Travelers' Founder: Hartford's 19th-Century Renaissance Man
James Batterson was a leader in many fields
By WILLIAM HOSLEY
May 23, 2012
In 1845, a young man from the marble district of the Litchfield Hills arrived in Hartford just as the city's new rail line helped trigger an industrial boom that, by 1870, made it one of the richest small cities in America.
At age 22, James G. Batterson (1823-1901) established himself as a manufacturer of "monuments and gravestones" and an importer and dealer of "the best American and Italian marble." He expanded into building construction and things took off, not just in a big way, but in a gigantic way. His monuments — architectural and memorial — helped define the Gilded Age and includes some of 19th-century America's most celebrated landmarks. Although widely known as the founder of Travelers Insurance Co., Batterson is also an important Hartford art story.
Batterson was born in Windsor (in a section that later became Bloomfield), where his father, Simeon, operated a small monument shop. When he was about 10, the family moved to the marble quarry district of New Preston, where young Batterson apprenticed to his father and learned the trade. In 1859, he was commissioned by Samuel Colt and a group of Hartford benefactors to travel to Italy and retrieve the effects of a then-celebrated, recently deceased American sculptor and Connecticut native Edward Bartholomew.
Batterson delayed his return to study paintings and sculptures in Italy, where he began forming the collection of European old and new master paintings that became the first major loan show (1868) ever mounted at Wadsworth Atheneum and one of the first collections of European art amassed and displayed in America.
Batterson was a joiner and natural born leader. In art, politics and insurance, Batterson personified the entrepreneurial spirit of the Industrial Age. He was engaged in civic affairs from the time of his arrival. He was one of the founders of the Hartford Arts Union, for 40 years a trustee of the Wadsworth Atheneum, a member of the committee that created Bushnell Park, a regular exhibitor at the Hartford County Fairs and an outspoken presence at town meetings. He was among the founders of the Republican Party in Connecticut and was elected chairman of the State Central Committee and War Committee during the Civil War — which is credited with sustaining Connecticut's fragile majority for Abraham Lincoln during the election of 1864.
The country hadn't been much interested in monuments before the Civil War, connecting them with the monarchs and churches left behind in Europe. But so cataclysmic was the war that monuments were suddenly in high demand. Before the war, Batterson had pushed the limits of his craft, developing several of the largest and most ornate monuments in the country.
Postwar demand meant explosive growth for Batterson's firm, which produced many of the most admired Civil War monuments in the country, including the national monuments at the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefield cemeteries. The firm, renamed the New England Granite Co., expanded into general construction with contracts to build Providence City Hall, Marble House in Newport, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. building in Hartford, George Vanderbilt's Biltmore estate in North Carolina, the Library of Congress in Washington, the new (1874-79) Connecticut State Capitol and the foundation under the Statue of Liberty.
If there was a Connecticut Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions in business and the arts, James G. Batterson would deserve a place in both. He was the rare individual to have excelled to such a degree in such divergent fields. He devoted his life to Hartford, lived in a mansion at Albany Avenue and Vine Street and did more than almost anyone of his generation to burnish Hartford's national reputation.
While Batterson's monument business was more commercial than artistic, in 1870 the distinction hardly mattered as public art itself was so fresh and new, and museums largely unheard of. The results demonstrate a compelling model of artistic expression. Demand for Civil War monuments generated the first great tidal wave of art patronage in America; produced at a cost that was perhaps five times as much as all the art patronage in our nation's history up to that point. It's a profound legacy and an important dimension of a war as defining as any event in our history.
William Hosley, a historian, writer and consultant, will give a talk, "Monumental Genius: James Batterson and the Development of Art & Industry in Victorian America," Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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