Monhegan attracts artists because of its take-your-breath-away beauty. The steep cliffs and canopied forests hold great awe and mystery, the harbor’s working fishing boats provide endless subjects for Sunday and serious painters alike, and the classic cottage architecture captivates and activates artists’ imaginations with color, form and lyrical, historical narratives.

But for all the painterly attractions of Monhegan, the story of this place and its role in American art history is best told through people who made it famous, like the painter Rockwell Kent, who made his best paintings here, built his home and his studio here and loved this place like no other, then left in anger with damaged friendships and a tattered reputation; the sculptor Louise Nevelson, who when asked by a biographer the source of inspiration for her found-wood sculptures cited the driftwood shack of an island hermit; and Robert Henri, the most influential art teacher of his day, who came for the first time in 1903 and promptly wrote home to his parents, “I have never seen anything so fine.”

This summer, the Monhegan Museum of Art & History celebrates its 50th anniversary with an encompassing and exhaustive exhibition of 80 pieces of art by 80 island artists who left indelible marks with their character, personal presence and painterly expression, individually and collectively. Museum director Edward L. Deci made a list of essential island artists based on their personal histories with the island and their larger reputation in art — and limited that list to those already deceased. Deci has directed the museum for 35 years and knew a good many of the artists in this exhibition personally. He can tell a story about every painting in the show, with authority. No one knows the island’s art history or can recall details about who, when and where better than Deci.

“We selected 80 that all together are the ones that tell the whole story,” he said. “We want to give people a full sense of the art history and the history of the art colony that has been here in the 160 years since the first painters came to Monhegan. There have been many schools and movements in American art during that time, and most if not all of them eventually found their way to Monhegan.”

And most if not all are represented in the show.

Power of place
After choosing the artists, Deci set about selecting a single painting or sculpture by each for the 50-year exhibition, which loosely follows a chronological narrative that begins before the Civil War with the arrival in 1858 of Aaron Draper Shattuck, who sailed from Portland and made what are assumed to be the first landscape paintings in the island’s modern art history, and continues into contemporary times with pieces by Elena Jahn, Don Stone and Lynne Drexler. The most recent piece is a still life by Sylvia Alberts, “Coral Bells and Mixed Flowers,” painted in 2006 and added to the collection in 2017. Alberts died in 2015.

In between came Edward Hopper, Andrew Winter, Abraham Bogdanove and many others. Andrew Wyeth didn’t do a lot of Monhegan painting, although he did start three oil paintings on a trip with his father, N.C. Wyeth, in 1934. Andrew soon gave up oil painting, and the oils remained unfinished. He did three watercolors. One of those, “Coast Guard,” from 1957, a view of Manana Island and its Coast Guard station, came as a gift from Andrew and Betsy Wyeth in 2008. Deci recalls its arrival.

“Andy sent along a letter that said, ‘Our son James has spoken so positively of the Monhegan Museum so many times and encouraged me to provide a work of mine for you. Betsy and I are happy to do that.’”

Missing is Winslow Homer, perhaps the most famous of all Maine painters. By all accounts, Homer never painted on Monhegan. Oldtimers told stories about Homer coming to the island to visit his friend Samuel Triscott, who lived here beginning in 1902. Homer died in 1910. There’s no proof of his presence, only legend.

All the artists whose work is in this show lived on the island or spent considerable time here and became part of the island community. And each of the paintings and pieces of sculpture was either made en plein air or in an island studio, or inspired by an island experience.

Out here, all art is personal.

“That’s the thing about Monhegan,” said Robert L. Stahl, associate director of the museum and director of the James Fitzgerald Legacy, which is dedicated to telling the stories of island artists Rockwell Kent and James Fitzgerald. “You can go to the museum and see all the paintings, and then you can see where the work was created and what inspired the painters. You can exit the museum, make a right and 10 minutes later, you’re at the headlands standing in the same place where the artists made the paintings you just saw. That’s the power of place, and specifically, the power of this place. There’s no other place else like it.”

Every piece in the exhibition is from the museum’s collection, and every piece came to the museum as a gift, both astonishing facts given the quality of the art and size of the museum, which opened in 1968 in the former lightkeeper’s house on Lighthouse Hill. It has an annual budget of less than $300,000 and is open seasonally, attracting about 5,000 people each summer and early fall. Deci and his staff hope the 50th anniversary and recent publicity surrounding a $ 1 million gift by island painter and philanthropist Jamie Wyeth to endow the museum, as well as the addition of the Kent-Fitzgerald properties to the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will boost visitation this year to 7,000 or so. The Monhegan Museum also is a recent addition to the Maine Art Museum Trail, which brings additional attention.

It always begins at the dock
As all Monhegan adventures do, the Monhegan art story begins at the dock with an oil painting by Robert Van Vorst Sewell, an artist from the landscape tradition who was on Monhegan in the early 1900s during what history now reflects as Monhegan’s heyday, when Kent, Henri and George Bellows all were here, along with their students, admirers and followers.

In a painting titled “At the Dock,” Sewell captures the chaotic scene as the mainland boat arrives with supplies and people. With Rockwellian overtones — Norman, not Kent — he shows workers loading crates and luggage onto a horse-drawn wagon and women peering over the edge, calling greetings to the disembarking passengers. The island lightkeeper, Daniel Stevens, stands in the foreground. The lightkeeper was a central figure of the community, occupying a role of stature and prestige. Sewell put him front and center in his painting.

He also placed a painter, believed to be himself, on the dock, capturing the scene at his easel. It feels nostalgic and sentimental, in innocent and historic ways.

