Portland, Maine – Culture, coffee and city life


Portland city centre

Portland is one of my favourite small American cities with its vibrant cultural scene, coffee shops and street style.

Its relatively small size and lack of pretensions make this an authentic and relaxing city to hang out in.

It has that great combination of arty attractions, a fabulous waterfront and a bohemian feel, topped with lashings of history and street culture.

Set in the lovely Casco Bay, Portland is a city for hipsters and art lovers. It also boasts seven lighthouses, reflecting the city’s maritime history and importance as a port.

Like many older industrial cities, Portland has reinvented itself in recent decades with a revitalised waterfront, brimming with restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.

Its red brick, 19th Century buildings have been preserved and brought into the modern world with an injection of contemporary style. Many have been converted to gallery spaces, coffee shops, boutiques and hotels.

We stayed at the historic Portland Harbor Hotel not far from the waterfront, a great spot for exploring the city.

Once you’ve strolled along the waterfront and have enjoyed a beer in a charming bar, head into the back streets where you’ll discover some excellent specialist shops and coffee bars.

The city has reinvented itself down the centuries, evolving from its original settlements of New Casco and Falmouth Neck into Portland in the late 18th Century.

Today it’s a booming tourist destination with a rich history and impressive waterfront, a short drive from Boston.

Portland’s cultural scene

Portland boasts a lively cultural scene with the Portland Museum of Art at the heart of its Arts District.

The gallery is one of my favourite cultural haunts in Maine seaboard with cutting edge contemporary works sitting alongside classic painters and American masters like Winslow Homer.

It’s the city’s prime haunt for culture vultures, housed in a building which reflects the city’s ability to look back and forward  simultaneously. The museum is actually four buildings which have been conjoined together.

Portland Museum

Portland Art Museum by Pei

The gallery’s modern extension – the Charles Shipmen Payson Building – was designed by I.M. Pei, best known for his controversial Louvre glass pyramid in Paris.

He has designed a building that merges the old and new. It fits completely with the heritage district which surrounds it. The design acknowledges Portland’s red brick heritage whilst adding a modern, geometric twist.

From the outside it’s an unshowy affair but its architectural punch goes into overdrive once you’re inside. The galleries are light and airy spaces which show off  the contemporary art collection and its changing exhibitions to their very best.

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

Inside the foyer – Portland Museum of Art

Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the old building meets the new which is no bad thing.

It’s an impressive building to walk around with a relaxing cafe in its basement, if you feel the need to chill out surrounded by the museum’s colourful glass collection.

If traditional architecture is more your style, it’s worth seeking out the McLellan House at the far end of the museum. Built in 1801, this Federal-style mansion has been restored to its former glory.

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

The McLellan House at Portland Art Museum

Maine art 

Portland Museum of Art’s biggest selling point is its American art collection which stretches from takes in the colonial period and 19th Century painters who transformed European styles for an American audience.

There are the famous ‘Gilded Age’ portraits by John Singer Sargent and William McGregor Paxton; trompe l’oeil illusionism by William Michael Harnett and Neoclassical sculpture by Benjamin Akers and Franklin Simmons.

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

The sculpture court – Portland Museum of Art

If you love American landscape painting you’re in for a treat with works by luminaries such as Winslow Homer, Charles Codman, Harrison Bird Brown and Frederic Edwin Church.

Winslow Homer is the star turn with several of his paintings, watercolours and sketches. His paintings mix realism and impressionism, giving both styles a distinctly American edge.

I love his expressive seascapes which ooze with drama – one of my favourites is Weatherbeaten which shows a raging sea hitting a rocky shoreline.  It’s an evocative work which captures the essence of the Maine coast.

I was surprised to learn that Winslow Homer had a moment of self-discovery after a visit to the “small fishing village of Cullercoats” in North East England as a young man. It was here he discovered his passion for depicting real life  – and the sea.

Who would have thought that this great American painter had been inspired by a place near where I live?!

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten – 1894

There’s also a chance to see how Winslow Homer worked in his studio including his paints, oils and sketch books.

If you’re lucky, you can book a special trip to Homer’s Studio in Prouts Neck where he lived and painted many of his masterpieces from 1883 until his death. 

Sadly, these trips only run on Mondays and Fridays in the summer – and even odder times off-season so we weren’t able to make this pilgrimage  – a real disappointment.

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

Bellow’s Matinicus – lobstermen in Maine

One of the things I love about the Portland Art Museum is its collection of art works inspired by Maine. In the 19th and early 20th Century, Maine was a magnet for artists who sought inspiration from the area’s natural beauty.

The museum’s collection also reflects the flowering of artists’ colonies in places such as Ogunquit and Monhegan Island.

Homer also inspired a new generation of realist painters from Robert Henri and George Bellows to Edward Hopper and N.C. Wyeth.

