Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Metcalf Blooms Eternal

While our new exhibition In Bloom: Mountain Laurel and the Lyme Art Colony celebrates a flower that has yet to make an appearance in nature this season, Willard Metcalf's painting Dogwood Blossoms, seen in the detail above, captures a different fleeting springtime moment, one that is now gone for another season. The dogwood on the campus of the Florence Griswold Museum (below) was last week's outdoor "exhibition," so to speak.

The Boston Herald noted both the "fresh young blossoms" and the "fresh young girls" in a November 1906 review making mention of the dogwood painting. In this detail we see Metcalf's aspiring Impressionist brushwork as he reduces the delicate blossoms, as well as the face of the woman, to thinly applied smudges of color. Compared to other painted details we've examined in this series, Metcalf's handling is sparing and dry, with the weave of the canvas clearly visible.

Though Metcalf frequently dated his paintings, marking the year they were completed, we can actually construct an even more precise chronology of his work based on the blooming cycle of his subjects. Metcalf made his dogwood painting in the spring of 1906, the season after he painted the FGM's latest Metcalf acquisition Kalmia, a work featuring an explosion of mountain laurel blossoms along the marshy Lieutenant River. (You can read more about Kalmia here.) In 1905, he also painted The Poppy Garden while visiting in Old Lyme. If you stroll through our historic gardens behind the Griswold House this weekend you'll find the poppies haven't bloomed yet, but are not far off. With dogwood, mountain laurel, and poppies to occupy him, late May and early June must have been an incredibly busy time for Metcalf.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Nineteenth Century Field Trip

The "phantom" woman I pointed out a couple of days ago is far from being the only thing mysterious about the Charter Oak. The legend of the tree and its place in Connecticut history has continued to grow over the centuries. When Frederic Church painted his version of the Charter Oak around 1846, the tree was still standing in Hartford. In his rendering, several figures can be seen visiting the tree, which was a historic landmark even then. This pair, a woman who appears to be writing and a young boy, may be on something like the equivalent of our educational field trips today.

Why take a field trip to see a tree, you wonder? The tree was the legendary hiding place for a very important colonial document, the Connecticut Charter. Granted by Charles II in 1662, this document ensured the inhabitants of Connecticut the right to a popularly elected governor who ruled in the king's stead. The charter also acted as a constitution for the colony, a service which it continued to perform into the nineteenth century. When King James II demanded the return of the Connecticut Charter in 1685 in order to create one giant royal colony in America the citizens of Connecticut took action.

The newly appointed governor arrived in Hartford (along with 60 armed men) to seize power in 1687, but the colonists resisted. In a move likely orchestrated to cause chaos and confusion, the candles of the meeting hall where the handover was to take place suddenly went out. When order was restored and the lights blazed again, the charter was gone and so was Captain Joseph Wadsworth.

Wadsworth spirited the document away and allegedly hid it in the hollow of a tree, now known as the Charter Oak, on the property of Samuel Wyllys in Hartford. There it stayed, secreted away for more than two years until William and Mary restored Connecticut's right to again rule itself under the original charter.

For its role in, literally, defending the constitution of the colony, the tree itself was honored for the rest of its days. When a storm brought the tree down in 1856, mourners gathered at the site, collecting souvenirs of the venerable oak. One of the "souvenirs," so to speak, exists to this day at the Florence Griswold Museum. Not the painting by Church, but an actual tree; a white oak on the grounds is a descendant of the original tree (at left). Acorns gathered from the Charter Oak have been planted, with ensuing generations of trees known as the "scions" of the Charter Oak.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Phantom of the Charter Oak

The Charter Oak was one very big tree (by some accounts it was 22 feet in circumference!), immortalized by one very big artist (Frederic Church). I promised to tell some of the secrets of our paintings in this series and Church's The Charter Oak is literally a painting about a secret.

I’ll tell you the legend of the Charter Oak in a few days, but right now I want to look closely at one small detail of the painting. Certainly Church intends for us to pay attention to the historic tree, but he learned from his teacher, Thomas Cole (who made a very famous painting of the Connecticut River), that including fine details can make his landscapes all the more grand. Look carefully to find a dog resting in the foreground, a cupola silhouetted in the distance, and bird perched on a branch of the tree on the right.

