James Britton: Connecticut Artist

By Nancy Stula

 



 

(abovve: James Britton, Self Portrait, Hartford, 1929, oil on canvas, 30 x 35 1/2 inches. Private collection)

 

Much as I have tried to forget Hartford, I never have quite been able to do so. After all, a native place has its claims. ... During the years when I lived in New York it seemed as though my nearby native Connecticut must be a far away mythical sort of place. [1]
 

James Britton was a Connecticut artist. Born on Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford on February 20, 1878, Britton received his first training as an artist in the Hartford studio of Charles Noel Flagg (1848-1916). He briefly moved to New York City in 1895 where he studied at the Art Students' League and worked at Scribner's Magazine, however, within the year he found himself back home in Hartford. He wrote in his autobiography:

When I saw the tall wooden partitions [at the Connecticut League of Artists], the brilliant arc lamps burning, and the students bending over their drawing boards in the antique room and standing at their easels in the life class, everything I had seen of art classes in New York -- the National Academy and George DeForest Brush's class in the Art Students' League -- seemed pretty small. I went back to the big city feeling sorry for it that little Hartford could surpass it in this particular.[2]

Britton spent this early period in his career living in Hartford and, later, in Farmington. He was very active in the art circles in the greater Hartford area: he worked as a staff artist for the Hartford Times in 1898. In 1910, while working as the art critic for the Hartford Courant Britton, along with Connecticut artists Henry C. White (1861-1952) Robert Brandegee (1848-1922), Charles Noel Flagg, among others, founded the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts.

James Britton began writing his autobiography in 1935, the year before his death. In it he noted:

With all the lures held out in the Metropolis ... I found it more compelling nearer my old home. Though I did not entirely forsake the great city, I spent more time out of it until 1915 when, finally, with a wife making the comfort of a home in the comparative quiet of Greenwich Village, I found I could stay in the city and enjoy it. [3]

So in 1915 Britton left the "red house" in Farmington and moved to New York City. He lived in the city until 1922 but would retain a studio in New York until 1925, commuting from Sag Harbor to work in Manhattan. Britton worked as an art critic for the weekly American Art News from 1913 until 1919 and he published his own art periodical, Art Review International, from 1919 until 1925, of which he was also editor. Britton believed American artists often went unrecognized by art reviewers and so in publishing his own magazine he attempted to address that issue by focusing on the accomplishments of American artists. As an artist, Britton met with success. In May of 1924 he was given a solo show at the Ainslie Galleries in New York and participated in many group shows. He exhibited in the American Paintings and Sculpture Pertaining to the War show at Knoedler's in 1918, along with several members of The Eight; [4] in 1919 he participated in the first Expressionists exhibition at Babcock Galleries; and in 1925 he was included in the First Exhibition of the New Society of American Artists at Knoedler, along with Ernest Lawson, Robert Vonnoh, and others. He was particularly active with The Eclectics, a group he co-founded, and, along with fellow artists Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), George Luks (1867-1933), and Mahonri Young (1877-1957), exhibited annually from 1915 until 1923.

Despite his success in New York, James Britton always retained ties to his native state. At times he yearned for the Connecticut landscape. Living in New York City one summer, Britton remembered "When ... I heard from the men back in Connecticut who were out in the country painting landscape all day, every day, I felt like throwing up the entire New York game and going in for a life worth living."[5] In the autumn of 1925 Britton did indeed choose "a life worth living" and returned to Connecticut permanently. Settling with his young family near Hamilton Park in Waterbury, his wife's hometown, [6] Britton shuttled back and forth to Hartford "painting ... portraits for Hartford and Hamilton Park landscapes for myself...."[7] He moved several times [8] during what would be his last decade: in 1929 the Brittons lived in Hartford briefly before moving to Manchester in 1930.

In 1928 James Britton was involved in a traffic accident, seriously injuring his hip and leaving his mobility compromised. In addition he had always suffered from a weak heart and together with his injury he was, at age fifty, unable to walk for more than short periods of time. He wrote from his home in Manchester in 1935:

Crippled as a result of a poorly mended broken hip, and invalided from a deranged heart my walk from the house to this chair in the orchard and back is about the extent of my daily journeyings." [9]

Britton died on April 16, 1936 at the age of fifty-eight.

 

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