Lake Painting by Vivian Milner Akers
This American Impressionist oil-on-artist’s-board captures an intimate slice of nature: a shoreline with birches and aspens in the foreground and a lake beyond.
The scene is Pennesseewassee Lake in the western Maine town of Norway, but it evokes shoreline settings common in lake regions all across the northeastern United States.
The painting (sight size: 13.5″ w x 16.5″ h; frame size: 19.5″ w x 22.25″) was created by Norway, Maine native son Vivian Milner Akers (1886-1966) in 1943.
Akers often painted en plein air and this painting captures the vibrancy of the living landscape he likely was looking at as he painted. The textured surface created with lively sweeps of a brush and painting knife that left thickened areas of paint also contribute to a sense of movement in the trees, sky and water.
The scenery around Pennesseewassee Lake has been prized by locals and visitors for many generations, and has been featured on photo postcards since the early 1900s:
It is still a scenic and popular lake. We visited there in September 2019 and took this photograph from the boat launch:
Akers painted different scenes along this 5-mile long lake lake many times. It is fair to say that for him, this lake was a muse.
While Akers’ artistic development and inspiration were rooted in Maine, he was also quite worldly and benefited tremendously through associations with other gifted and notable artists, within and beyond his home state.
About Akers: An Artist from Childhood Onward
Akers was a multi-talented artist his entire life. He once commented about being given a box of pastels by a neighbor when he was five years old that “Miss Hatch thought she was presenting me only a gift. In reality she was founding a career.”
At the age of 19, Akers went to New York for about a year where he took courses at the Art Students League. He did this with the sponsorship of a prominent Norway native who recognized the young Akers’ talent, and who lived and worked in New York City for Joseph Pulitzer as business manager for his newspaper the New York World.
This began a life-long pattern in which Akers would leave Maine periodically for work and study with the help of prominent sponsors who were often people who summered in Maine’s western mountains and lakes region. But after periods living and studying elsewhere, Akers always returned to live and work in his hometown of Norway.
Akers’ father also recognized the boy’s budding talent and offered to support him for a few years to focus on his art after he graduated from a local post-secondary academy in 1908. Akers built a “shack” in his family’s apple orchard to serve as a studio where he worked diligently for 4 years solely on his art.
Akers then taught school briefly before becoming a commercial photographer, purchasing a photography business and studio in Norway in 1914. In 1929 he had the photography studio moved 50’ off Norway’s Main Street, and after several upgrades to the building he made it into both his home and studio for the rest of his life.
Akers seems to have made a living primarily from photography until about 1935, while also continuing to paint and develop his additional artistic skills.
Relationships with Rusticators: Artistic Opportunities and Influences
The western Maine region around Norway is graced with numerous beautiful lakes and mountains that attracted city dwellers beginning in the rusticator heyday of the mid- to late-19th century.
These seasonal residents included prominent artists who influenced Akers, as well as well-to-do families who purchased his artwork and decorative embellishment services.
One lasting influence on Akers was the painter John Joseph Enneking (1841-1916), who is known as America’s first Impressionist. He had a summer home in North Newry, Maine not far from Akers’ home town of Norway.
Although Enneking had settled in Boston after being held prisoner by the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he went to Europe in 1872 to study painting. While living in Paris from 1873-1876 he painted alongside Monet and Pissaro in Monet’s garden, and also mingled with Millet, Corot, Renoir and Manet. Enneking’s Impressionist style is evident in artwork he produced of the New England countryside once he had settled back in the U.S.
As a young man, Akers was impressed with Enneking, stating in a newspaper interview that “Enneking is the first man I ever saw painting Maine in colors as Maine really looks.”
He was influenced by Enneking to experiment with an Impressionist style. Akers even chose an iconic Impressionist subject—waterlilies—for several paintings.
In 1930, as Akers continued to hone his landscape painting skills, he was hired by a wealthy rusticator family (the Vivians, who were perhaps Akers’ relatives since his mother’s last name was Vivian) to decorate a bunkhouse in their Penneseewassee Lake cottage compound. He painted a huge 4’ x 8’ map of the lake to hang over the room’s fireplace.
Akers also trimmed the bunkhouse with original wood carvings, a skill he had been practicing since the 1920s, in part by embellishing his own home studio with carved doors, paneling and handmade furniture.
Another opportunity-maker for Akers was Douglas Volk (1856-1935), a renowned portrait artist and rusticator who had purchased a home in 1898 on Kezar Lake in Lovell, Maine, nearby to Norway. Douglas and his wife Marion Volk, a textile artist, established an artists’ colony which is still active today, at their home on the lake which they called “Hewnoaks.”
Akers interacted with the Volks, as well as with the many artists who visited and produced artworks at Hewnoaks. This included prominent artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement such as painters Frank Benson, John Calvin Stevens, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and the woodcarver Karl A. von Rydingsvärd.
While Akers gravitated naturally to landscape painting, with encouragement from Volk he also developed skills as a portrait painter, which was a natural progression from his work as a portrait photographer.
Akers recounted that he typically took up to 50 photographic studies of a person whose portrait he was to paint “to study the person as I could not in any other way.”
In 1934 Akers opened a portrait painting studio in Plainfield, New Jersey for a few years, encouraged by one of Norway’s rusticator families from the New York City area. A 1936 newspaper article reported that Akers had painted 54 portraits since moving to New Jersey, and “his compensation for each…has run well into three figures.”
One of the portraits Akers painted, showing a girl with his own cat, was selected in 1936 for display in New York’s National Academy of Design 1936 show.
Akers’ portrait work culminated in 1954 with a commission to paint a portrait of Chief Justice Earl Warren, which now hangs in a 40” x 50” frame (also made by Akers), at Occidental College (Warren’s alma mater).
While Akers’ interest in wood carving began in the 1920s when the Arts and Crafts movement had many followers in the United States, it extended into his later career as well, as he applied his carving skills to making picture frames.
Akers reportedly started making frames in the 1930s under the influence of the well-known Pennsylvania Arts & Crafts master frame maker, Frederick Harer. It is surmised that Akers met Harer while Akers was living and working in New Jersey, and some Norway residents recalled that Akers made frames for Harer’s workshop for a time. Akers went on to make hand-carved frames for many of his own paintings for the rest of his career.
Akers always had a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle as he pursued his art, with travels made possible through connections with influential people who summered in Norway. For instance, the rusticator Vivian family recruited friends within their New York social circle to underwrite Akers’ painting trips to places such as Switzerland and California’s Sierra Mountains in exchange for receiving some of the paintings he produced in those locales.
Over the years Akers exhibited his paintings in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But one of his largest and final exhibits was in Maine in 1949, fittingly in the town where he was born. At the Universalist Church in his hometown of Norway, he showed over 200 paintings (both landscapes and portraits), a large carved panel, and 68 very small (about 7” square) landscapes painted on hardwood, a style that he had begun creating in the 1930s.
Akers died in 1966 at the age of 79 in the place he loved best: Norway, Maine.
People young and old throughout the town fondly remembered Akers’ kindness and generosity.
Those personal qualities, as well as the many paintings owned by families who recognized his multiple artistic talents in his lifetime and in the decades since, are his lasting legacy.
Several photos and most of the biographical details in this article are derived from the monograph titled “Vivian Akers of Norway, Maine, 1886-1966 A Brief Biography” by David Sanderson. Written for The Norway Summer Festival, June 2004.
Pierce Galleries, online artist biography of John Joseph Enneking, piercegalleries.com.