James Britton: Connecticut Artist

By Nancy Stula

 



 

Like most portrait painters, James Britton produced many self-portraits. This was a popular practice as artists found themselves to be their most readily available -- and least expensive -- model. Britton painted several small studies of his head alone, but most compelling are his larger self portraits. Several of these images feature the artist against a backdrop of his own paintings. In his earliest self portrait of this type, the Self Portrait of 1921 (catalogue cover) Britton stands before us as if interrupted from his work. He is surrounded by his paintings, including a group of nudes and his so-called Orange Rosalie (1921), a portrait of his favorite model Rosalie Manning against an orange background. Britton's figure is literally framed by the paintings behind him on the wall. In placing himself within the space of his visual productions, Britton defines himself in relation to his art.

Eight years later, in 1929, Britton again depicted himself as an artist, brush in hand, and standing in front of his artistic productions (Figure #). However, here the paintings behind him are no longer merely an interesting backdrop; the artist is engaged with his paintings. Britton stands in front of a wall on which his paintings and woodcuts are hung Salon-style and extends his arm out in front of him holding a paintbrush. With this gesture he links his body with many of the works on the wall behind him.

All of the works featured are his own productions, painted with accuracy. What is curious, however, is these images are accurate but reversed! The paintings and woodcuts on his studio wall are all painted in mirror image. While it is not surprising that Britton would have used a mirror to observe his features while painting his own portrait, it is odd that he would have also painted the background portraits as reflected in a mirror, if only because it presented a much more difficult task. Why not simply repaint the works in miniature for the background of the self portraits? Was it to insure accuracy that caused Britton to employ this practice? Perhaps, in these self portraits, Britton wanted not only to present himself as an artist but to demonstrate for the viewer his abilities and display his virtuosity. Of course, Britton was accustomed to seeing his images reversed when he printed his woodcuts but it was an unusual practice to reverse images in painting.

In his Oblong Self Portrait of 1930 (Figure #), Britton depicts himself once again as an artist standing in front of a wall hung with his paintings. Here he moves in closer on his subject, depicting himself from just below the shoulders. He holds a paint brush and stretches his arm out in front of him and across the paintings which hang behind him on the wall of his studio, his Portrait of Wanda (1922) and Portrait of Rosalie (1924). His outstretched arm curves just beneath Wanda's jawline and links her face, along with his own, to Rosalie's face. This trio of painted faces leads the viewer's eye across the canvas and follows the tip of his paintbrush off the edge of the canvas. With this proprietary gesture Britton literally embraces his work.

The layering of images in these self portraits is striking, yet we find the impulse to layer images again and again in James Britton's oeuvre. In his woodcuts he often cut disparate images into the same wood block, allowing him in one instance to print a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the same page with two female nude figures. His paintings often depict works of art he created earlier in his career. Frequently, he replicated his portrait paintings in pencil and again in woodcut, as he did with the Portrait of Mrs. Britton (1914) (see page #). The artist referenced the same portrait, painting it in miniature and in mirror image, in the background of his Self Portrait (1929) and Sag Harbor Studio (1925). The impulse to replicate existing images finds another outlet in Britton's printmaking: with carved wood blocks Britton was able to print multiple images. Interestingly, the fact that Britton's studio walls were covered with paintings was not, however, the affectation one might suspect, but is explained in his autobiography. He wrote: "I have covered the wall space with paintings so that the daylight may play upon them and thus preserve their color values,"[10] thus giving a practical reason for hanging most of his oeuvre displayed on his studio walls.

In a painting that can loosely be termed a self portrait, Sag Harbor Studio (1925; Figure #), Britton documents the paintings he has stored in his studio, including the Portrait of Mrs. Britton (1914) and a Self Portrait from 1925 in which the artist is seen smoking his ever-present cigar. This painting serves as a visual record of his output and as such, it is an extension of the self portraits discussed above. This oil painting relates as well to the thumbnail sketches Britton painstakingly made of his oeuvre in the 1930s in a notebook he titled his Portrait Index. This Index of thumbnail sketches was created as a visual record of his accomplishments. What is fascinating is that Britton made these thumbnail sketches from memory. [11] His passion for record-keeping extends to many of his self portraits and serves to link together his diverse productions.

James Britton's tireless and often repetitive documentation may have had its roots in his regret over an early practice. He remembered: "In 1900 I painted a great many pictures, but the devil was in me entirely at that time for I painted many of them one over another."[12] He also noted that "Nearly all my early paintings have disappeared. I kept many of them for a while, but the constant shifting and changes of habitation finally finished them either by sheer loss, theft or confiscation." [13]

Corresponding to the time he moved to Sag Harbor in 1922, Britton began to give increasing attention to the landscape. These paintings are small -- most are no bigger than a postcard -- and they are very painterly. Yet despite their painterliness, these are quiet images. Britton's chief concern was with depicting the subtle color gradations between land or sea, and sky. He began painting the sea during his years in Sag Harbor, from 1922 until he moved to Connecticut in the autumn of 1925. In Connecticut, he continued to be drawn to the combination of sea and sky and made every effort to work on the shore. Britton's sister, Gertrude Britton Boucher, and her family had a summer home on Seaview Avenue in Madison and he stayed with them for extended periods during the 1930s.

Unlike so many artists of his generation, James Britton never traveled abroad. In fact he never left the Northeast. As a result, his ties to his native state remained strong throughout life. He once remarked that New York City "seems at the other end of the earth with its rush and hurly burly. In my active years, even before I went to live there, I was constantly making trips to New York, so that my doings in two states [Connecticut and New York] ran along together..." [14] By the same token, even during his residence in New York City and in Sag Harbor on Long Island, James Britton often returned to his home state keeping those ties which would ultimately call him home. [15] In 1930 Britton was given a solo exhibition at the Hartford Women's Club, the same year the Wadsworth Atheneum purchased his Portrait of William Gedney Bunce. In 1936, after his death, the Wadsworth Atheneum mounted a memorial exhibition of James Britton's work.

 

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