But it’s the woman under the tree you might find intriguing when stop to notice her. She’s not quite all there, is she? You can see the whitewashed fence in front of her right through her body. As fun as it would be to turn the tale of the Charter Oak into a ghost story, there’s actually a scientific explanation for what you see.

Oil paint is made up of pigment mixed with linseed oil. As the paint ages, the properties of the linseed oil change due to oxygen exposure. Light actually travels through the paint more easily now than it did 150 years ago. The result is that you and I can see “through” the woman standing under the tree. She would have looked completely solid to Church as he was painting it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Barnyard by Another Name

The detail above is captured from John Twachtman's painting Barnyard, on view in our current exhibition. In the painting, dozens of impressionistic roosters, chickens, and doves gather around a small child. Barnyard entered The Hartford Steam Boiler Collection in 1992, but lately I've been tracking it's history, or provenance, further back.

In his lifetime, Twachtman exhibited the painting in Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York. A critic from the New York Tribune, writing in 1901, had mixed feelings about Twachtman's paintings. "The bright, almost staccato note of "The Barnyard" is wholly captivating. But if the collection embraces these lucky hits it also contains things that are amorphous and uninteresting." (You can read the full review here by zooming in.)

The critic from the New York Times agreed, writing about the same exhibition: "The point to be made is whether Mr. Twachtman's quality does not sometimes lead him too far." (See the article titled "A Trio of Painters" here.)

The painting has also been exhibited under the title Feeding the Chickens, a helpful fact to know when looking for it in archives and other records. Searching by this alternate title, I learned much more about the Florence Griswold Museum's painting.

After Twachtman's unexpected death in 1902, nearly 100 of his works were auctioned at the American Art Galleries in New York, among them Feeding the Chickens, which sold for $170. According to the New York Times, the sale, which netted $16,610, attracted many vociferous art students. "Long-haired men and short-haired women uttered exclamations of surprise when a picture brought a good price."

Feeding the Chickens was purchased that night by George DuPont Pratt, whose family held the painting for over forty years. Only ten years after buying the Twachtman, Pratt built his home, Killenworth, on Long Island for a reported $500,000. In 1946, the home was sold to the Soviet Union for a song at $120,000 and remains the retreat of the Russian delegation to the United Nations. Lucky for us the financially-strapped Pratts sold their Twachtman at auction in 1942, where it was once again titled Barnyard.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Hartford in a Dream

The mysterious doorway and narrow windows presented here are a small part of a 1975 pastel by Werner Groshans, an artist sometimes called a "magic realist" for his realistic, yet always somewhat strange style of painting. Not quite a Surrealist himself, Groshans shared some of the Surrealists' sensibilities, tending to take realistic scenes and transform them into the slightly off-kilter visions of a dream. The softness of the pastel, visible in this detail, literally blurs the image, contributing to the sensation that the scene is perhaps a hazy image in a fading memory.

The doorway Groshans captures is actually a part of a real building, the Connecticut State Armory in Hartford, built in 1911 and still in use today. This 1920s era postcard gives you an idea of the building itself and its fortress-like quality, an aesthetic shared by many armory buildings. The doorway above can be matched up to this vintage view, though Groshans takes some liberties with the rest of the architecture.
If we compare Groshans' finished work (seen below but also appearing in our current exhibition Inspiration & Impact) to the postcard view, the real-yet-unreal qualities of the pastel rendering become clearer. He's chosen a side-view of the building, emphasizing the large sky-lit drill shed, and has simplified the architectural details of the monumental building. It's the front of the building, though, that gets the greatest magic realist makeover.

In Groshans' version, the armory is partly buried under a hill that does not exist in reality. Out of Groshans' imagined hill grows a large tree, which amazingly dwarfs the 100 foot tall shed, an inconsistency of scale typical of dreams. The erie quality of the building, seemingly being swallowed by the ground and overshadowed by the (shadowless) tree beside it, can be felt even in the tiny detail of the doorway. The passageway does not open into the cavernous space of the building, nor is a real door depicted. Instead Groshans door is as solid and impenetrable as the roof above, providing no access at all, either for the viewer's eye or the imagined inhabitants of this dream version of Hartford.