GROTON -- Sitting behind the reference counter at the Groton Public Library, Ann Wilson lifted her eyes once in a while toward the painting of a mother and two sons spending quiet time in what appears to be a living room.

The intimate family moment and the gentle smiles depicted in the painting, Margery, Edmund and Daniel, warm her heart whenever she looks at them, said Wilson, the library's adult-programming coordinator. It's a feeling that those hurrying by the wall may never understand. But some library patrons stop and ponder.

A few exclaim: "Do you know how valuable this is?"

"Yes, I know," Owen Shuman used to tell them before retiring as the library's director last year.

The painting is by famed Impressionist Edmund Tarbell.

He taught at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston as well as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. His work graces the walls of such institutions as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Worcester Art Museum.

Grotonians can now get inspiration from Tarbell's paintings hung at the library, the Town Clerk's Office at Town Hall and at RiverCourt Residences, an assisted-living facility in West Groton, thanks to his grandson's wish to have them enjoyed by the community that Tarbell called home.

Daniel Tarbell, Edmund's late grandson, never believed in locking up the treasured collection of his grandfather's work. He didn't want to see the art "converted to cash and disappearing into private collectors' trophy rooms," said Maggy Rhinelander, who serves as the sole trustee for the Tarbell Charitable Trust, which Daniel Tarbell established.

Daniel Tarbell contacted the Groton Public Library more than a decade ago and asked if it was interested in exhibiting Tarbell paintings, according to Shuman. She and several others then formed the Tarbell Committee. The members, all women, call themselves the "Tarbell Bells," said Selectwoman Anna Eliot, who serves on it.

The death of Daniel Tarbell -- who lived in New Castle, N.H., in the house that had once been his grandfather's studio -- was unexpected, Rhinelander said. Rhinelander consulted Shuman about how to best use the art collection left behind while honoring his wish to share it with the public. The Tarbell Committee then suggested displaying the artwork at various locations throughout the town.

That has so far afforded townspeople a chance to come away with a deep appreciation for art.

Library patrons may not know who painted the piece on the wall, but they know they like it. A few have asked if they could buy it, Wilson said.

Jeffrey Pike, technology services librarian, has also been walking up to the painting to examine the brushstrokes. Up close, they are tiny blotches of color, Pike said.

"It's only when I step back that they all resolve" to form the graceful images on the canvas, Pike said.

"Every time I turn the corner, I almost gasp because they are just so stunning," Vanessa Abraham, the library director, said of the painting and the accompanying sketches displayed.

The artwork has also brought the town's history closer to people.

Daniel Tarbell was 6 when his grandfather died, but remembered him well. He described the artist as a "kindly head-of-family figure" who never took his fame too seriously, Rhinelander said. Daniel often quoted Edmund saying, when seeing anyone take him too seriously: "What's a hog's time worth?"

Wilson also remembers one of Tarbell's grandsons, who is also named Edmund and is in the painting hung at the library, visiting the library years ago. Then in his 80s, he recalled posing for the painting for his grandfather, Wilson said.

Eliot calls the collection a "living legacy."

"To have this resource in town is a legacy that will always be appreciated," she said.

Follow Hiroko Sato on Twitter and Tout @satolowellsun.