Visiting Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Wadsworth AtheneumWadsworth Atheneum

It is both a blessing and a curse to visit a great museum. The adrenaline runs high once you walk in, but after hours of wandering through rooms, the mind is overfed with spectacles and the feet sore with every step. That is what I experienced last Saturday at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Before heading to Hartford, CT, I didn’t expect much beyond the red umbrella  sculpture  in the shadow of the Traveller’s tower and the state capitol. I have heard of Wallace Nutting’s pilgrim furniture which was sold to J.P. Morgan in order to buy his furniture factory back. (J. P. Morgan subsequent donation of the collection to the museum comforted Nutting at the idea that more people could have access to them.) But there are occasions when the collections of a museum could not be comprehended to full extent by their relative fame. On a previous occasion I regretted to have only a few hours spare in Toledo Museum of Art and this time I was “kicked” out of the museum before the door was closed.

The museum is much larger than its castle-looking at the front. The back of the museum on  Prospect Street features additional wings of  Beaux-Arts style. After spending more than 3 hours on the second and third floor of American Wing part, I am confident to say Wadsworth Atheneum holds one of the finest collection in American art and American decorative arts. But to say it only would be unfair to its significant collection of European arts from the 15th to the 19th century, which I had only a little more than one hour to view.

Sidewall of Wadsworth Atheneum
Sidewall of Wadsworth Atheneum

Its American Art collection boasts the elite and esteemed artists tangled with a regional flavor. Ralph Earl painted Oliver and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth at their home at  the Connecticut River Vally. Danial Wadsworth, the founder of the museum is shown in two portraits by important painters of the time: John Trumbull and Thomas Sully. A few Hudson River school paintings were commissioned or bought by the local dignitaries. Daniel Wadsworth not only introduced Frederic Edwin Church to Thomas Cole, with whom Church studied, but also bought his first major work which showed a deep influence from his mentor. “The Vale of St. Thomas, Jamaica” (1867) by Edwin Church was proudly hung within a shadow box at the “Armsmear”, the mansion of the first lady of Connecticut — Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, immediately after it was completed. Moving to the second generation of Hudson River School, there are two paintings by John Frederick Kensett, a Connecticut native. Another room is filled with works from the Old Lyme Colony including  Julian Alden Weir ‘s own interpretation of his “Land of Nod” farm house in Branchville. A group of sculpture by Paul Manship may testify the wealth of the town plus its tradition of art connoisseurship didn’t recede after the turn of the century. Centaur and Dryad is the most amazing sculpture that I have seen made by Manship.

A carpete of the same pattern is used for the display of Ralph Earl's paiting of Ellsworths'
A carpete of the same pattern is used for the display of Ralph Earl's paiting of Ellsworths'

Much of the Nutting’s pilgrim furniture is placed in rooms branching out of the main corridor on the second floor. Perhaps the curator would expect visitors who come for it won’t complain about its location while the general audience would be stunned by its clumsiness and lack of proportion if such furniture is placed besides airy Queen Anne chairs. Nutting’s collection traces the earliest example of every invention in American furniture making, from curved splat of a turned chair to the use of Spanish paw feet. The center piece, a court cupboard, would challenge the craftsmanship of the 21 century. Geo disliked the heavy top and the overall square solidity, yet I viewed it as a gem of architectural grandeur. Seldom would a piece of furniture look so monumental yet maintain utilitarian functionality. The detailed triangle or pediment molding is suaved by turned pieces of Rococo grace. Its scale and intricacy demanded that I stop and pay my respect as much as it did to those who visited the governor’s house 400 years ago. The late 18th and early 19th century future features a curatorial display. By comparing the furniture made in the Connecticut Valley and that of metro region such as Boston and Philadelphia, there are both regional characteristics and regional preference that could be used to identify pieces made by Eliphalet Chapin and his workshop. If secondary wood is common for the regional furniture, the interlaced carving and graceful proportion of the chairs made by Chapin can claim its own place even compared to those made by the best cabitmakers in Philadelphia.

Interior of the Wadsworth Atheneum
Interior of the Wadsworth Atheneum

A special treat on the second floor  is the Wetmore parlor from the late 18th century of Middletown, CT. It is very much like the rooms of  the Porter-Belden house in the Brooklyn Museum with regard to the proportion and architectural elements. But the original paint, showing the wood columns flaking the fireplace in faux-marble, is much more lively. The cup-board, painted in exotic luxury colors resembling a giant shell, is something that I see for the first time in early American houses.

Even though the weekend is the prime time for museums, visitors at Wadsworth are sparse, which allows something that I could never find at Met: the opportunity to examine the works without obstruction and interference. Geo sat at a bench lost in a painting of George Inness while I stood on the carpet of the same pattern as in the painting of the Ellsworths’ and checked the same chair as depicted. In those quiet moments, arts and objects become tangible and personal.

On the other hand, I hope that such a world-class museum receives visits from many more people of the nation and the world. Changes can be made now. First of all, it needs more chairs so that people can sit and look. (Sister Wendy call the chairs the most important amenity in museums.) Wadsworth’s current collection is not fully-digitalized nor searchable (not even some highlights that I mentioned can be found from their website), nor are there any blogs that I am aware of. (They do have a a twitter account which is wads_atheneum, which was setup less than 2 months ago and has gained a lot of followers.) With the Megabus’ round trip cost only $28 and takes just over two and half hours from New York, the museum can serve as a retreat for art lovers of the Big Apple who are tired of elbow-to-elbow tour groups within the city museums.

PS: More detail will follow about our visit to the museum.

Correctioin: Wadsworth Museum has a frequent updated facebook

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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