat and Le Havre includes great works by the French artists Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Félix Vallotton (his wonderful portrait of his friend Edouard Vuillard sketching is shown above), Maurice Vlaminck, Henri Matisse and two surprising contributions by Yves Tanguy and Marcel Duchamp (a really nice early painting of the Normandy surf and cliffs, showing Monet’s influence.)   The show also includes work by American painters resident in France including Samuel Coleman, George Inness and James A.M. Whistler and by the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind

   The nineteenth and early twentieth century pictures are really the heart of the show and the exhibition catalogue’s descriptions of Normandy’s social history, its relation to the arts and the interactions among the painters who worked so productively there, are fascinating and actually uplifting.  Whatever these artists’ individual points of view, you have a feeling that they all found that things seemed better at the beach.

   The morning we checked out of our hotel, during a trip to the lobby to get coffee to aid with our suitcase packing, I realized that I wanted to have a job that would allow me to return to Portland regularly so that I could regularly revisit many eye-opening items in the museum’s permanent collection (which includes some really superb Marsden Hartleys, Winslow Homers, as well as the best examples I have ever seen of N.C. Wyeth’s work) and continue to research and enjoy Portland’s fine restaurants.  (We found several that the guide books don’t tell you about and one or two they do mention, which you should avoid unless Pan-Fried Maine Farm Rabbit Livers or Wood-Roasted Lamb Hearts are the reason for your visit to the north country.)

 The occasion for our trip – the Maine Event, as it were -- was visiting Jane at camp.  She had grown noticeably taller and was cheerful, charming, witty and sensible.  That was spectacular.


  1. Portland sounds like a wonderful destination, particularly in summer. Jane is adorable.

  2. Portland is really great. I'd go back there today, if I could. This time I think I would like to fly, however, but only if the flying were trouble-free. Descending over Casco Bay into Portland's airport is sensational. If you ever need any Portland travel advice, please ask. Sometime in the future, I would like to revisit the "Maine Desert," which I just re-discovered really exists; it wasn't a figment of my imagination. Curtis

  3. Oh -- and thank you for the kind words about Jane. Seeing her was really, really great. Curtis

  4. You're welcome. You are quite blessed.

    Speaking of another Jane, Not sure if you know this, but Jane Landis' mother-in-law, Dahlov Ipcar, is a well-loved Maine artist and is still painting well into in her nineties. Jane and her husband still spend a few weeks each summer at Dahlov's longtime home on Georgetown Island.

  5. I did not know that. I find it interesting. Please say hi to Jane for me. I hope she's well, even though I find her pro-Obama/anti-everything that isn't Obama postings on Facebook annoying. On my Facebook page at least, liberals are a lot more vocal than more conservative types, who tend to be quieter and less "in your face." I'm a big Silence Is Golden (or at least "keep everything except the music at low volume") type. That being said, there is a very good op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today called Four Little Words by Kimberly Strassel concerning the president's Roanoake remarks. I think Ms. Strassel hits the nail on the head about why they've proved (and will continue to prove) so problematic for him. Curtis