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Art and culture

Best known for its Colonial architecture, New England nevertheless retains a rich heritage of building traditions from all periods, ranging from practical Indian dwellings to the magnificent seaside estates of the Gilded Age and the high rises of post-Modernism. A plethora of art museums, artist galleries and studios, gardens, historic homes, antique shops, and more showcase New England’s rich artistic heritage and thriving arts community. New England has been home to some of America’s greatest writers, from Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost to popular modern-day authors, like Robert Parker and Stephen King. Some of the region’s famous writers are laid to rest on Authors’ Ridge at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.


Native American

The traditional Algonquin dwelling was not the familiar tepee of the Great Plains but the wigwam , a domed or conical hut made of bent saplings covered with reed mats or bark. Quick and easy to build, these snug shelters were adopted as temporary housing by the first Massachusetts colonists until they could construct timber-framed homes. Wigwams built in the traditional manner may be seen at Salem’s Pioneer Village and at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Litchfield Hills.

Early colonial

The prevailing early-Colonial dwelling was the two-story post-and-beamhouse, characterized by a steeply pitched roof originally designed to support thatch. Several examples dating from about 1660 to 1720 still exist in Connecticut (Buttolph-Williams House in Wethersfield) and in the early Massachusetts Bay town of Ipswich (Parson Capen House) and at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth. Settlers, finding an unlimited timber supply in the new country, continued a building technique that was already familiar. The typical house plan comprised two large, multipurpose rooms with exposed beams and a massive center chimney hugged by a narrow stairway leading to chambers above. Clad in shingles or clapboard siding, the exterior featured small casement windows with diamond-shaped glass panes imported from England. When the steep roof extends almost to the ground over a rear kitchen lean-to, the house is known as a saltbox . Built low to brace against shoreline winds, the smaller, one-and-a-half-story Cape Cod cottage features a pitched or bowed roof.

By court decree all 17C New England villages were laid out according to a similar plan, with the houses set around a park-like central green , or common, to provide protection against Indians and assure close proximity to the meeting house , the largest building in a settlement.


This term generally refers to an English architectural style developed by such noted architects as Christopher Wren and James Gibbs and popularized in America from about 1720 until the Revolution (during the reigns of Kings George II and III) largely through pattern books and British-trained builders. Based primarily on the design principles of ancient Rome, this style incorporated the Classical orders, especially Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

Dignified and formal, the high-style Georgian house proved ideally suited to the tastes of a growing mercantile class. Mansions in wood, stone or brick soon appeared in every major port city. Crowned by a pitched, hipped or gambrel roof, the Georgian house featured a symmetrical facade accentuated with even rows of double-hung windows. Often a central projecting pavilion front with a Palladian window and a pedimented portico graced the entryway. Heavy quoins (stone or wood blocks) typically marked the corners, and the elaborate front door was topped by a round-arched fanlight and a sculptural pediment.

A central-hall plan with end chimneys accommodated larger rooms (now with specific uses such as dining and music), robust wood carving and plaster decoration, and colorful paint treatments. In rural farm towns the Georgian house frequently retained the old center-chimney plan but boasted ornate exterior features, such as the heavy swan’s-neck door pediments used in the Connecticut River Valley (Deerfield). Several Georgian public buildings were designed by Peter Harrison (1716-75), perhaps America’s most important colonial architect. Harrison’s Redwood Library in Newport is based on a Roman temple. His Touro Synagogue, also in Newport, and King’s Chapelin Boston are notable for their interior paneling.

During this period many New England churches gained their familiar front towers and steeples, often adapted from the published designs of Wren (Trinity Church) or Gibbs (First Baptist Church in America).


Popular from about 1780 to 1820, this British Neoclassical style, sometimes called Adam style, was first adopted in America by an affluent merchant class, primarily Federalists who retained close trade ties to England even after the Revolution. Bostonian Charles ­Bulfinch (1763-1844) was New England’s best-known Federal-period architect, responsible for Beacon Hill’s Massachusetts State House, while Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) designed Federal-style structures for the city of Salem.

Like its Georgian counterpart, the high-style Federal mansion, often with bowed or rounded walls, was symmetrical, and its central door was topped by a Palladian window (Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston). But the overall appearance was far lighter and more conservative, with proportions elongated, exterior decoration reduced and fanlights flattened from half-rounds into ellipses.

The style is most notable for its refined interior decor, influenced by the work of British architect Robert Adam . Oval and round rooms were introduced, along with graceful freestanding staircases and exquisitely decorated fireplace mantels and surrounds. Extremely popular, Federal-style design eventually spread to even the most modest of farm- and village houses and churches throughout New England (look for the telltale elliptical front-door fanlight).

