Situated in the downtown of Hartford, CT the Wadsworth Atheneum is one of the oldest museums in the United States as well as one of the most overlooked. To ignore this collection because of its rundown urban location is to miss one of the great cultural gems of New England.
Founded by arts patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) as a home for his collection of Hudson River School paintings (bought directly from the artists themselves), the collection later went on to have such illustrious patrons as Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, J.P. Morgan and the Aetna Insurance Company. Some of the finest Impressionist paintings ever produced may be seen here in galleries almost devoid of visitors. Parking is not a problem.
A second version of a now lost work by the artist that made front page news of the New York Evening Post on November 22, 1825, this composition and several like it launched Cole's career and that of the Hudson River School just as the Erie Canal opened.
In an era before pure landscape became the norm, artists made a living painting history, allegory and scenes from popular literature. "Last of the Mohicans" takes place during the French and Indian War, particularly around Lake George, a vital portage between Lake Champlain and the equally strategic Hudson River Valley. A prequel as it were to Burgoyne's disaster at Saratoga, a generation later.
Wadsworth founded this museum, the last great cultural bastion of Hartford, and while alive he was Cole's greatest patron and almost as an after thought, in 1844, he recommended that a friend's son (Joseph Church) send young Frederic Church to study under Cole.
Sent by his father Joseph Church to study under Cole in 1844 at the age of eighteen, it was twenty year old Frederic Church who sent this as his first contribution to the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1846.
A relative of Trinity College founder Thomas Church Brownell (like his kinsman Frederic Church), neither wanted to go into the insurance business and opted for the life of a painter.
The ancient tree depicted here was allegedly the site where the colony of Connecticut's charter was hidden from over zealous representatives of King James II, who wanted to revoke the numerous colonial charters and consolidate New England into a singe colony. The tree finally succomed to old age and a thunder storm in the late 1850's. Numerous relics around Hartford were carved from its wood, including the frame for this canvas.
While other artists painted the eastern seaboard, German born and New Bedford raised Albert Bierstadt made a career of applying European honed skills to the vanshing frontier of the American west. His canvases could be as splendid as Church, but his studies of native American life remain the last record of many tribes soon to be decimated by small pox and a changing way of life. The advent of the railroad and barbed wire were going to be fatal to the Buffalo, the major supplier of both food and clothing for the native nomads of the American plains.
A native of Cheshire, CT Kensett got to Niagara before Church, but never achieved the fame from this subject the way his more bombastic contemporary achieved, especially with the one now on display in Washington, DC.
A larger painting by the artist from the Canadian side is one of the centerpieces of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Best known for his haunting views of eastern salt marshes the inclusion of gremlins as a trompe l'oiel illusion were suggested to be a practical joke played on Heade by his close friend Frederic Church.
One of the largest known works ever painted by the artist, it is remarkable for its size, while its composition is simple, a reduced scale of man versus nature.
Born in Lowell, Mass and the son of a military engineer, Whistler was expelled from West Point and elected to go abroad to study art. In London and Paris he became active with the dissidents of the era, he could never resist an arguement, and as such was influential in the advancement of the Barbzon generation into the Impressionists. The critical event for that was the Salon de Refuses, a state sponsored exhibition for the avante guard artists denied acceptance by the official salon.
Until the outbreak of the Franco Prussian War, Claude Monet toiled as an artist in poverty and obscurity, but in the chaos of war, a chance meeting of Parisian exiles in London, between the artist and dealer Paul Durand Ruel, saved Monet's career. This was one of the paintings Durand Ruel bought because he recognized a spark of genius.
One of the most important French Impressionist works ever created, and likely included in every serious book on the subject beginning with John Rewald's opus, "The History of Impressionism", reading about it or seeing a photo is one thing, seeing it in person is entirely different. Paintings like this one are on of the rare strategic advantages a city like Hartford has over WIlliamstown, Massachusetts. Someday a lightbulb will go off at Trinity College of Hartford and they just might say, "Hey, maybe we should build an annex for the Wadsworth on or next to the Trinity campus."
A rare pupil of Claude Monet, the French artist loathed his native critics, and allowed a circle of American painters such as Robinson, Theodore Butler, WIllard Metcalf and John Singer Sargent to become his closest artistic friends once the Impressionist exhibitions had finally run their course. Theodore Butler actually married Monet's step daughter.
One art historian mentioned to this writer that he thought this may be wrong. There is a subtle code to van Gogh authenticity. In his letter to his brother Theo he wrote of his paintings being taken off the stretchers and stored in rolls. Consequently, the thick pigments dried in this compressed state. The lead curator for the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Louis von Tilborgh, terms this facet of condition, "Impacted impasto" and it can't be faked. When visiting Hartford and looking at this painting in person, look at his tie and lapels, impacted impasto!!!
This is right as rain.
The hat aside, the most merit worthy object of mention in this work is the mobile by Alexander Calder.
In dating a Calder, the earliest examples are the most important with those being made of wood the rarest of all. Later in his career he could afford riveted steel, but these early works have a unique charm all to their own.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
600 Main Street Hartford CT, 06103
Wednesday, Thursday & Friday: 11 am – 5 pm
Saturday & Sunday: 10 am – 5 pm
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