An Afternoon at the Museum
By: Andrew Maglio
Despite living only a few miles from Hartford, I must admit I seldom go downtown. Especially during the past few months—between the lockdown and continuing COVID-19 risks—travel (even to the town over) has largely been stagnant. The one time I did go into Hartford recently was to visit the Wadsworth Atheneum—a hidden gem in my opinion. Sure, the Wadsworth Atheneum is well-known in the art and curatorial worlds, but how much do we know about or value this beacon of art and history? As the oldest public art museum in the United States, the Atheneum has long housed some of the world's most dazzling pieces from history’s greatest painters, sculptors and sketch-artists. I want to bring you through my visit and recount some of the highlights. Hopefully, by the end, you will want to go too.
My visit starts back in the Spring. Cooped up in my house as the town adhered to ever-more stringent stay-at-home orders, I had an uncanny amount of free-time. Eventually, (whether it was from a book around my house I discovered or a deep-dive into the internet) I stumbled across the work of Thomas Cole, famous American landscape artist. It only took a few more google searches to figure out that he was part of the Hudson River School art movement and that the Wadsworth Atheneum housed a surprisingly large amount of these paintings. Why, you ask? I asked this same question. This is when I found the interesting history of the relationship between the Hudson River School, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and a few of Connecticut’s largest patrons. The Athenaeum’s over 65-work collection was assembled largely by one man— Daniel Wadsworth himself! The second biggest donation to the Museum came from Elizabeth Colt (wife of Samuel Colt of Colt Firearms) who, in addition to donating a swath of paintings, donated part of the exterior of the Atheneum’s front facade. Determined to learn more about this history and see the paintings for myself, I resolved to go as soon the museum opened up again.
Fast forward 5 months. I’m scrolling through Instagram and I see that @thewadsworth just posted that they’re opening in a few days. I bought tickets for the coming weekend. When I arrived that Saturday, I was very eager to see the art. I had been before, I was too young then to truly appreciate all of the pieces. After making our way quite easily in the museum, the first room we entered was Avery Court, a large, open room with white walls and high ceilings. In this room alone they had paintings from such famous surrealist artists as Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock. There were even two pieces by Pablo Picasso. The gallery also had art from lesser-known artists like Pierre Roy and Roberto Matta.
I spent the bulk of my visit in two other rooms. First, I visited the Morgan Great Hall of American and European painting. This room is, arguably, the grandest in the entire museum and is (in my opinion) a work of art in and of itself with high vaulted ceilings and ornate molding. The Hall houses well over 60 works. The paintings vary greatly in size and composition with the smallest less than 12” by 12” and the largest nearly two meters wide. My favorite works were “Portrait of a Gentlemen” by 18th-century English painter John Hoppner and Giovanni Paolo Panini’s “Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga” from 1749. I also found one of Aelbert Cuyp’s wooded landscape’s stunning in its shiny black frame. Art connoisseur or not, everyone can appreciate the works in this room. To the right of Morgan Hall there was also an exhibition of Chinese art from the late Qing dynasty, and to the left of the room, there was a myriad of Ancient Greek and Roman vases and trinkets from the time of the Peloponnesian War (c. 300 B.C.).
My favorite exhibition, though, was the American Art wing. As explained above, it was also the reason I went to the museum in the first place. Honestly, there were too many pieces to explain the exhibition in the detail it deserves, so I will just touch on my favorite pieces. First, there was Fredric Edwin Church’s “Coast Scene, Mount Desert (Sunrise off the Main Coast)” from 1863. It is a beautiful oil painting on canvas with striking waves and a piercing dawn sun. My favorite piece in the entire museum, though, is a beautiful portrait of the European Mount Etna by Thomas Cole in the last five years of his career. The focal point is a steaming white-capped volcano, but the foreground is dominated by ornate ancient ruins and bucolic depictions of life below the mountain.
The museum is open every weekday 12pm-5pm. Hours vary on the weekend. I strongly encourage you to visit. From personal experience, I can assure you that even if you aren’t expecting to find much that you’re interested in you, inevitably, will if you really take the time to thoughtfully examine a few pieces. The Atheneum is a wonderful microcosm of centuries of artistic and political movement. Whether you want to extend your learning in one of Conard’s history classes or simply need something to do on a Saturday afternoon, the Wadsworth Atheneum is sure to keep you interested.
Below are several paintings referenced in this article if you would like to better visualize them.
If you are interested in visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art of in learning more about the Hudson River School movement, I suggest the exploring any of the following sources: The Metropolitan Museum’s extensive collection of Hudson River School paintings (digitally or in-person) complete with scans of personal notebooks from the movement’s leading artists; Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (available at the Hartford Public Library), and their online collection.
Thomas Cole American, 1801-1848 Mount Etna from Taormina, 1843.
Aelbert Cuyp Dutch, 1620-1691 Wooded Landscape with an Artist c. 1643