Greek revival

The Greek Revival style was popular from about 1820 to 1845. While the Georgian and Federal styles were based on Roman prototypes, the new architectural mode adhered to ancient Greek orders and design principles, notable for squarer proportions, a more monumental scale and less surface ornament. Imitative of Greek temples, buildings in the style were almost always white and usually featured the so-called “temple front.” This two-story portico with Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns supported an unbroken triangular pediment at the roof line.

Among the educated elite the Greek Revival style represented a symbolic link between the republic of ancient Greece and the new American nation. It was adopted for many impressive public buildings, including marble or granite courthouses, banks, libraries (Providence’s Athenaeum), churches (United First Parish Church), and temples of trade (Providence’s Arcade), as well as for domestic architecture. Elegant Greek Revival-styled mansions appeared in affluent towns and seaports (Whale Oil Row in New London).

Among the major designers of the period were Alexander Parris (Quincy Market in Boston) and Robert Mills (Custom House). Asher Benjamin , who wrote some of the most influential builder’s handbooks in America, designed many New England churches (Boston’s Old West Church) and fine Bostonian homes (Nos. 54-55 Beacon Street).

19C vernacular

A distinctive feature of rural New England is the covered bridge (West Cornwall and Windsor). In 1820 noted New Haven architect Ithiel Town (Center and Trinity Churches in New Haven) patented the lattice truss , the interwoven framework visible on the inside of the bridge. The roof, of pine or spruce, was designed to protect the structural elements from harsh weather. The connected farm , a complex of attached houses, barns and animal sheds prevalent in northern New England in the mid-19C, developed as old outbuildings were moved from farm property and added to the main residence.

Along the coast, 19C lighthouses mark harbor entrances and dangerous shoals. These structures originally included a tower and beacon, first lit with oil lamps and parabolic reflectors, as well as housing for the keeper, who was often a US customs agent. Many lights can be visited by the public (Sheffield Islandin Norwalk; Owl’s Head in Rockland).

Still visible in many industrial towns are 19C textile mills , originally powered by water turbine (steam power became common in the 1850s). Manned largely by cheap immigrant labor, mills were designed as self-contained complexes and typically included railroads, parks, canals, churches and employee housing. Punctuated by rhythmic rows of windows and an occasional clock tower or smokestack, these granite- or brick-walled buildings, usually five or more stories, can stretch for miles along a riverfront. Some complexes now contain museums (the National Historic Park in Lowell); others have been converted to house small business and retail outlets (Lowell’s Amoskeag Manufacturing Complex).

Victorian eclecticism

During the Victorian era (1837-1901), classical design was abandoned in favor of a broad range of styles, many inspired by the dark, romantic architecture of medieval Europe. Pointed-arch windows, steeply pointed gables, and gingerbread cornice boards are hallmarks of the picturesque Gothic Revival style (Kingscote) that is also seen in board-and-batten Carpenter’s Gothic villas and cottages. Other Victorian-era styles include Italianate (square towers, flat or low-pitched roof and broad porch; Victoria Mansion); Second Empire (mansard roof, ornate cornice and round dormers; Boston’s Old City Hall); and Queen Anne (turrets, spindlework, asymmetrical porches, bay windows and gingerbread trim; Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard). In the early 1870s Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson developed RomanesqueRevival (also known as Richardsonian Romanesque), a distinctly American style rooted in the Medieval architecture of France and Spain. His masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston, incorporates the characteristic squat columns, round arches and heavy, rough-cut stone. Favored for seaside resorts were the Shingle style (dark wood shingles, towers and piazzas, steeply pitched roofline and asymmetrical facade; Newport’s Hammersmith Farm and Casino) and Stick style (gabled roof, rustic woodwork with diagonal bands, contrasting paint colors, decoratively shaped shingles; Newport’s Art Museum and Mark Twain House in Hartford).

Turn of the 20C

Late in the 19C architects trained in the academic principles of the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris rejected the eccentric Victorian styles. Typical of the highly decorative Beaux-Arts style are great estates such as The Breakers and Marble House (both in Newport) by the fashionable society designer Richard Morris Hunt , and grandiose public buildings (Boston Public Library).

Developing at the same time was the Colonial Revival style, which drew on America’s own Colonial architecture, reinterpreted on a larger scale. A Palladian window, classical columns, swan’s-neck pediments, and a large entry portico are typical features. Promoted by such prestigious architectural firms as McKim , Mead and White (Rhode Island State House), the style was used primarily for Georgian Revival town houses and country estates from about 1900 through 1920 (North and South Streets in Litchfield).

