Connecticut is blessed with an astonishing array of world-class museums, from the famed Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Yale University Art Gallery to the home-cum-museum Hill-Stead. This article invites you on a guided tour of some of their must-see works, explaining what makes each a masterpiece, a creation that established or perpetuated an artistic or historic tradition—art as cultural landmark. From the definitive sculpture of Nathan Hale that came to symbolize sacrifice for one’s country to the quintessential Monet study of light, from the image that overtook a Tennyson poem in our mind’s eye to the mural that brought an extinct age back to life, this guide can inspire you to follow this art trail, and to create your own list of must-see artworks.
Bruce Museum, Greenwich
“Nathan Hale” (1890)
At the Bruce Museum you can see a wonderful bronze sculpture of a true Connecticut hero: the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale (1755-1776), a young schoolteacher and graduate of Yale who was captured and executed by the British as a spy. His last words are as famous as they come: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” If you’ve got to go, that’s a great exit line.
The figure is idealized, but Hale is depicted in so romantic a pose one cannot help but feel stirred. He is shown with his feet bound, about to utter his last heroic words. There is incredible movement to his garments, so much that it’s easy to forget they’re made of bronze.
The great Baroque sculptor Bernini said that a face was at its most expressive when it was about to speak—and the sculptor of this work, Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937), would clearly agree. Hale appears to be on the verge of speaking, his right hand delicately opening, as if he is teaching a moral lesson with his own death. Socrates would certainly approve. There is no fear on Hale’s face, only a quiet confidence and resignation to his role as martyr to freedom. The sculpture is morally elevating, as Neoclassical art was intended to be, but MacMonnies worked in a hybrid style, combining the drama of Romantic sculpture with the morality of Neoclassicism. Enormously accomplished in both painting and sculpture, he spent much of his life in fin-de-siècle France and was as popular in Europe as he was here. He created a number of bronze statues of our state hero, including the life-size version that stands in City Hall Park in New York, on the spot where Hale was executed.
The Bruce’s smaller version was created in the same year as the life-size original. Other smaller ones are displayed at the National Gallery and the Met. The pose that MacMonnies chose for Hale, particularly with his ankles bound with rope, would become the staple image of the heroic patriot—future sculptures of him by others would copy the pose, but rarely with as much grace and power as MacMonnies’.
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
“Mrs. Robinson” (1784)
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Of all of the jewels in the Yale Center for British Art (where, I happily admit, I was a student intern some 10 years ago), my favorite, the one that takes my breath away, is actually an unfinished portrait.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of England’s greatest portraitists, and the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. His trademark was a painterly, loose-brushstroke style, in which he brought a Neoclassical idealism to his subjects, a touch of Greek goddess to the Shropshire heiress.
Portrayed here is the poet and actress Mary “Perdita” Robinson (1757-1800), known as “the English Sappho” (though she had famous affairs with men, too, including George IV), and nicknamed “Perdita” after her acclaimed 1779 performance in that role in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She was portrayed by Gainsborough as well, making her the subject of perhaps the two greatest portraitists of the 18th century. Reynolds depicted her on multiple occasions, both in paint and for prints. Reynolds and Robinson were mutual admirers, Robinson writing of Reynolds’ “magic skill” and offering him a couplet: “Thy hand, by Nature guided, marks the line/That stamps perfection on the form divine.”
There is something particularly wonderful about this unfinished version of Reynolds’ Mrs. Robinson. The freshness, the movement of the brushstrokes and the aching beauty of the sitter imply more than just admiration on Reynolds’ part.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
“Night Café” (1947)
Vincent van Gogh
There have been few artists as tortured as van Gogh but, oh, how he projected his torqued soul onto canvas. In his short, unhappy life, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) created an astonishing oeuvre (more than 2,000 works), radically different from his contemporaries’, which would blaze a new artistic trail. His renown would come posthumously, but would be such that he is now one of the most recognized, and most beloved, painters in history. Within just a decade of his death, the first of a long series of intense debates raged over possible forgeries of his art, further spurring the popular awareness of him as a great master, albeit one who sold only a single painting in his lifetime.
“Night Café” is among his iconic paintings. It depicts Café de la Gare, a bar that was open late into the night, at 30 Place Lamartine, in Arles in the South of France. It was not a high-class establishment, as the artist himself wrote: “Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.”
Van Gogh spent three consecutive nights painting this work, sleeping during the day. What is so striking technically is the heavy use of paint. We tend to think of painting as a two-dimensional medium (which tries to create the illusion that the painted scene is three-dimensional). But van Gogh used so much paint—heavy, waxy globs—that his works have an almost sculptural texture. The paint jags off the canvas, sometimes to the point where dollops of paint cast their own shadows. This was a revolutionary technique, but it’s the mood of the painting that really hits home.
