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The American Artist in Connecticut: The Legacy of the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection

July 2, 2002 - June 23, 2003


The Summer of 2002 is a season of "firsts" for the Florence Griswold Museum. On July 2 the Museum will open the Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery, Connecticut's newest cultural facility. The inaugural exhibition for the 9,500 square foot riverfront art gallery is The American Artist in Connecticut: The Legacy of The Hartford Steam Boiler Collection, which features selections from the collection of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. In an unprecedented act of philanthropy, the company gave its entire holding of American art -- 188 paintings and two sculptures -- to the Museum last spring. Visitors to the exhibition, on view through June 22, 2003, will be the first to view this newly public collection. The American Artist in Connecticut showcases the importance that Connecticut artists played in American art history with over 80 works from the collection. (left: Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Isle of Shoals, 1906, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 1/4 inches, Florence Griswold Museum, 92.5)


Landmark Collection

The Hartford Steam Boiler Collection is highly regarded within the museum field. "It is truly one of America's landmark collections, the kind that can put a museum on the map," noted Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. New museums have been started with collections of this significance, and its stature is matched by its strong focus. The collection concentrates entirely on works by American artists who lived or worked in Connecticut and spans a period of approximately 150 years from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.

The Florence Griswold Museum was chosen because of its commitment to promoting Connecticut's artistic heritage. The Museum is on the site of what was a thriving boarding house for artists at the turn of the 20th century. Noted Impressionists such as Childe Hassam, Matilda Browne, and Willard Metcalf transformed Florence Griswold's stately Late Georgian house into the home of the Lyme Art Colony. Inspired by the beauty of the New England countryside and charmed by Miss Florence's gracious hospitality, the Colony flourished for three decades, creating a vital chapter in American art. A particular strength of the Hartford Steam Boiler collection centers on the state's key role as a center of American Impressionism, with. major works by John Henry Twachtman, J. AIden Weir, and Childe Hassam, among others. The gift, together with the Museum's current holdings, forges one of the foremost collections of Impressionism in America and, with 22 examples, the Museum now has the largest collection of Willard Metcalf paintings in the world. (right: Edward F. Rook, Laurel, c. 1905-10, oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 50 1/4, Florence Griswold Museum, 86.8)

The collection also greatly expands the breadth of the Museum's holdings with examples by many of America's leading artists, such as Ralph Earl, Frederic Church, Milton Avery and other artists who excelled before and after the Impressionist period. William H. Gerdts, the leading scholar in the field of American Impressionism and author of the landmark three-volume Art Across America, commented, "The merging of these two collections will provide the historical background of earlier Connecticut art while at the same time strengthen the great focus already present at the Griswold, namely, the flowering of American Impressionism. No lover of American art can afford to miss a visit to Old Lyme."


A New Center for American Art

The building of the Krieble Gallery contributed to Hartford Steam Boiler's decision to donate its entire fine arts collection to the Florence Griswold Museum. The Museum broke ground on the complex in October 2000. Designed by Centerbrook Architects, recipient of the 1998 AIA Firm of the Year Award, the gallery accommodates exhibition space, collection storage, visitor amenities, and a new museum shop. Overlooking the Lieutenant River, near where many of Miss Florence's boarders set up their easels and painted the marshy coastline, this modern facility draws upon the Museum's unique setting and history. Visitors enter under a rippling anodized aluminum canopy, which echoes the tidal river just beyond. Flowering vines scaling stainless steel arbors provide verdant contrast to the smooth white building and pay homage to Miss Florence's lush gardens. Recognizing the importance of sunlight to the Impressionist painters, the curvilinear connecting walls reflect sunlight, cast shadows, and create an airy, welcoming effect. Inside, specially designed skylights allow visitors to experience the artwork in an ambient natural light. (right: John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), East Rock, New Haven, c. 1901, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 44 1/2 inches, Florence Griswold Museum, 85.20)


The Inaugural Exhibition

The new facility will be devoted entirely to The American Artist in Connecticut, a year-long exhibition of over 80 masterworks from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection. The exhibition showcases the breadth and diversity of the arts in Connecticut. Because of its wealth of subject material and its close proximity to New York and Boston, the state has offered noted artists a place to live and work for over 200 years. Examples of early American portraiture, intimate landscape views, genre and still life paintings of the Victorian era, and nostalgic Impressionist scenes of the new century are all represented in this exhibition. Brought together, they show how artists responded to society's changing values and concerns.


