The Wadsworth Atheneum's exhibit of its Hudson River School masterworks, titled "American Splendor," is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. These exquisite landscapes have wide appeal and will have you humming "America the Beautiful" on your way out. Curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser said there is a work of art from every state in the exhibit, as well as some exotic locales.
Not only do the magnificent paintings depict the grandeur of the region's physical history, but they testify to the often underappreciated cultural wealth that exists in Connecticut's capital city.
The show represents the roots of the nation's oldest public art museum in Hartford. Its founder, Daniel Wadsworth, an amateur artist and collector, nurtured the careers of some of the popular landscape school's most prominent practitioners, such as his lifelong friend Thomas Cole, Hartford native Frederic Church and John Trumbull. Mr. Wadsworth saw in their art the potential of a great nation and made it the basis of his new gallery. The paintings, all from the museum's permanent collection, recall a time when wilderness set America apart. They exemplify the notion of the New World as Eden where man and nature co-exist.
Mr. Wadsworth's artistic vision was later reinforced by that of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, widow of Hartford arms maker Samuel Colt. She commissioned the works of many Hudson River School artists for her personal gallery at Armsmear, the family home on Wethersfield Avenue. With the assistance of Frederic Church, she formed one of the finest private picture galleries in the nation, according to Ms. Kornhauser, who wrote the introduction to the catalog. Mrs. Colt later bequeathed her collection to the Atheneum.
The paintings are beautifully displayed in original frames and complemented by some special items, including a travel journal kept by Mr. Wadsworth and hand-painted with watercolors. It turned up in the attic of a distant Wadsworth relative and was happily acquired by the Atheneum. Also on display are blue Staffordshire plates decorated by Thomas Cole and other artists, some depicting local scenes, including Mr. Wadsworth's idyllic estate, Monte Video, that once stood on Avon Mountain.
There are many notable paintings that could be singled out as alone worthy of the price of admission, including an entire gallery of views of Niagara Falls. Displayed there is the John F. Kensett painting of the falls that used to hang unobtrusively over a copy machine in a municipal building in Simsbury. It has been acquired by the museum, where its audience can only grow.
And anyone who doesn't gasp at three works depicting sunrises and sunsets by Church that hang on one gallery wall should check his pulse.
"American Splendor: Hudson River School Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum" opened Friday and runs through Dec. 31. Don't miss its companion exhibit, "Eloquent Vistas: The Art of Nineteenth Century American Landscape Photography from the George Eastman House Collection," from June 2 through Aug. 27. Through the eyes of some of the nation's earliest and most famous photographers, it pairs the real with the romanticized.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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