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Published: November 12th 2015
New Britain Art Museum
Sculpture garden outside the museum
I must travel. Late last year the United States plunged into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and I must travel. Spending money should be the last thing on my mind right now, yet I must travel. Wanderlust can be a serious affliction sometimes. After much effort going through my (newly reduced) spending budget, I managed to squeeze out enough funds for a single week road trip.
With that time limit, whatever I saw needed to be relatively close. Going over maps, I remembered something I heard about last year. While staying at Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania, I learned about an incredibly difficult raft trip called the Upper Youghiogheny
. It features nearly continuous whitewater, so difficult it makes the Gauley look reasonable by comparison. After much contemplation, I decided to go for it. I wanted an experience so intense it would cover me the entire year, and this would certainly provide it.
The Upper Yough is located in western Maryland, which takes at least three days to reach by road. Given my schedule, that meant I would be restricted to seeing whatever sites I could find along the way. I ultimately found plenty. Yes, this trip lasted only
Hartford Atheneum, original building
The oldest art museum building in the United States still in use
a week, but what a week!
The day dawned dreary and overcast. The last two days featured continuous rain, and today’s forecast held plenty more. For a convertible owner, this feels like a vision of hell. The weather gods must have taken pity on me, because all those clouds held their moisture this morning, and I got to drop the top.
My goal for today was Hartford Connecticut. Most New Englanders view this city solely as a drab business center dominated by insurance companies. This reputation is unfortunate, because the place has a number of interesting sites. For art lovers, the city is well worth a day off the interstate.
I began at the Wadsworth Atheneum
. It’s the oldest art museum in the country still partially located in its original building. The building in question was built in 1824 and looks like an armory. The museum has expected twice since then; first into a Beaux-Arts beauty modeled after a Roman bath, and then into a modernist building from the early 1930s. Both expansions retain much of their original interiors, so walking through the museum feels like a tour though architectural history.
Hartford Atheneum, first expansion
Beaux Arts beauty added in the late 1800s
The Wadsworth collection holds a unique position within New England art museums. For a decade in the 1930s, the museum was led by an adventurous young directory named Chick Austin
. At a time when other museums in the region became quite conservative, he bought the most adventurous art he could find. The Wadsworth holds more modern art from the era than any other New England museum, including some special collections found nowhere else.
One of Chick Austin’s most far-sighted acquisitions formed the core of a special exhibit that was worth the price of admission, the centenary of the Ballets Russes
. Founded by Serge Diaghilev in St. Petersburg in 1909, for the next 20 years they performed daring advent guarde ballet that was the sensation (and scandal) of Europe. Among others, George Balanchine
spent his early career working for Diaghilev. After the Communist Revolution, the company became exiles from their own country and moved to Paris.
One of the less appreciated aspect of the dance company, and the one the Wadsworth exhibit emphasizes, was their relationship with modern artists
. Every significant artist of the era, from Georgio de Chirchio
to Pablo Picasso
, was commissioned to design sets and costumes. One of the company's main dancers religiously kept copies of
Stegosaurus by Alexander Calder
Calder sculpture next to the Hartford Atheneum
the design sketches, photographs, and many costumes. Chick Austin ultimately acquired this material; its fragility means it rarely appears in public.
The exhibit displays the material thematically. The choreographer would create a story or theme for the ballet, and then the artists would design to match. Picasso produced blocky costumes that appeared like a cubist sculpture brought to life. Henri Matisse created austere costumes covered in cutout patterns. Giorgio De Chirico created surreal outfits very much akin to his paintings. Some of the displays contain films of the final ballets, which look as far from the Nutcracker as one can imagine.
Chick Austin’s second landmark collection was Surrealism
. In the 1930s in the US, the movement was considered to be strange trash and few museums would touch it. Austin bought it eagerly, and the Wadsworth now has the largest museum collection in the US.
The large amount of work means that only a small amount is on view at any one time, which is always frustrating. I still saw such key paintings as “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach” by Salvadore Dali
, which is simultaneously a painting of a fruit dish, a face, a dog,
A sample of the New Britain Art Museum's famous art furniture, in the courtyard
and a beach scene. It also had “La Rose des Quatres Vents” by Yves Tanguy
, a cityscape as seen in some nightmare.
The Wadsworth’s final standout collection holds art by African Americans
. The museum was one of the first in the country to collect such art as a serious subject. Connecticut may seem like an unexpected place for it, but remember that this state was one of the first to abolish slavery and was a hotbed of emancipation efforts afterward. Harriet Beecher Stowe
wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while living near Hartford.
The rooms were divided into two exhibits, the first a historical survey and the second focused on Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago this year. The highlight of the latter was a portrait of Lincoln composed entirely of pennies. The historic work mostly followed a blend of folk art and prevailing trends with African-American themes. Starting in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II African art influenced American art more heavily, and African heritage started to be emphasized in the work.
The Athenaeum has a small but select Impressionism collection. For a long time, it was housed in an exhibit that tried to place it within the context of
New Britain Art Museum
Sculpture garden outside the museum
its time. That area was being renovated, so the art was moved to a more generic "European art of the late 1800's" display. The show included one of Claude Monet’s late water lilies
, a Van Gogh
self portrait, a portrait of Monet painting by Renoir, the last portrait of his wife that Renoir
painted, and a picture of trees by Cezanne
. I wanted more.
