• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Using the Wyeth Art She Reveres to Rebuild a Lost Maine Waterfront


Dec 31, 2023


Her grandfather founded the outfitting giant L.L. Bean, whose gear has become synonymous with a woodsy lifestyle. She became a force in lobstering and tourism with companies of her own, and a lightning rod for critics who object to her outspoken conservative views.

But Linda Bean has also been a passionate fan of the arts, in particular of the painting clan of Wyeths, three generations of American realists who have long owned homes not far from her own in coastal Maine.

Her favorite is Newell Convers Wyeth, best known for his classic book illustrations of characters like Uncas in “The Last of the Mohicans” and the pirates in “Treasure Island.”

“I love his art, I just love it,” Bean, 82, said in an interview. “It’s bold, colorful. He was a big man himself, but he painted big too, at a time when people generally painted small.”

She is also a fan of Andrew, his son, and Jamie, his grandson, whose work she also owns.

Bean has fostered her interest in the family since coming across a book of N.C. Wyeth’s letters three decades ago and later moving to the little Maine fishing village of Port Clyde, where he began summering with his wife and five children in 1920.

She has created a charity, the N.C. Wyeth Research Foundation and Reading Libraries, to preserve and promote his legacy, stocking it with his art, and, more recently, acquiring works by Andrew and Jamie.

She runs boat tours — Wyeths by Water — to sites including the Olson House in South Cushing, where Andrew painted his iconic “Christina’s World,” and nearby Monhegan Island, where Wyeths have long retreated to create.

And she has bought numerous properties once associated with the Wyeths, including N.C. Wyeth’s grandfather’s house in Needham, Mass., built in 1735, that now houses a research library devoted to Wyeth’s life and work.

“She has a big heart,” Jamie Wyeth, 77, said. But he said, chuckling, “her obsessiveness with the Wyeths can be intrusive.”

Over the years, Bean also bought up much of Port Clyde’s waterfront, including a grocery store built in 1890, an attached art gallery and the Dip Net restaurant, which featured wharf-side dining. Those properties, in the commercial center of town, were destroyed by fire this fall, and now Bean is deploying her wealth and her Wyeth ties to help rebuild.

Jamie Wyeth, who owns a home on Monhegan Island and is a former shareholder in the grocery store, has donated $5,000 to aid his neighbors. And he said he would contribute paintings to help finance the restoration effort.

“Anything I can do to help, I would,” he said. “I’m totally behind whatever she wants to do there.”

It took up to 50 firefighters from nine towns to extinguish the blaze, which broke out around 10 p.m. on Sept. 27, said Fire Chief Michael N. Smith of the town of St. George. There were no injuries. The cause of the fire, which also severely damaged the terminal of the Monhegan Boat Line, a ferry service, has not been determined.

Among the paintings lost when the gallery was destroyed was an N.C. Wyeth winter scene from 1936 of a man on a sled pulled by oxen. Bean had just bought the painting, “A Man of a Certain Probity and Worth, Immortal and Natural (New England; The Wood Sled”), from Bonhams for $406,900. The work, painted for a book by Henry David Thoreau, “Men of Concord,” was still in its shipping crate, wrapped in plastic, when the fire erupted.

“It burned to a crisp,” Bean said.

Also incinerated were three paintings by Jamie Wyeth, “Snapper” and “Red-tailed Hawk” (both owned by Bean), and “With Green Peppers,” which was on consignment and listed for sale at $150,000. The fire also claimed countless prints and artifacts, including plates decorated by N.C. for the Hotel Utica in New York that Bean had bought for $1,000 apiece.

But a print of the Marshall Point Lighthouse, in Port Clyde, was spared. “It’s a great metaphor of the community,” said Barbara Ernst Prey, a nationally renowned local artist who created the work. “Dirt and soot on the outside but the image and frame are intact.”

Bean traces her infatuation with N.C. Wyeth to 1992, the year she unsuccessfully ran a second time for Congress and attended Maine’s largest antiques show, in Union. There she saw a book of Wyeth’s letters, became interested in his work and later traveled to Manhattan to visit Judy Goffman Cutler at her American Illustrators Gallery, where she bought her first Wyeth, “The Indian Longthought” (1928). It depicts an American settler listening to the warning of a friendly Native American.

