Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

BY BRITTANY GOOD

Image of Wadsworth Atheneum exterior.

Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967) Captain Strout’s House, Portland Head, circa 1927. Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite on wove paper, 14 x 20 inches. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund (1928.3).
Founded by Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771–1848) in 1842, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is America’s oldest public art museum. A luxury once reserved for the wealthy, Wadsworth set out to make art accessible to all social classes. Using his own collection as the foundation, Wadsworth quickly expanded the museum’s holdings, accepting works from Samuel Colt’s wife, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, and financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. Many works remain in the museum’s permanent collection.

Besides the public fine arts gallery, Wadsworth also founded the Connecticut Historical Society as well as The Young Men’s Institute, the precursor of today’s Hartford Public Library. The arising cultural consortium encouraged the public to not only view the works, but to analyze, understand, and appreciate them. This dedication to making art not only accessible, but also comprehensible is apparent today through the Atheneum’s special exhibitions, lectures, tours, and family events.

Willem de Kooning (American, 1904–1997) Montauk I, circa 1969. Oil on canvas, 88 x 77 inches. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund (1973.46).

The Atheneum’s devotion to innovation became most apparent under Chick Austin, the museum’s director during the mid-twentieth century. Taking the reins in 1927, Austin created one of the world’s most important Baroque collections and branded the Atheneum a daring institution. Among his many accomplishments, Austin mounted the country’s first Surrealist exhibition in 1931. In 1933 he sponsored George Balanchine’s immigration from Russia to America and the next year hosted his new ballet company’s (The New York City Ballet) first performance in the States. That same year Austin also exhibited the first major retrospective of Pablo Picasso’s work. Between these monumental happenings Austin found time to acquire works by Caravaggio, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Frederic Church, Piet Mondrian, Balthus, and Joseph Cornell—all artists never before exhibited in any American museum.

The museum’s vast and varied permanent collection of more than 45,000 works is broken into six main categories—European Art, American Decorative Arts, American Paintings and Sculpture, Contemporary Art, Costumes and Textiles, and European Decorative Arts. The European Art collection features paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from the medieval period through the mid-twentieth century. Boasting masterworks by Frans Hals and Fra Angelico to watercolors by Claude Monet, the main strengths of the collection are the Surrealist works by Miró, René Magritte, and Max Ernst, among others. The American Decorative Arts holdings include everything from Chippendale furniture by Connecticut’s most renowned colonial cabinetmaker, Eliphalet Chaplin (1741–1807), to the modern works of George Nakashima (1905–1990). The European Decorative Arts collection is just as diverse. With approximately 7,000 objects, more than 1,300 of which came from the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan, it includes an enormous porcelain collection (Chinese export, Sevres, Meissen, Chantilly, Villeroy-Mennecy) and over 200 pieces of ancient glass. Presenting two exhibitions a year, the Costumes and Textiles collection offers examples of African American story quilts, Native American baskets, and contemporary fiber art. To maintain diversity, the exhibitions alternate between historic and contemporary.

left: Alexander Calder (American, 1898–1976) Untitled (Latch-Hooked Rug), 1965. Orange, yellow, blue, and black wool, 64 x 81 inches. Gift of Leslie and Rufus Stillman (2002.29.1).

The crux of the Atheneum’s massive body of work, the American Paintings and Sculpture collection, consists of more than 600 paintings, 200 sculptures 1,200 drawings and watercolors by approximately 400 artists. Among the many awe-inducing pieces is the earliest known dated American oil painting, a portrait of Elizabeth Eggington painted by an unknown artist is 1664. The collection is also home to one of the finest collections of Hudson River School works, formed almost entirely by Daniel Wadsworth and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. An integral part of the Hudson River School, Wadsworth commissioned and acquired seven paintings by Thomas Cole and launched Frederic Church’s career. Also in the collection are strong neoclassical and twentieth-century sculptures by such luminaries as Alexander Calder and Elie Nadelman, American modernist watercolors by Charles Burchfield, Arthur Dove, and Edward Hopper, and a small group of American photographs from mid-nineteenth-century daguerrotypes to early twentieth-century silverpoint prints.

Image of the Hudson River installation.

An institutional overachiever, the Atheneum’s Contemporary collection is actually an entire program. Conceived by James Elliott (director from 1966–1976), the MATRIX program is a means for the public to garner a better understanding of contemporary art. A genre often thought of as impenetrable, Elliott’s vision was that through small-scale exhibitions, lectures, publications, and gallery talks, contemporary art would become less intimidating. The program’s first exhibition was held in 1975 and to date has shown the works of over 150 artists including Richard Tuttle, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter (their first one-person museum exhibitions in the United States). With a predilection for art that is challenging, current and occasionally controversial, it is no surprise that half of the featured MATRIX artists have been in their thirties or younger and that more than one-third did not have an affiliation with a commercial gallery at the time of their shows. The current MATRIX exhibition (on view through January 9, 2011) features the work L.A.-based artist Kim Schoenstadt. Odd Lots Series: Hartford/Fiction Film and Animation, a site-specific presentation of architectural wall drawings that spill across the gallery, fuses the real buildings of Hartford with the fictional architecture of Hollywood films and animation as a means to bring the “outside” world, both real and imagined, to an indoor space.

Also on view through January 9, 2011 is an installation by Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osorio, and through January 17, 2011 American Moderns on Paper, presents the museum’s American modernist works on paper. On view in installments through September 4, 2011, The Upholstered Woman: Women’s Fashion of the 1870s and 1880s explores the correlation between clothing and societal standing in post-Civil War America. The ongoing exhibition, Hudson River School Collection, went on view in August of 2009. The exhibition includes a recently acquired Thomas Cole painting, Life, Death and Immortality. Painted in 1844, which has been traced back to a letter Cole wrote to Wadsworth in 1844 proposing he acquire a series of historical landscapes for the newly-opened Atheneum.
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