The final collection I saw surveyed the history of American Art from colonial times to World War II. The works are presented mostly chronologically, and they are through. I should have expected that most of the colonial paintings would be by or about Connecticut residents. They lead to Hudson River School
landscapes, including a near obligatory picture of Niagara Falls by John Trumbull
. American Impressionism
was popular in Connecticut so this show has a number of examples, including one of Ernest Lawson’s characteristic paintings of the Hudson River in winter. This section also includes a very unusual impressionist portrait of an infant by John Singer Sargent
, which I first thought was by Mary Casset! It finishes with modernist paintings from the 1920s, including Midi by Stuart Davis
The Hudson River School section contains what some consider the most important picture in the state, the Charter Oak
The original headquarters of Travelers Insurance, across from the Hartford Atheneum
1687, the royal Governor conveyed a meeting of the colonial legislature in a Hartford tavern at night. At this meeting, he announced that King James II had dissolved the colony's charter, and would now be ruling directly though the Governor. He then demanded that the colony's copy of the charter be handed over. At this point, the door to the tavern mysteriously opened, and the wind blew out all the candles. When they were relit, the charter was gone. The Governor launched a huge search to find it, but came up empty.
After the American Revolution, the story of what happened came out. Members of the Sons of Liberty had opened the tavern door, and then stolen the charter in the darkness. They hid it in a large hollow oak tree on the properly of a leading legislator. This tree became known as the Charter Oak, and within Connecticut still symbolizes the defense of liberty. Its descendents now grow in every corner of the state.
A year after the tree died in 1856, Charles De Wolf Brownell painted its picture. The wood of the tree was then used to create an elaborate carved frame around the painting. This picture was later donated to the Athenaeum, and has hung there ever since.
The Stadium that Almost Was
My drive out of Hartford passed the city’s new convention center along the river. It sits near a large and unattractive power plant with a sign reading Trigon Energy. It doesn’t look like much, but anyone who lives in a city with a professional sports team, particularly an NFL team, owns them a huge debt of gratitude.
The 1990s were a strange period in the NFL, with several teams changing cities and many more threatening to. The common factor in all cases: a new stadium built at taxpayer expense. In 1997 the New England Patriots decided it was their turn for public largesse. They played in a concrete dump worse than some high school stadiums. Shocking everyone, the Massachusetts legislature refused to play along.
That opened the door for Connecticut governor John Rowland, who quickly made a deal to bring the team to Hartford
. The state capitol would now be a Major League City and no longer an afterthought. When the price came out, people downright revolted. In return for moving the team would get a new stadium at taxpayer expense that they would own in all but name, plus a subsidy (through premium ticket guarantees) of 30 million dollars a year. Think about that for a second, THIRTY MILLION DOLALRS of Connecticut taxpayer money directly to a private business already worth billions, every single year!
The NFL owners soon discovered that while the public was willing to swallow most stadium deals, they had their limits. This deal so flagrantly crossed them the entire gig was exposed as basically legalized extortion. Quickly, the NFL and Boston leaders scrambled for a way to scuttle Rowland’s contract and keep the team in the Boston area.
Ultimately, Trigon Energy provided it. The contract required the state to assemble the stadium land within a certain time period. When Trigon fought the plans to buy out their plant, it gave the NFL the out they needed
. The Patriots built a new stadium near Boston that they and the NFL financed themselves. More new stadiums have been built since, and most have been done with private money. An era of expensive public outlays was over. As for Governor Roland, he was later convicted of unrelated corruption charges
and sent to prison. Thanks Trigon!
New Britain Museum of American Art
I finished at the Athenaeum early enough to fit in the area’s other major art sight, the New Britain Museum of American Art
. It’s located in an old industrial city that has long been absorbed by the Hartford suburbs. The museum is small enough to be toured completely in a few hours, which makes it a nice complement to the larger Athenaeum.
The museum lays out its collection roughly chronologically. Much of it consists of lesser known work by big names, with a few standout exceptions. The most important is the American Impressionists
. After Impressionism from France became popular in the United States, American artists decided to jump on the trend. While basically derivative, some brilliant artists worked in the style and they produced beautiful paintings. Connecticut was one of the movement’s centers, so the museum has a standout collection. Paintings include Le Jour du Grand Prix by Childe Hassam
, Under Gray Skies by Guy Wiggins, and Mountain Laurel by Willard Leroy Metcalf.
The American Scene collection has another highlight, the Thomas Heat Benton
murals. In 1936, the newly founded Whitney American Art Museum in New York commissioned Benton to paint a series of murals illustrating the “Arts of Life in America
”. He produced a series of realistic paintings filled with scenes both celebrating and satirizing American culture of the time.
Three decades later, Whitney curators viewed the murals as outdated, so when the museum moved to a larger building they sold the paintings. New Britain got half of them. Much of the iconography makes little sense to modern viewers, so the display has wall texts placing them in the context of their time. Westerners sing and gamble, Southerners pray, and Eastern financiers act like common street thugs in much nicer suits (come to think of it, that last one is once again rather accurate).
The most unusual items in the sculpture collection must be the art benches. Most museums have benches in their galleries so visitors can rest their feet. New Britain took the concept much further by commissioning contemporary sculptors to design benches for the galleries. Most work quite well as both benches and artworks. The best one for me is a fairly realistic sculpture of a grizzly bear whose body was elongated to form the bench, Grizzly Bench
by Judy Kensley McKie. If I had an unlimited budget, I would buy a copy for my apartment.
The contemporary rooms hold the museum’s most notable work. A huge mural takes up half a wall. Its center section features two tall, nearly naked men who are blindfolded with red cloth. They are screaming. On the left side, children play with toy airplanes. On the right side, dying old men are bound with the same red cloth. The figures are surrounded by a vista of destroyed buildings, shredded financial statements, and urban detritus. The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy
is Graydon Parrish’s memorial to the World Trade Center victims who died on 9/11/2001, and it works beautifully. For me it’s worth the price of admission.
After the art museum, I had the long drive west on Interstate 84 to Pennsylvania. This highway tends to be slow and boring even on its good days, and now the skies opened up. I was very glad when I finally put it behind me.
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