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Earlier this month, I spent an afternoon at the Portland Art Museum, and I was delighted by this oasis of art. Around every corner there was a new masterpiece to enjoy… So to help you navigate your way through this museum, here are my top 10 picks for the must-see pieces.

1: Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Francesco Granacci, 1495


Okay, I’ll admit it; I’m biased. Francesco Granacci was one of Michelangelo’s closest friends (Granacci helped the sculptor become an apprentice to Ghirlandaio when they were young AND later traveled to Rome to help Michelangelo paint the Sistine ceiling). Granacci plays a major part in my novel, Oil and Marble, so I got a special thrill from finding him in Portland… When you visit this work, look around the rest of the room — the museum houses a lovely collection of Renaissance paintings.

2: Waterlilies by Claude Monet, 1914-1915


Monet’s Waterlilies always transport the viewer to a faraway place — no matter where you experience them. But the pieces in Portland are particularly beautiful. The blues and greens are bright and arresting. I could practically hear the water tinkling in the background, smell the grassy moss and muck, and feel Monet wading up alongside me in his boots, out for a day to capture a moment of water and light.

3: The Grand Canal, Venice by Thomas Moran, 1899


This painting is positively luminescent in person. Even from across the room, it pulls you in. And up close, the view is even more rewarding. You feel transported to Venice by this jewel of a painting. Moran was an American painter (born in England) and he captures the beauty of Venice like any traveller — enamored by its water, color and atmosphere.

4: Monkey Reaching for the Moon in the Water from Japan, 16th/17th century


This Zen Buddhist scroll encapsulates why I love art: it’s beautiful, has a certain imperfect humanness about it, and helps us understand — or at least question– ourselves. In this painting, a long-armed monkey reaches for a moon, reflected in the water. Is it foolish to strive for a moon that is not the moon, the painting asks. Or is that enlightenment?

5: The Known Soldier by David Garcia, 2016 (on display June 3 – August 26, 2017)

This statue not a permanent part of the collection, so get there this summer to see it.  I’m as guilty as anyone of motoring through a museum, hunting for masterpieces, but this sculpture made me stop. It forced me to sit for a moment and contemplate our world… and my own heart. I included the artist’s statement above — I couldn’t say it better.

6: Number 12 by Jackson Pollock, 1950


This is not a large-scale piece — unlike other Pollock drip paintings — but a small canvas. Almost like an intimate portrait. I love that this smaller size pulled me in close; other Pollocks are always always so large that I feel like I have to stand back to grasp it all… but this one encouraged a personal approach, all the better to contemplate the unexpected and unpredictable movements of man.

7: The Seine at Argenteuil by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1874


Renoir used to visit his friend Claude Monet up in Argenteuil — a suburb in northwest of Paris — where the two of them would paint the Seine together. I love this particular piece, not because I’m foolish enough to believe that the two men depicted in the painting are actually Renoir and Monet, but because my heart chooses to believe it. Plus, this was painted in 1874 — the year when Renoir, Monet and other friends all exhibited together outside of the Paris Salon for the first time and picked up the moniker: “The Impressionists.”

8: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara from China, 13th/14th century


The museum has an impressive — and growing — Chinese collection, but this rather large Bodhisattva is truly arresting, even though the paint which would have originally colored the 500-year old wood faded long ago (and her right arm was damaged and awkwardly replaced). This particular Bodhisattva represents compassion and is sometimes known as the “Goddess of Mercy.”

9: Charrette de Boeuf (The Ox Cart) by Vincent Van Gogh, 1884


There’s a possibility that I’ll just go starry-eyed over ANY Van Gogh, but there’s more to this painting than just that. It’s an early work — he’s only been using oils for about three years and hasn’t yet made it to the south of France where he would paint all of his most famous pieces — but I still feel his HEART in this painting, don’t you? The hunched back, wobbly knees, the eyes of that ox… somehow I still feel Vincent shining brightly even amongst all this darkness.

10: Mount Hood by Childe Hassam, 1908


Every time I see a Childe Hassam, I fall a little bit more in love. This work isn’t as colorful as many of his others, but I love the pink sky and the feel of the thing. He was from the crowded northeast (Boston and New York), so I love seeing him capture this open landscape. I saved it for last because if you’re going to visit a local museum, you might as well appreciate some local scenery — Mt. Hood is a volcano in the Cascades, just two hours outside of Portland.


I skipped a TON of great pieces. What are YOUR favorite works at PAM?