Portraiture in Early Connecticut

Following the American Revolution, the state was a lively region for portraiture, led by Ralph Earl and his followers who established what is now known as the "Connecticut School" of portrait painters. These artists toned down the elegant English style of portrait painting with a mix of primitive elements to give their no nonsense New England patrons the look of virtue, character, and industry they sought. One of the most prolific and inventive American folk painters was Ammi Phillips. Phillips' striking Portrait of Katherine Salisbury Newkirk Hickok, c. 1825, confirms why his work has become among the most sought after in the folk art field. On view with the large scale portraits are examples of miniatures by Mary Way, one of the earliest professional women artists in America. She specialized in miniature watercolor portraits on paper or silk which she usually "dressed" with glued or stitched-on cloth.


Discovering the Connecticut Landscape

During the 19th century, Connecticut was enlivened by the presence of Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole and John Frederick Kensett. For the most part, the state's gentle landscape, where wilderness had long given way to farms and villages, was ignored by these artists for more rugged, sprawling vistas. It wasn't until after the Civil War, when the concept of "home" became valued as never before, that Connecticut's domesticated landscape began to have charm to artists. Ralph Waldo Emerson and other philosophers of the day wrote idealistically of man's individuality and his role in nature. In response, landscape artists of the late 19th century celebrated Connecticut's peaceful, unpretentious countryside. Artists in Connecticut began painting more intimate scenes from a closer perspective than their earlier, sweeping views. Fences and cows, white church spires, dirt roads, and old houses became subjects. Frederic Church's The Charter Oak at Hartford, one of the best known works from this collection, depicts Connecticut's iconic tree symbolically branching out over common farmland. (left: Charles H. Davis (1856-1933), Summer Uplands, n.d., oil on canvas, 36 x 29 inches, Florence Griswold Museum, 86.12)


Painters of Everyday Life

Americans were increasingly enjoying leisure activities by the late 19th century. Still life specialists and genre painters, those who painted scenes from everyday life, portrayed these activities. Hartford artists Charles Ethan Porter, an African-American who was admired as a painter of fruits and flowers, and Gurdon Trumbull, who portrayed fish desperately trying to escape a fisherman's lures, received much acclaim. Widespread interest in gardening and enthusiasm for the relatively new sport of fishing made such subject matter attractive.

Children and women were frequent subjects of genre paintings. Edwin White's Fisher Boy depicts a young man and his dog preparing for a fishing trip. American women of the Victorian era were seen as gentler than their Colonial counterparts, with more time for art and literature. William Lippincott's watercolor Summer Afternoon, Morris, Connecticut, shows two young women reading and painting out of doors, pursuing the recreational and educational pursuits recommended for women of that era.


Connecticut and American Impressionism

At the end of the 19th century, Connecticut became a major center for American Impressionists who found inspiration in its gentle cultivated landscape and picturesque shoreline. Many leading American Impressionists created some of their greatest works in Connecticut. The artists who loaded paint boxes and easels onto trains in New York City for the short ride to Connecticut were fleeing the city at a time of enormous change. They found spiritual refreshment in Connecticut's domesticated landscape and reassurance in the enduring Yankee values of community and rural life.

These artists trained in the best European schools and were inspired by painters as diverse as Hals, Velasquez, Miller, Manet, and Monet, as well as Whistler and the printmakers of Japan. Selecting and modifying freely, they sought to capture not so much a moment as the character and mood of a place lived in but unsullied by humankind Working in the open air, they flooded their canvases with light, heightened their colors, brushed them broadly, and often abandoned altogether techniques that had for centuries given the illusion of solidity and depth. (right: Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), Thawing Brook (Winter Shadows), 1911, oil on canvas, 26 x 29 inches, Florence Griswold Museum, 83.3)

The American Artist in Connecticut features the art of the Cos Cob and Mystic Art Colonies as well as artists working in the Hartford area. The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the artists of the Lyme Art Colony. Due to the national attention these artists attracted and their consistent sales, the Colony became one of the best known in America. A signature painting in the collection is Childe Hassam's Summer Evening. The subject, a contemplative woman looking out from her window onto a field, is a recurring theme in Hassam's work and suggests the fascination he and other American Impressionists had for representing women in light-filled ethereal settings.

Accompanying the exhibition will be a 96-page illustrated catalogue written by Museum Director Jeffrey Andersen and consulting curator Hildy Cummings.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Florence Griswold Museum.in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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