Artists have probably created far fewer New England spring paintings than of any of the three other seasons. After all, New England has so little spring. The cold gray months morph into mud season and then black fly season. And then, suddenly, it’s the Fourth of July and summer.
And yet New England’s artists have managed to capture what is appealing about the brief New England spring. Maple sugaring. Apple blossoms. Bird’s nests. Brilliant, clear light on sunny days. Romantic moonlit nights.
So here are six paintings of New England spring, one in each state.
New England Spring by Moonlight
Willard Metcalf painted May Night, one of his best works, while at the Old Lyme artist colony in Connecticut.
Metcalf was born into a working class family in Lowell, Mass., in 1858. He began painting at 16 and opened a studio in Boston at 18. Early success allowed him to study in Europe for five years.
He then moved around the Northeast, teaching and painting portraits and illustrations. Then he moved to Gloucester, Mass., and devoted himself to landscape painting. His friend Childe Hassam encouraged him to join the Old Lyme artist colony, where he could find high thinking and low living.
May Night depicts the home of Miss Florence Griswold, who founded the Old Lyme colony. In 1907, Metcalf won the Corcoran gold medal for it, along with a $3,000 purchase price. But Old Lyme probably lost its charm for him when his wife ran off with one of his students that year. The painting now belongs to the National Gallery of Art.
Metcalf then spent time at the Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire, where he painted many landscapes of the changing seasons. One critic called him “the poet laureate of the New England hills.”
The Corcoran Gallery held a major exhibition of his work in 1925, the year he died of a heart attack at age 66.
Spring on a Farm
Winslow Homer, born in Boston, Mass., in 1837, learned watercolor at his mother’s knee. He apprenticed to a lithographer for a few years, but hated it. For the next 20 years he illustrated life in Boston and rural New England as well as battlefield scenes during the Civil War.
He then moved to New York, but traveled frequently, painting all the way. In the spring of 1878 he produced 50 watercolors, admired for their fluidity and sparkle. Spring, painted on a farm, is one of them.
Homer eventually grew reclusive around 1880. His family owned an estate on Prout’s Neck in Maine, and Homer moved into the carriage house. He painted the sea in Maine, traveling to the Caribbean during the winter and sometimes to the Adirondacks.
Though he also painted in oil, Winslow Homer knew he’d done something transcendent with his watercolors.
“You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors,” Homer once said. He hung some of his exquisite watercolors on the walls of the rental cottages. Now they’re in museums or private collections. His 1878 watercolor Spring belongs to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
‘As if the year were all springtime’
Fidelia Bridges, born in 1834, was one of the very few women artists who could support herself with her work. She only painted birds and plants, which she rendered with exquisite detail and a poetic sensibility.
She ‘paints as if the year were all springtime,’ wrote one critic.
Bridges was often lonely and sad, but her exquisite paintings convey a lyrical joy in the birds and flowers she loved.
Fidelia Bridges was the daughter of a Salem sea captain who plied the China trade. Her parents’ death when she was 15 impoverished her family, but wealthy patrons allowed her to study art in Philadelphia and Europe.
She painted some of her best works in Stratford, Conn., along the Housatonic River. She also sold her work to Louis Prang, who invented the American Christmas card in Boston. For a time she worked as governess for Mark Twain’s children.
Girl on Rock
The landscape of Vermont and New Hampshire inspired Maxfield Parrish in 1922 to create lush, romantic paintings like Spring.
Parrish belonged to the Cornish Art Colony from 1898, when he and his wife built a house in Plainfield, N.H. He downplayed his own abilities, calling himself “commonplace” and “a mechanic.”
He used an ancient technique to paint, starting with a monochrome underpainting and then layering transparent glazes. It made him rich and famous. His 1922 painting Daybreak was the most popular art print of the 20th century, appearing in one out of every four households.
His painting Spring appeared as the Easter cover art for Life magazine April 6, 1922. Parrish then got sick of painting lissome nymphs in outdoor settings. No more girls on rocks, he told the Associated Press in 1931. From then until his death in 1960 he abandoned illustration and painted landscapes.
Apple Trees in a Meadow
Edward Bannister stunned the judges of the art competition at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. When he came to receive his gold medal, they were astonished to discover they’d awarded it to an African American.
After winning the prize he prospered as an artist, working out of his studio in Providence, R.I.
Bannister credited his wife, Christiana, with everything he accomplished. She ran several hair salons and told him to devote himself to his painting. Once his paintings started to sell, they spent summers in a cottage on Narragansett Bay. He often painted en plein air.
In 1890, Bannister painted Apple Trees in a Meadow, a familiar sight during the New England spring.
Bannister died in 1901, and his work fell into obscurity. He has since been rediscovered. Apple Trees in a Meadow now belongs to the High Museum in Atlanta.
New England Spring, Vermont Style
You may well recognize this lithograph as a Currier and Ives, originally sold as a cheap and popular print but now quite collectible.
Nathaniel Currier started off in Boston but eventually moved to New York. Once he hit on the formula of dramatic scenes of newsworthy events, he was on his way. He teamed up with James Merritt Ives and they expanded into scenes of city life, portraits, politics, boats and landscapes.
The firm made prints from the work of the most celebrated artists of the day: Eastman Johnson, George Inness and Thomas Nast. It also employed its own artists, like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who specialized in sporting scenes.
New England winter scenes proved especially popular. Snow, however, is not unknown during a New England spring.
Arthur Tait, a British-American artist, painted American Forest Scene—Maple Sugaring. Though he lived in New York, we’re choosing to call this a Vermont scene, as it produces more maple syrup than any other state.
Currier and Ives lasted 72 years before going out of business.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Spring by Parrish, Plum Leaves via Flickr, CC by SA 2.0; Robin’s Nest (1863, private collection) public domain PD-US.