The sickly greens and yellows, contrasting with the powerful blood-red walls and the coagulated texture of the paint, produce a feeling of queasy unease and molten melancholy. These “night prowlers” are sad, tired, lost souls, hunched over, nursing their absinthe, because they have no home to return to. There is a heavy, hypnotic sadness here, found in the best of van Gogh’s paintings, that makes them tragedies in miniature—inspiring pity and fear and, ultimately, a sense of catharsis.
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington
“The Tub” (1886)
Degas’ “The Tub” is part of the artist’s series of intimate pictures of women engaged in the sort of private daily rituals that are beyond sexual intimacy—they would be revealed only to a spouse: a wife combing her knotted hair after sleep, or in this case, bending awkwardly in a shallow tub as she bathes.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French painter, printmaker and sculptor best known for depicting ballerinas and jockeys. He idolized Ingres, who once told him, “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” His greatest influence was Manet, whom he met in The Louvre, where both had come to copy the same Velazquez painting.
Early critics of Degas claimed some of his works, like this pastel, were misogynistic, capturing beautiful women in their least flattering moments and displaying them to a largely male viewership. But in truth, there is such love and honor in these majestic works that they elevate the model, who is elegant despite her contorted posture. They allow us to penetrate the boundary and become, for a frozen moment, the husband of the woman portrayed—an effect all the more powerful for the intimacy.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
“First Steps” (1943)
The great Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), godfather of Modernism, founder of Cubism, is the most famous painter of the 20th century. He is also the artist whose work is most frequently stolen and forged. But his paintings are never easy to understand, nor particularly easy to like. What is great about Picasso is his ability to load shattered, contorted images with real emotion, which makes his paintings more than mere exercises in abstraction, but bottled, condensed charges of humanity, fragmentation grenades that pierce us more deeply for their startling appearance.
Along with Georges Braque, around 1908 Picasso invented Cubism, a technique that is something like cutting up a photograph into irregular pieces and gluing them back together in a rearranged, chaotic manner. Later in his career Picasso shifted to the style of painting we see here, which takes some of the abstraction elements of Cubism, and instead twists and geometrizes human forms, altering physics and the illusion of depth, to concentrate on the emotions within the work.
This painting, made during the Nazi occupation of Paris, shows a mother and child as the child takes his first steps, steps toward independence, a separation at once exciting and just a bit sad for the mother. It is tempting to read into this an allegory for the occupation of Paris, but it is really about the emotional charge between mother and child. The mother is loving and warm as she hunches over her little one. This painting is the essence of why Picasso, whose aesthetic is certainly an acquired taste, has endured, and is as great as he is. The emotional, human heart beats through the experiments with abstraction and perspective, catching us off-guard, as we expect emotional art to be realistic and laced with melodrama. Picasso invades us, circumventing our defenses—and we are the richer for it.
Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven
“The Age of Reptiles” (1947)
It may strike one as odd to include a mural in a natural history museum in this list. But “The Age of Reptiles” has all the qualities of a great artwork: It is iconic, it exhibits masterful skill, and it is emblematic of its time and the school of thought it exemplifies.
Rudolph Zallinger (1919-1995) was born in Siberia but studied art at Yale. Trained as an illustrator, he was hired at $40 a week to paint a mural, based on the best scientific concepts of the time, to decorate the museum’s Hall of Dinosaurs—the 110-foot work took him three-and-a-half years to complete. The museum was so pleased with it that he was named “artist in residence,” and asked to paint a second mural, “The Age of Mammals,” for the museum.
Scientists no longer believe that dinosaurs are related most closely to reptiles, so even the title “The Age of Reptiles” is, nowadays, a misnomer. Dinosaurs have been shown to be a nearer relation to birds, yet “The Age of Birds” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Great art is exemplary of its time. Raphael’s “School of Athens” captured the way Renaissance scholars understood Greek philosophy, which is different from the way scholars now interpret the Greeks. The painting captures a snapshot of intellectual thought in the process of creating a beautiful installation. Notions of “updating” Zallinger’s mural should be as quickly dismissed as the idea of retouching Raphael’s Aristotle in the “School of Athens.”
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington
“Grainstacks, White Frost Effect” (1889)
There are few things lovelier than a painting by Claude Monet. His career was built on studies of the play of light, and how the movement and texture of paint can replicate what the eye sees. “Grainstacks, White Frost Effect” is part of a series the artist painted of the same subject, at different times of day and in varying weather. Other series include Rouen Cathedral, poplars and (of course) water lilies. These stacks of grain (sometimes called “haystacks”), in their striking cupcake shape, were near Monet’s home in Giverny.
Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps the best-known of the Impressionist painters, who showed their work at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, established in protest to the Salon des Beaux-Arts, which favored academic painters.
Monet’s loose brushstroke results in a sort of ocular trick, wherein his paintings are difficult to discern when viewed up close, but come into focus as the viewer moves farther away.
