Bruce Fraser, the late director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, lamented that Connecticut lacked a "literature of itself." There is such a literature, but it's sparse. But what Connecticut does have — brilliantly — is an art history of itself, alive and well in the 200-plus museums that preserve and present our cultural heritage.
Major exhibitions that showcase a facet of this rich artistic heritage are rare. Exhibitions on textiles and other fragile, light-sensitive objects are rare. Exhibitions that call attention to the role of women in art are rare. Two major exhibitions that address all three is a banquet.
Running from Oct. l until the end of January at Florence Griswold in Old Lyme and through March 26 at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford are two of the most astonishing displays of Connecticut art ever assembled. Although developed independently, they complement each other splendidly. To see "With Needle & Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley" at the Florence Griswold, and "Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740-1840," at Connecticut Historical Society is to be dazzled by evidence that Connecticut marched to its own beat; that Connecticut women (mostly girls under 17) had a deeply developed capacity for creative expression, representation and craftsmanship; and that this genre of art is equal to anything produced in the culture of early America.
Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island contained the largest and most prestigious concentration of female academies in early America. These were schools where daughters, mostly of privilege and some from out of state, gained the equivalent of a high school education.
The nation's first women's college, Mount Holyoke, grew out of one of these academies. The Beecher sisters operated the Hartford Seminary for Girls (founded 1823). Today, schools like Miss Porters in Farmington, (founded 1843) and Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., (founded 1814) are legacies of the dozens of single-sex academies that made New England a model of literacy, equal opportunity and refinement.
School curriculums typically included language arts, mathematics, natural history, religious instruction and applied art. The ability to mend and make clothes, bed and table coverings and, in many households before 1840, to spin and weave, were occupational necessities. But there is nothing necessary about the Olympian displays of skill and composition in the samplers, mourning pictures, family records, silk-embroidered allegorical and biblical pictures, bed coverings and armorial hatchments these girls produced.
It was all about show — status markers for an age clawing its way up from conditions of material deprivation we can scarcely imagine.
"With Needle & Brush" presents more evidence than has ever been assembled about the various female academies and needlework traditions along the Connecticut River, from Middletown and Hartford to South Hadley and Deerfield, Mass., to Windsor, Vt., and Walpole, N.H. The various art instructresses at these schools each had a distinct style the girls emulated. Guest curators Carol and Stephen Huber, Connecticut-based needlework dealers and the leading specialists in the country, have spent 30 years single-mindedly focused on this aspect of American art.
As visually fascinating as this work is, the story of a newly independent republic walking the talk of its ideals by enlarging the horizon for women's' education is inspiring. Especially noteworthy was the Patten School (founded 1785) in Hartford and the school run by Lydia Royse (founded 1799) on Front Street in Hartford. Both developed complex and sophisticated styles as recognizable as a thumbprint that, especially with Royse, worked literary and allegorical subject matter like no one else in the country.
"Connecticut Needlework" showcases the Historical Society's permanent collection — a collection that is almost unrivaled nationally, a visual feast of startling novelty. This exhibit also goes beyond samplers and needlework pictures to include cloths, bed hangings, coverlets and more.
Impeccable documentation and remarkable stories animate the presentation. There are stories of the countless hours Elizabeth Foote of Colchester devoted to carding, spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting and quilting, along with the eye-popping flower and vine embroidered bed rug she made during the American Revolution; Revolutionary War Gov. Jonathan Trumbull's daughter Faith's monumental embroidered pictures of rural scenery, among the most ambitious works of art that have come down to us from before the Revolution; and Prudence Punderson's portraits of the Apostles, self-portrait and epochal "First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality"(1776-1783), arguably the most important needlework picture in America and one of the major art treasures in Connecticut.
In addition to raw visual impact, the storylines around the Punderson collection are so rich and multi-dimensional one could devote a seminar to studying them. Then there are the floral embroidered high heels used for stepping out in the 1740s by Hannah Edwards Wetmore (sister of the Great Awakening 's Rev. Jonathan Edwards) and the floral embroidered coat made for little John Eddy of East Middletown around 1760.
Connecticut may not have a deep or rich literature of itself. But our art history is dazzling. Experiencing such treasures enriches civic attachment. We will never have a better chance to tap into the evidence than by dashing out to see these two magnificent exhibitions.
William Hosley of Enfield is a preservationist and cultural resource consultant who specializes in American art and antiques.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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