Generations of Hartford Public High School students have passed by a larger-than-life portrait of George Washington — one hand on a saber, the other on a scroll — that has stood sentry in a school stairwell.
The 8- by 5-foot painting is a replica of a famous piece by Gilbert Stuart. He is probably best known for a smaller, unfinished portrait of our first president that served as the inspiration for Washington's likeness on the $1 bill. The high school's painting is not a Stuart; it is the stunning work of an unknown artist.
These days, the painting is dingy, dirty and flaking. A 1968 restoration did little to correct the problem, and someone, in a misguided attempt at restoration, even punched small holes in the canvas' edges, according to a recent conservation proposal.
Without professional attention, the painting could be lost, and that would be a crime.
So R.J. Luke Williams is raising money for a professional restoration. Williams is a retired HPHS history teacher and dedicated archivist of the school's gloried past. He created a museum and archive; he says students need to know that Hartford has a history, and much of it occurred right on the grounds where they rush from class to class.
Where others see a crumbling city in steady decline, Williams, who also works with the Hartford History Center at the city's library, sees a genteel past and a vibrant future. He knows that Hartford has gone through multiple incarnations, and the city fights a continual battle to hang onto the past.
Originally, the high school's portrait hung in the New Haven State House until it closed in the 1870s. The painting was moved to the Hartford school in the early part of the last century. The state most likely commissioned the work in the early 1800s.
According to Williams' research, back in the day (1892, to be precise) art lovers formed the Society for the Promotion of Art to preserve precisely this kind of work in Hartford. The members feared that as the city rushed headlong into the new century, too many of its great artworks were slipping away. A Municipal Art Society of Hartford continued that work into the '30s. Some members had connections to the high school, and they might have brought the painting to the school. A former principal and his wife tried to clean the portrait themselves in the '60s, and the work narrowly escaped the wrecker's ball when the school moved from its old ornate building on Hopkins Street — near where Farmington and Broad intersect now — to its current site on Forest Street.
In 2005, the painting was moved to the Mark Twain House & Museum while the school was being renovated, and there it rests in climate-controlled comfort. Restoration will cost $37,000 and change, said Williams, and includes much needed work on the huge gold frame. When the painting is restored, Williams said there's a place of honor waiting over an 1883 fireplace at the school's library and media center.
So far, Williams has asked for help from the city and from the state. He says he's received grants from the William and Alice Mortensen Foundation and from Wal-Mart, but he's well short of the amount needed.
If you're interested, donations can be sent to HPHS Alumni Association/Archive Fund, HPHS Museum & Archive, 55 Forest St., Hartford, CT 06105.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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