Contemporary architecture

New England attracted many of the European architects who brought the International Style to America in the 1930s, including Walter Gropius (1883-1969), founder of the German design school known as the Bauhaus . Representative of early Modernism , which rejected ornament and historical references and embraced machine-age technology and materials, is the 1938 Gropius House, a streamlined cubic design incorporating the then-new materials of glass block, acoustical plaster, and chrome. Among other innovative modernist works is Eero Saarinen ’s 1955 M.I.T. Chapel in Cambridge. The heir of early Modernism was the so-called glass box design, ubiquitous in the 1960s in the construction of multistoried urban apartments and public buildings. An unusual example is the 1963 Beinecke Library at Yale University by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill , designed with self-supporting walls of translucent marble. Many glass boxes appeared in New Haven, Boston and other New England cities during periods of widespread urban redevelopment that resulted in the demolition of older buildings. In concert with the growing preservation movement of the last two decades, innovative design programs have, however, helped save endangered structures .

From the early 1970s innovators Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, Philip Johnson and others developed post-Modernism , a movement promoting a deliberate return to ornament. Familiar historical motifs such as the classical pediment are often playfully exaggerated, used as the dominant crowning element of a building, for example. The Palladian window is simplified, even caricatured, or the classical column is reduced to a plain shaft, topped by a ball rather than a traditional capital. Unexpected exterior color combinations are another feature. In recent years New England campuses and city skylines, notably Boston (222 Berkeley Street and 500 Boylston Street), Providence and Hartford, have become national showcases for buildings in the style, which emphasizes scale, compatible materials and the relationship of a building to its neighbors.


American furnishings were influenced from colonial days through the 19C by European, and particularly English, designs.


Furniture made between 1620 and 1690—tables, chairs, Bible boxes and chests—reflect the Medieval influences of the English Tudor and Jacobean styles. Oak is the principal wood used. The Connecticut-made Hadley, Guilford, and Sunflower chests, ornamented with carved and painted floral designs or geometric motifs are characteristic of this period.

William and Mary

This style was in vogue from 1689 through 1702 during the reign of William of Orange and his wife, Mary. The Flemish influence and contact with the Orient introduced such techniques as japanning (floral or scenic designs on lacquered wood surfaces) and turning (wooden pieces shaped on a lathe). Japanned highboys, chests with bold turnings, and chairs with caned or leather backs were popular during these years.

Queen Anne

Curved lines, such as the gracefully shaped cabriole leg, are a stylistic feature of furniture made between 1720 and 1750. Maple, walnut, and cherry are the woods typically used; decoration is minimal.

The Windsor chair , unrelated to the Queen Anne style, was imported from England in the early 18C and remains popular in America.


English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale, borrowed elements of French Rococo and Chinese art in creating the wide range of furniture forms illustrated in his design manuals. Pieces from 1750 through 1785 are generally fashioned of mahogany, with curved legs (ending in the ball-and-claw foot) and chair backs pierced with lacy fretwork. The Goddard and Townsend families of Newport, Rhode Island, were among the most celebrated cabinetmakers working in this style.


Inspired by British architect Robert Adam and English cabinetmakers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton , the style that won favor from 1785 through 1815 is defined by light, straight lines and refined decoration: Veneers, inlay and marquetry in contrasting woods. The square, tapered leg—fluted, reeded or ending in a spade foot—is common. Cabinetmakers working in the Federal style included John and Thomas Seymour and John and Simeon Skillin of Boston.


Imported from Europe, this heavy, massive style, popular from 1815 through 1840, was inspired by Greek and Egyptian antiquity. Bronze, gilt, winged and caryatid supports, lion’s-paw feet, rolled backs on chairs, and sofas with upswept ends distinguish this style.


Furniture of the period between 1840 and the late 19C, inspired by a variety of styles including Gothic, Elizabethan, Renaissance and French Rococo, is heavy and ornate. Upholstered chairs and sofas are overstuffed, and velvet coverings are typical. Balloon-back and fiddleback chairs, and tables with marble tops were popular.

Shaker Furniture

Produced primarily from 1800 until the middle of the 19C, Shaker chairs, tables and cupboards, simple and functional, are admired for their clean, pure lines and superb craftsmanship. Shaker chairs are recognized by their ladder backs, and seats made of rush, cane, splint or woven webbing.