My favourite work in this collection is Bellow’s Matinicus (1916), a fabulous image of a coastal town in Maine.

Best known for his gritty urban realism and  ‘trash can alley’ works in New York, this is a very different study of life in a small coastal town in New England featuring lobstermen at work.

Impressionism and European art

Renoir at Portland Art Museum

Confidences by Renoir – Portland Museum of Art

There’s plenty of unexpected treats too. I didn’t realise that the museum had an impressive Impressionist art collection

Renoir, Sisley and Monet feature prominently with high quality works that were completely new to me. The works look as fresh today as they did when they were painted in the mid 1800s.

Sisley at Portland Art Museum

Sisley landscape – Portland Museum of Art

There are also stunning works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and Auguste Rodin.

I was puzzled why the gallery has such a great collection of these Impressionist painters whose work fetches millions at auctions.

Turns out that it’s all down to good old-fashioned American philanthropism. In 1991, Joan Whitney, a wealthy heiress and New York socialite, gave 20 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works to the Museum on permanent loan. 

One of my favourites is Monet’s landscape painting of the river Seine at Vetheuil, a beautiful scene painted in the open air by the French master.

Monet at Portland Art Museum

The Seine at Vetheuil by Monet – Portland Museum of Art

I was surprised by the range of Modernist styles featured in the collection from Fauvism and Cubism to Expressionism, and Surrealism. A really great walk through all the main periods of European art.

There are important works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Max Ernst and René Magritte, to name just some of the international artists.

It’s a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the main movers and shakers in 20th Century modern art.

Portland Museum and Art Gallery

Impressive modern art at the Portland Museum of Art

Coming up to date, there’s also a strong collection of contemporary art works including evocative depictions of the Maine landscape and seascape.

This is a collection that shouldn’t be missed if you’re visiting New England and Maine. It’s well worth the detour if you’re an art lover.

On the beach - Portland Museum

On the beach – Portland Museum

Special exhibitions

Richard Estes

Classic American Diner by Richard Estes

Portland Museum of Art has a great programme of special exhibitions. When I visited, the museum was hosting a retrospective of works by the wonderful American hyper-realist artist, Richard Estes.

It’s the most comprehensive exhibition of Estes’ paintings ever organised with over 40 Estes paintings, from his trademark New York City facades and scenes of the late 1960s to his widescreen, panoramic views of Manhattan.

As well as his urban images, Estes has a strong connection to Maine, having spent part of each year in the state since the late 1970s. There are stunning paintings of the coastline and atmospheric canvases featuring Mount Desert Island.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that these are oil paintings rather than photographs. It’s what you’d call ‘photo realism’ on a huge scale.  

This brilliant show has a big ‘wow’ factor with knock-out images which stay in the memory for a long time after you’ve seen them.

Here’s a selection of the works by Richard Estes – click through the photo gallery below.

After your trip to the Museum why not walk down towards the Exchange Street area with its boutiques, bars and coffee shops. Relax with a coffee and cake or chill out with an ice cream in one of the many gelato bars.

Portland is a small city with big style. Why not take time to enjoy one of the best small cities on America’s east coast.

Tammy’s Travel Guide to Portland


Portland street scene

Portland is located on the eastern seaboard in southern Maine – it’s about 1.5 hours drive from Boston. Don’t confuse the city with Portland, Oregon if you’re doing Google searches for tourist information!

Portland Museum of Art is located in the city’s Art District at Seven Congress Square. The gallery is open daily. There’s an admission charge to the main gallery and the temporary exhibitions.

The Richard Estes’ Realism exhibition continues until 7 September 2014. It’s your last chance to see the show this weekend.

Visits to the Winslow Homer Studio, 12 miles south of Portland at Prouts Neck, can be booked in advance but check for the erratic opening times. Numbers are limited for the trips which takes place on a mini bus.

Whilst in Portland, why not visit its historic monuments and landmarks including the Observatory (1807), the Tate House (1755.) and the Victorian Mansion (1858). Look out for architectural walking tours.

Portland historic house

Portland’s Victorian Mansion

The Victorian mansion is a strange Italian-villa style house built as a summer residence for the briliantly-named Ruggles Sylvester More who made his fortune in hotels.

Portland Longfellow House

The Longfellow House

The house’s elaborate interior and exterior are either fantastic or over-the-top ugly, depending on your taste.

My partner Tony screamed in disgust when he set eyes on the house and refused to go inside! 

There are many fine mansions in this area of Portland so it’s well worth a walk around the neighbourhood.

Back in downtown, drop in at the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, home to the famous 19th Century poet and Hiawatha writer.  

Sadly, you can only visit by timed tours so plan your schedule ahead. We missed out on a visit because the last tour of the day had left five minutes earlier.

Credits – Richard Estes and Impressionist images are courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art.

Other photos are copyright of Tammy Tour Guide and Tony van Diesel.

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