Visitors to Historic New England properties are usually so engrossed in the architecture, the furnishings, and the stories of the families who lived there that they pay little notice to the paintings on the walls.
“But the paintings are one of the hidden gems,” says Nancy Carlisle, senior curator of collections for the heritage organization. “We have an unbelievable collection when you pull it out of context and put it all together.”
That’s exactly what Carlisle and co-curator Peter Trippi, editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur, did over the last 2½years. They whittled HNE’s holdings of about 700 paintings down to 45 for “Artful Stories: Paintings from Historic New England.” The works date from the 1730s to 2018, presenting perspectives of New England that evolve over time.
The exhibition opened in October at the Eustis Estate in Milton. The late-19th century mansion in the style of the Aesthetic Movement became a Historic New England property in 2012. Occupying 80 acres on the northwest side of the Blue Hills Reservation, the Eustis Estate is impressive in its own right, even without the exhibition. Visitors can walk the grounds and inspect the first-floor public rooms with furnishings, elaborate woodwork, and artwork.
The galleries on the second floor present the four themes of the exhibition: geography and landscape in “Land & Sea,” images of domestic life in “At Home in New England,″ a wide range of portraiture in “New England’s People,” and a reflection of how New Englanders have experienced other places and cultures in “The Wide World.”
Paintings range from portraits by John Singleton Copley and itinerant artists to mid-19th century views of the ports of both Boston and Macau. A charming Barbizon-style landscape calls attention to Edward Mitchell Bannister, one of New England’s earliest Black professional painters. Juxtaposition provides additional insight. For example, the curators hung a 1761 portrait of a seemingly carefree young woman of privilege between a portrait of a merchant who engaged in the slave trade and the modern portrait of a formerly enslaved man who served a Colonial governor.
Touchscreens in each gallery give more details on each piece and reflect the deep research that went into organizing this masterful exhibition. Text and images are also available on the Eustis Estate website at eustis.estate/location/artful-stories.
Visitors will be limited to 35 at a time. “I have been missing the fulfillment of museums,” says Carlisle, “and this is a manageable size.” The exhibition’s long run — through Oct. 17, 2021 — will help compensate for the limited numbers who can view it at once.
“I hope that the exhibition will bring an expanded knowledge of the New England cultural scene over time,” says Carlisle. “And I hope that visitors will experience joy, which we can all use.”
For an extra helping of joy, visit in December when portions of the grand house will be decked out for the holiday season.
Eustis Estate,1424 Canton Ave., Milton. Advance purchase of timed tickets required; adults $20, seniors $17, students $10. 617-994-6600. historicnewengland.org/property/eustis-estate-museum-study-center
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.