Sewell made the painting in 1916, and the scene hasn’t changed much. Instead of horses and wagons, pickup trucks now haul the gear from the boat. There hasn’t been a lighthouse keeper since 1959, when the light became automated. But the painters are still here, and the dock still comes to life each time a boat arrives with visitors and provisions.

Because it felt “like a 50th thing to do,” Deci said, the museum recently restaged Sewell’s scene with year-round residents posing for a professional photographer. Island painter Alison Hill stood in for Sewell, and Billy Boynton, who with his wife, Jackie, owns the Lupine Gallery, stood in for Stevens.

Island stalwarts then and now.

Sewell’s painting was given to the museum by Jacqueline Hudson, who spent 90 summers on the island beginning in 1910 and was among three people who started the museum and donated many paintings by artists important to Monhegan, including Henri and Bellows. The latter painted her portrait. She was a painter herself, and Deci is showing her oil from 1971, the muscular “Lobster Buoys,” as part of the 50th-anniversary exhibition. She earned her way into the exhibition based on the quality of her work, Deci said, noting that she was surrounded by artists and spent a lifetime inspired by the island’s beauty.

Stevens was among the island’s early art collectors. He was stationed at Monhegan from 1902 to 1919, and displayed paintings in his home by Bellows and others. Being a man of prominence, he also sat for many portraits. His visage by Alice Kent Stoddard is included in the exhibition. The painter, a first cousin of Rockwell Kent, rented and later bought Kent’s home and studio on Horn’s Hill — and later sold them back to him when he returned to Monhegan in 1940s. She lived there more than 30 years, beginning in 1912.

The museum owns one of two houses that Kent built on Monhegan, as well as his studio. Fitzgerald later purchased that home and the studio, and both are open to the public. Jamie Wyeth owns Kent’s other house, at Lobster Cove.

A monumental trio
Central to the Monhegan art story, and the thread that runs through more than a century of art history out here, is the story of Kent, Fitzgerald and Jamie Wyeth.

Along with Henri and Bellows, Kent is the best of the Monhegan artists. He came for the first time in 1905 at age 22, enticed north to Maine from New York by his teacher, Henri. Like Henri, he loved Monhegan and stayed, becoming among the few artists who lived on the island year-round.

Kent immersed himself in island life, signing up for whatever work needed to be done. He hauled lobster traps, drilled wells and dug graves, and along the way, developed envy for the strength of the island men and respect for the integrity of their work. It was on Monhegan while observing and working with the fishermen that Kent honed his left-leaning socialist beliefs that, decades later, landed him in a dispute with the government and anti-Communist crusader Joseph McCarthy and eventually soured his good standing on the island.

Kent was productive as a painter on Monhegan. He made many sweeping views of the island and the sea, filling his canvases with bursts of color and expansive, meandering moods. Deci believes that Kent’s paintings from his first stay on the island, which lasted until 1910, are among the best he ever made. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns one from 1907, “Winter, Monhegan Island.”

For the 50th-anniversary exhibition, Deci chose a late Kent painting, “Village at Night,” completed around 1950. It’s a relatively small painting that plays much larger than its 12-by-16 dimensions. In this, Kent presents Monhegan from the perspective of looking down and across the village at night. The buildings are silhouetted by the sundowning sky, which casts a long narrow band of yellow and blue, buffeted by thick, red clouds above and the darkness of the island below. With this tranquil painting, Kent perfectly captures both the mystery and awe of the island.

He made the painting during what became a period of great turmoil, which led to the unraveling of his love affair with the island.

Kent returned to Monhegan in the late 1940s, buying back from his cousin the home and studio he built for himself on Horn’s Hill during his first island residency when he was in his 20s and just finding his stride as a painter.

But his second island residency did not go well, blowing up for good in the summer of 1953. On July 1, Kent appeared before McCarthy’s U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee, where he refused to say whether he was a member of the Communist party. Back on Monhegan on July 9, a house guest of his named Sally Moran went missing. Her body was found floating in the ocean three weeks later, and the local district attorney proclaimed foul play.

The headlines were salacious: “Was It Murder on Solitary Monhegan Island?” “Kent Calls Murder Theory ‘Hooey’” and “Foul Play Seen in Death at Monhegan.”

It was all too much for everyone. Islanders resented Kent’s outspoken politics, as well as the media attention associated with Moran’s death. By then, he and Fitzgerald became close friends, and Fitzgerald bought Kent’s home for $7,000 in 1958. He previously acquired the studio for $3,000.

Fitzgerald arrived on Monhegan in the 1920s, moved away for 15 years and returned to Monhegan in 1943 and lived there mostly year-round until his death in 1971. When he died, his entire estate went to islanders Anne and Edgar Hubert, and eventually to the museum. The Fitzgerald Legacy recently completed a massive catalog of his work, the first in a series of publications and exhibitions leading up to and celebrating the 50th anniversary of his death in 2021. Fitzgerald is represented in the show with an oil painting from the 1960s, “Gulls Descending.”

The Kent-Fitzgerald home and studio are open to visitors with limited hours, a short walk from the museum. Kent’s rocking chair — which, Stahl noted, “leans a little to the left” — settee, piano and books are still in the home. The studio is similar to how Fitzgerald left it when he died, with a canvas prepared for paint, ready to go. Fitzgerald’s art, materials and ephemera are all still there.

Kent gave many of his best paintings to the Soviet Union and left Monhegan under a cloud of ill will. But he never intended to stay away forever. Letters between Fitzgerald and Kent demonstrate his desire to return.

When the Monhegan Museum opened in 1968, Kent was an early supporter. A few months before he died, also in 1971, the same year as Fitzgerald, he gave the museum 23 ink drawings from his first stay on the island. In a note to Jacqueline Hudson, he wrote that his years on Monhegan “remain to me the most memorable of my whole life.”