Purchases of other Wyeths soon followed, as did Bean’s exploration of the life of the painter, who was killed at 62 in 1945 when his car was struck at a train crossing. On one trip, she traveled to the Wyeths’s farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., where Andrew authenticated one of his father’s works. On another, she made a pilgrimage to N.C.’s gravesite in Chester County, Pa. She later assembled what she calls the world’s largest collection of books about him and bought the Needham home for use as the research library.

Closer to home, in Port Clyde, 17 miles from Rockland, she bought property where a house N.C. Wyeth once painted had stood. The land is on the road to the summer house N.C. Wyeth owned, called Eight Bells, and Bean chose it as the site of another Wyeth library, nearly completed, that will be run by her foundation and will house N.C. Wyeth illustrations.

In Wilmington, Del., Bean bought the townhouse N.C. lived in after his 1906 marriage, along with his honeymoon bed, dining table and sideboard. She is also working on a nationwide online N.C. Wyeth Trail, marking places and works he painted, from New England to the Wild West.

Bean can afford such efforts in part because she is one of roughly 30 family shareholders in the privately owned Bean company, whose flagship store in Freeport, Maine, and ubiquitous catalogs helped drive $1.8 billion in revenue in 2022. (Her father, Charles Warren Bean, was a son of the company’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean.)

A board member of L.L. Bean, she built her own businesses as well, some of which she has sold. She still runs a nationwide lobster meat delivery service, Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster (“All Maine, All the Time”), that is based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but sells only Maine lobster.

Sixteen years ago, Bean began acquiring properties in Port Clyde and the surrounding area. Beyond the waterfront, for example, she bought the historic Ocean House and the Seaside Inn, which operate as hotels. “Some people thought I bought too much,” she acknowledged.

Her efforts have drawn detractors, including neighbors who feared her new Wyeth Reading Room would overcrowd rural roads. They went to court to try to stop the library development, but she prevailed and said she hoped “once they come in and see, they will find it helpful.”

A decade ago, the animal rights group PETA accused her of killing lobsters in painful ways at her company’s processing facility. She later sold the plant — the business focuses on delivery now — and “hasn’t processed lobsters in 10 years,” said Veronika Carlson, the president of Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine hospitality company, which manages her tourism interests.

In 2017, the Federal Election Commission said that Bean had made an excessive contribution to Making Maine Great Again, a political action committee supporting Donald Trump. She filed documents reporting giving $25,000 when the individual limit was $5,000. Critics called for a boycott of L.L. Bean merchandise and the company took the unusual step of distancing itself from the donation, saying she was not acting for the company.

In an email, Bean turned away political questions, saying only, “I am not enthralled by Joe Biden.”

But she enjoys talking about N.C. Wyeth, whom she described as a great teacher and family man. Wyeth, whose children later showed the influence of his training, once told a student, “Forget the commercial aspect of your art: Your work will inevitably bring you returns in proportion to the ‘heart and soul’ you put into your efforts.”

“He didn’t keep his knowledge to himself about painting techniques,” Bean said. “I’ve always admired that quality in a leader, that they feel confident enough — they’re not coming after your job or taking something away from you.”

“He was a great dad,” she said, adding that he was a “great patriot.”

“He just loved it here,” she said.

Bean, too, professes love for Port Clyde as she contemplates the long road ahead for the wharf area. Much of her loss was covered by insurance, and she hopes to have some facilities open by this summer and most by 2025.

“We’re planning to put back features of the property, but they may not be in the same position,” she said, although she intends to preserve the grocery’s Palladian window, which was saved.

By this summer, Bean said, the art gallery may find temporary quarters, possibly in the Ocean House. Carlson, of the hospitality company, said she anticipates two of its food trucks will serve as temporary replacements on the wharf for the restaurant as it is rebuilt. The Wyeth tours will likely run five days a week instead of seven.

Most important, Bean said, was to keep the dock open as a “working waterfront” for the fishermen.

“The No. 1 emphasis has to be to make it welcoming to fishermen,” she said. “If they come, others will come there. I don’t want it a tourist place.”


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