The Wall Street Journal, New York, NY, “In Connecticut, Discovering American Art’s First Home” by Willard Spiegelman, August 8, 2016
Here’s a quiz: Which American museum was the first to dedicate itself to collecting American art? If you said New York’s Whitney, think again. The right answer is the Museum of American Art in this small city, known during the early 20th century as the “hardware capital of the world.”
The museum’s roots go back to 1853 and the chartering of the New Britain Institute to help educate a large immigrant community. Between 1903 and 1905, John Butler Talcott gave $25,000 to acquire “original modern oil paintings either by native or foreign artists.”
Wise advisers suggested that American work would be less expensive. The collection grew slowly. Between 1908 and 1924, the trustees bought 20 pictures. In the next 13 years, a few more came in. The Depression interrupted plans. In 1934, Grace Judd Landers, a widow who lost her money in the Crash, donated her house for these pictures, which had been previously hung in a library. The house-museum opened in 1937. In 2006, the Chase Family Building (43,000 square feet) doubled its size. Last year, another 17,346 square feet were added. The museum and its holdings now breathe expansively, on a quiet residential street beside Frederick Law Olmsted’s Walnut Hill Park.
And what a collection—more than 10,000 pieces—it is. Starting with the Colonial period and moving through today, the museum provides a panorama in miniature of American art. There are surprises, occasional masterpieces, and people you may never have heard of but who stick with you.
Among the surprises there’s what must be the smallest, and one of the earliest, pictures by Jackson Pollock: “T.P.’s Boat in Menemsha Pond” (1934), oil on metal, less than 5 by 7 inches. It’s a modest, semiabstract piece of no particular interest except that it shows where Pollock came from. “T.P.” was the son of Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock’s most important teacher.
Benton bequeathed some of his work to the museum, which he called “my favorite . . . among all the museums in our country.” Why? The answer involves the Whitney.
In 1932, at the height of his popularity, and while he was still living in Manhattan, the Whitney, which occupied four adjacent townhouses on West Eighth Street, commissioned a vast mural in tempera and oil from Benton: “The Arts of Life in America.” This multisectioned fresco decorated the library walls and ceiling in the apartment of Juliana Force, the museum’s director. Its subjects—people eating, drinking, dancing, praying, gambling—represent all strata and races of American life. One panel, “Arts of the South,” includes a white preacher in one corner, and an impoverished black mother in another. According to the museum publication “Highlights of the Collection,” it also includes the first garbage pile in the history of mural painting. In another panel, “Political Business and Intellectual Ballyhoo,” Benton casts a sardonic eye on his Greenwich Village socialist friends. Many critics found the murals vulgar and brash, the figures garish and crude rather than energetic and Michelangelesque.
In 1949, the Whitney was planning to move. Benton’s brand of populist realism was going out of fashion. In 1953, Sandy Low, director of the New Britain Museum, paid $500 to transport four of the original sections to Connecticut. (A fifth was bought in 1969.)
Visitors here—90,000 annually, but surprisingly few the midweek, midsummer day when I came—can marvel at Benton’s bright colors, and also place his art in the context of an American tradition.
There is much impressive work from the Hudson River school; from big names like Homer, Sargent, Cassatt, Bellows, Davis, O’Keeffe; from the Ashcan school; American Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists; and contemporary artists in various media. Among many stunning paintings, two early 20th-century pictures knocked me out. (Every visitor will make similar discoveries.) Sören Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), born in Denmark, made “The Samovar” in 1920. Having studied Chardin, he knew how to bring a rich, golden sheen to a mostly monochromatic palette, depicting his eponymous urn beside a brass bowl and a white earthenware vase. This gorgeous still-life is a quiet counterforce to Benton’s explosiveness.
Rockwell Kent’s monumental “Toilers of the Sea” (or “Toiling on the Sea,” 1907) deals less with the titular fishermen, or the dangers of fishing off the Maine coast, than with the strange intersection of sea, land, and air. A dense cobalt-blue sea on the painting’s bottom half balances a gentler, lighter sky above. Occupying almost the entire left side of the picture, an enormous rock rises menacingly. Two fishing boats seem minuscule, precariously balanced upon waters that are, if only for the moment, relatively calm.
Kent takes his place here in the American parade from Copley and Peale down to today’s living artists. Now, through Sept. 11, the museum also hosts “Eric Aho: An Unfinished Point in a Vast Surrounding” (the title alludes to Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider”), a group of vibrant paintings small and large that work at the intersections of landscape, portraiture and abstraction. They fit into the vast surrounding of the American pictures—like Kent’s—that have found a permanent home in this gem of a museum.
Mr. Spiegelman writes about the arts for the Journal. His “Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead” (FSG) will be published in September.
WORKS BY EMIL CARLSEN
August 8, 2016
The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
August 8, 2016
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Citation External (MLA):
Spiegelman, Willard. “In Connecticut, Discovering American Art’s First Home.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 8 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
Citation Internal (ECA):
The Wall Street Journal, New York, NY, “In Connecticut, Discovering American Art’s First Home” by Willard Spiegelman, August 8, 2016.