Visual and Decorative Arts


From the beginning of the colonial period to the late 17C, painting was appreciated primarily for its practical uses for trade signs and portraiture.

18th-Century Development

The arrival of Scottish painter John Smibert (1688-1751) in America in 1729 initiated the era of professional painting. His works, such as Bishop Berkeley and his Entourage (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), served as models for the Americans who studied with him, including John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), America’s first important portraitist. Copley painted the well-known persons of his day ( Paul Revere , Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), rendering his subjects amazingly lifelike.

Rhode Islander Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) was the most important American painter of the period. Although he is best remembered for his portraits of George Washington, Stuart in fact painted only three portraits of the president from life, using these as models for his later works. The most well-known of these, George Washington ( The Athenaeum Portrait ), was begun in 1796 and never finished. It now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.


Following the American Revolution, the opening of the West led to an increased awareness of the vast scale and beauty of the nation, and the American scene became a popular theme for artists. Painters of the Hudson River school in the 1820s followed the lead of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt by setting up their easels outdoors and painting directly from nature. Their favorite New England subjects were the White Mountains and the Connecticut Valley. The sea was a source of inspiration for other artists. Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65), living in Gloucester, illustrated in soft, glowing tones the serene beauty of the sea and the offshore islands. New Bedford artist William Bradford (1823-92), fascinated by maritime themes and the northern lights, depicted the rising and setting of the arctic sun, and whalers sailing among icebergs (New Bedford Whaling Museum).

Beginning in the 1860s, Americans began to live and study abroad for longer periods of time. Italian-born John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) traveled extensively in Europe and won acclaim as the portraitist of the international social set . The career of the self-taught watercolorist and master of the naturalist movement, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), began during the Civil War, when Homer served as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. He is known for large canvases of the sea that he painted during summers at Prout’s Neck, Maine.


Several painters have been identified with New England. Grandma Moses (1860-1961) illustrated themes associated with rural New England ( Sleigh Ride; Sugaring-Off ).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), for many years an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, painted a chronicle of American life. His principal works can be viewed in Stockbridge. Born in 1917, Andrew Wyeth has spent several summers in Maine. The Wyeth Family Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland exhibits many of his works.


Sculpture consisted predominantly of folk art—shop and trade signs, weather vanes, figureheads—until the 19C, New Hampshire-born Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), who lived his latter years in New Hampshire, trained abroad and exerted a strong influence on American sculpture from the period following the Civil War until the early 20C. French became known for his statue The Minute Man (Concord, MA), while the monumental seated Lincoln (Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC) is recognized as his most impressive achievement.

Saint-Gaudens executed delicate, bas-relief portrait plaques and monumental sculptures, such as the Shaw Memorial in Boston, for which he is best ­remembered.

In more recent times, award-winning sculptor Louise Nevelson (b. 1900), who was born in Russia, grew up in Rockland, Maine. By the mid-1950s, she had developed the style for which she is best known: open boxes of monochromatically painted wood stacked to form a freestanding wall. Her work may be seen at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Among other New England locations, sculptural works (particularly contemporary sculpture) are on view at the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts and the sculpture garden at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, as well as on the campuses of Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Folk art

In rural New England, necessities for daily living were handmade by the farmers themselves or by tradesmen who received a modest fee for their services. The tools, household utensils, cloth, weather vanes and furniture they produced revealed the tastes, flair and loving attention to detail of their creators. Today these items are admired for their unsophisticated charm, and for the picture of early rural American life they present.


Quilted bed coverings were essential during the long, cold New England winter. Often finished in a geometric or floral motif, the quilt became one of a rural household’s few decorative accessories. Quilting had a pleasant social aspect as well: The quilting bee .


This early decorative technique, which uses paint and precut patterns to embellish furniture, implements, cloth, floors, and walls, brightened the interiors of many homes. Wall stenciling added color to the otherwise plain white plaster or wooden plank surfaces, and in the 19C it was a low-cost alternative to expensive imported wallpapers.

Weather Vanes

When most New Englanders farmed or went to sea, weather vanes were important as indicators. The simple profile of a weather vane topped most buildings of any significant height. A weather vane made to crown a church spire might be in the shape of a cockerel or fish, the symbols of early Christianity. In rural areas the silhouette of a cow, horse or sheep rose above farm buildings, while along the coast, the whale, clipper ship and mermaid were popular. New England’s famous grasshopper weather vane, atop the cupola of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, has been the symbol of the port of Boston since the 18C.

