HARVARD -- Spend just a few minutes on the grounds at Fruitlands Museum and it's pretty clear the institution is infused with New England history, culture and landscape. So it's only fitting that the museum has created an exhibition with pieces from its permanent collection that collectively tell the story of how life in New England, and America, changed dramatically during the 19th century.

"From April through October, we typically have a number of outside shows being installed in our galleries, so there's little time for us to create a substantial show with our own permanent collection," says Mike Volmar, Fruitlands' chief curator. "This winter we had some space in the art gallery, so we decided to spotlight our vast collection of 19th century New England portraits."

After auditing and analyzing the museum's entire collection of 19th century portraits, Volmar and his staff selected 90 pieces to be included in the show, which runs through March 24. The curatorial team considered the symbolism behind the inclusion of or focus on items such as eyeglasses, pets, children, teeth, and much more. The paintings were ultimately selected based on a number of criteria, which offered the best representation of commonly included items, as well as those which included more unique items. The show features pieces from a handful of well-known artists such as Francis Alexander and William Matthew Prior.

"The timeframe from which these portraits came was a period in which this region saw a transition away from farming and into industry and other forms of business," says Volmar.


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"As a result, the period also saw the emergence of a 'middle class,' and so the quest for cultural status symbols is evident in many of these works."

Fruitlands' collection of 19th-century portraits, which is the second largest such collection in America, took shape in the 1930s when museum founder Clara Endicott Sears began accessioning pieces from locals who had relegated the works of art to their barns. Photography had become widely practiced by that time; so many people no longer had the need for painted images of themselves or their prized possessions.

"Because these portraits were done at a time before photography, there is an added historical value to them," adds Volmar. "This was the most common means by which Americans could capture their likeness and flaunt their social status. It was also how the story of America was shared from its founding until the creation of photography."

The museum is currently following its winter schedule -- Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for nonmembers and free for members.

For information on New England Portraits or other winter activities, call 978-456-3924, ext. 292, or visit www.fruitlands.org.