Peace and Quiet in the Portland Museum of Art

Even in the winter, quiet is a scarce commodity in Portland. The streets may be snow-covered or slushy, but there are still people everywhere. Unlike other places in Maine, where silence reigns supreme and isolation is easy to find, Portland is in near constant motion—not quite the city that never sleeps, but maybe the city that has trouble going to bed.

A restless sleeper myself, I should find this comforting. But there are times when all I want is to shut out the sounds of work and industry and daily life. And at those times, the Portland Museum of Art is my sanctuary.

Coming from Boston, and before that, Philadelphia, I’m used to massive, sprawling museums that buzz with people at all hours of the day. While there are certainly times when the Portland Museum is full to the brim, I like to skip the First Friday rush and visit Saturday morning, when there are just a few other visitors wandering the galleries and the atmosphere is as quiet and reverent as in a cathedral. My current favorite space is the round room overlooking the garden. Ringed with windows and filled with neoclassical sculptures, it’s a rather romantic place to take in the winter sun.

But don’t let the lights and the calm fool you; there’s some pretty dark stuff in here. Particularly Benjamin Paul Akers’s sculpture The Dead Pearl Diver. A gorgeous youth stretches back over a marble slab in what looks like peaceful repose—and I guess, in a sense, it is. A little research reveals that this evocative (and mildly morbid) piece is the first work to be acquired by the Portland Museum of Art. created in 1858, it’s a perfect expression of the ultimate silence. Made of cold, hard stone, Akers’s piece is both a perfect example of the classical tastes of the period and a historically significant work of art. In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne even incorporated the work into his novel The Marble Faun, describing the piece at length (and modeling his protagonist on Akers himself). Sadly, like his handsome swimmer, Akers died at the young age of 33, which means this is one of relatively few sculptures he had time to produce.

So the next time you’re looking for a little quiet—and perhaps a moment of reflection on the mortality, or some other deep subject—take a minute to check out the Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture collection. If that’s not your cup of tea, I’ll be back with more art next week.