Figureheads, Trade Signs and Shop Figures

During the age of sailing, carvers sculpted figureheads, sternboards and other accessories for new vessels. Excellent examples of figureheads can be found in the maritime museums in Mystic, CT; New Bedford, Nantucket and Salem, MA; and Shelburne, VT.

Ship carvers also produced trade signs and shop figures. The streets of the Old Port Exchange in Portlandare lined with such eye-catching signs.


Until the mid-19C most glass manufactured in New England was in the form of window glass and glass containers. Handmade glassware was a luxury only a few could afford. However, Deming Jarves and his workmen at Sandwich made available, for the first time, attractive glassware at affordable prices. The factory at Sandwich became famous for pressed glass with patterns that resembled lace. Despite large-scale production of pressed glass, the art of glassblowing continued to thrive. Items varied from tableware to decorative art glassand may be seen at the Glass Museum in Sandwich, and at the Bennington Museum in Vermont.


Perfected by New England sailors in the 19C, scrimshaw, the art of etching the surface of the teeth or jawbone of a whale, or the tusks of a walrus, is considered by some the only art form indigenous to America. The tooth or tusk was allowed to dry, then the surface was polished with shark skin, and the picture or design to be etched was incised onto the bone with a jackknife or sail needles. Ink, soot or tobacco juice was applied for color. Exceptional scrimshaw collections can be found at the whaling museums in New Bedford, Nantucket, and Sharon.


Wooden decoys sculpted and painted to resemble geese, ducks, shorebirds, and waterfowl have been used since colonial times to lure birds within range of the hunter. By the 19C decoy-making had developed into an art form. Craftsmen portrayed birds with increasing realism, taking into consideration the natural conditions where the decoys would be used. Craftsmen along the coast from Cape Cod to Maine still engage in producing these lures. The Shelburne Museum in Vermont owns a fine collection of over 1,000 decoys.


The Puritans have left outstanding examples of the skill of their early stonecutters in the gravestones that stand in New England’s old burial grounds. The designs were initially symbolic and plain. In the 17C the hourglass, sun, scythe, winged skull, hearts and cherubim (symbols for life, death and resurrection) were typical motifs. Throughout the 18C, realistic portraits and detailed scenes of the death of the deceased became popular. The romantic tendencies of the 19C were represented by extensive use of the weeping willow and the urn, classical symbols for death.

The old cemeteries in Boston, Lexington, Newburyport and Salem (MA), and in New London (CT) and Newport (RI) contain splendid examples of gravestone art.


The literature produced in the colonies in the 17C and 18C consisted primarily of histories and religious writings. The History of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford , governor of Plimoth Plantation between 1621 and 1657, remains one of the principal records of this period.

Coming of age

In the 19C a literature distinctly American emerged in New England. The transcendentalist movement gained popularity under the leadership of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) recounts his life in the woods in Walden (1854). Louisa May Alcott (1832-88) became famous for her novel Little Women. Other writers included Nathaniel Hawthorne (1806-64), author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables , and Herman Melville (1819-91), who wrote Moby Dick in 1851 while living in the Berkshires. Hartford resident Mark Twain (1835-1910)was a master of the new regional literature. His most popular works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) , portrayed life on the Mississippi River. In 1828 Noah Webster (1758-1843), a native of New Haven, published the first American Dictionary of the English Language .


In the 20C the American theater won international acclaim through the works of playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953). New England was the setting for his Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beyond the Horizon. OtherNew England authors include native-born John P. Marquand, Kenneth Roberts, William Dean Howells and Jack Kerouac as well as writers who adopted New England as their second home, including Edith Wharton, Pearl Buck, Norman Mailer, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Harvard graduate John Updike , perhaps best known for his novels Rabbit Run and Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) , moved to Ipswich in the 1960s. He used New England as thesetting for much of his later fiction, including The Witches of Eastwick (1984). Best-selling author Stephen King , a master of the horror genre, was born in Portland. The prolific writer has used New England, and in particular Maine, as the background for many of his short stories and novels, such as Salem’s Lot . Former New Hampshire resident Bill Bryson has attracted more attention to the popular Appalachian Trail with his humorous best-seller A Walk in the Woods (1998).


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), born in Portland, was one of the most widely read poets of his day. Emily Dickinson (1830-86), an Amherst resident, wrote verses rich in lyricism and sensitivity. Known for his poems about nature, Robert Frost (1874-1963) lived on a farm in New Hampshire from 1901 to 1909, and later spent his summers in Vermont. The poetry of E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), a native of Cambridge, is distinguished by his unconventional use of typography and punctuation. Another New England-born poet whose work has made a significant impact on modern poetry is Robert Lowell (1917-77).

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