Around 1908, Monet began to develop cataracts, his vision gradually clouding. It is interesting to note how earlier paintings such as this provoke in the viewer a sensation of gently clouded light and are about the way we see, the way light toys with our eyes. The bright sunlight that illuminates these frost-covered grainstacks almost makes you want to squint—quite an achievement when you think that, by simply applying daubs of oil paint on canvas, Monet has prompted us to squint against the bright painted light of a wintry morning.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme
“Charter Oak at Hartford” (1845)
Frederic Edwin Church
There is no more Connecticut painter than Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), and no more Connecticut subject than Hartford’s Charter Oak tree. In fact, in the pantheon of famous trees this is near the top of the list.
As Connecticut elementary-school students well know, the Charter Oak was a very large white oak tree that had been growing since the 13th century on Wyllys Hyll, as it was known to English colonists, in what is now Hartford. A Dutchman living in the area in 1614 wrote that the tree “has been a guide to our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear.” The true fame of the tree came in 1687 when, legend has it, a hollow in its trunk was used as a hiding place for the Connecticut Charter, granted to the colony in 1662 and containing unprecedented freedoms. (When the tree was felled in a 1856 storm, some of its wood was fashioned into a chair that still sits in the Capitol.)
Church was born in Hartford and the Charter Oak was close to his heart. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of landscape painting, a group that focused on painting Romantic American landscapes, bathed in sunlight, which inspired and promoted patriotism and the American expansionist spirit.
The Charter Oak was a popular patriotic subject for American painters. They might have chosen the Liberty Bell, but a sprawling oak offered a far more tempting challenge to a skilled painter—a challenge more than met by Church.
New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain
“McVey’s Barn” (1948)
In the midst of the avant-garde movement of Abstract Expressionism, when realism was a dirty word, Andrew Wyeth defiantly and beautifully painted heartfelt, photo-realistic rural scenes that made him the darling of non-artsy Americans, and that sadly led to his dismissal by critics with a taste only for the new and revolutionary. This painting is a striking example of the hyper-realistic style for which Wyeth is admired The photographic grains of weathered wood, the play of light through slats, the fragments of hay strewn about are realistic in the way they are painted, and also in the sense that they replicate a true working barn—an unidealized genre scene that contains an essence of rural New England.
Wyeth (1917-2009) was in many ways the second coming of Norman Rockwell: He was from small-town Pennsylvania, and his works display exquisite skill in their stunning photo-realism. His subjects were genre scenes—snapshots of country life and portraits of country folk, quintessentially American and with a nostalgia for rural Americana that met with enormous popular, if not critical, success. It must have been difficult to be a traditional, academic artist (albeit one of unquestioned ability) in an era when idea trumped execution. Abstraction and performance art made the headlines, but Wyeth held the hearts of his countrymen.
Wyeth won out in the end, receiving a National Medal of the Arts in 2007, and being honored as the first living American inducted into Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts and the first American since John Singer Sargent elected into France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury
“Portrait of an Unknown Man” (1822)
When you line up 19th- and particularly 18th-century American portraiture beside its European counterparts, there isn’t much competition. Early American portraits are technically inferior, with a few prominent exceptions, yet their style, which some might call more primitive or raw but which is officially called “folk art,” has its own distinctive appeal.
There is an honesty to folk art, and to this lovely portrait in particular, that resonates with us in a way the more intellectual, refined, and some might say overly manipulated, portraiture of, say, Ingres, does not. This is fine art for Everyman, without the blinders of theory and the manicured, glassy polish. Ingres did to portraiture what the gardeners of Versailles did to shrubs—grappling the medium into submission, bending it to his will. This portrait simply is: a good, honest likeness of its subject, without accoutrements like accurate perspective and a marblelike photographic finish. It’s what you or I would produce if we had talent, an eye for reading and projecting a subject’s essence, and no extensive formal training.
The reason for this less polished style is that most of these artists, like Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), born in Colebrook, were self-taught. Young America did not have painting academies, and the heart of the art world at the time was off in Paris. There were not enough master painters to sustain the apprenticeship method through which European artists learned their trade. Just as the architects of early America were self-taught, so too were the painters—which makes creations like this so impressive.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford
“The Lady of Shalott” (1905)
William Holman Hunt
There are few paintings as striking as Hunt’s monumental ode to the Tennyson poem about an imprisoned maiden, allowed to see outside her tower prison only through mirrors. When one day The Lady of Shalott could not resist the temptation to look directly out the window at the handsome Sir Lancelot, the mirrors in her prison cracked, her delicate existence was shattered and thrown into chaos, and the tapestry she had spent years weaving unraveled.
Tennyson’s 1833 poem was the equivalent of a best-seller, beloved and permeating the public imagination. It was part of a renewed interest in Arthurian romance, spurred by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of Painters, a group of Englishmen who sought a return to what they considered the more primitive, heartfelt style of painting before the era of Raphael (roughly, pre-1400). The stars of that group all tried their hand at painting Tennyson’s poem: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, J.W. Waterhouse, and our man, William Holman Hunt.
Hunt (1827-1905) had an almost syrupy-sweet style in most of his works, but this painting, his last, is considered by many to be far superior in subtlety and technique to his others. It displays the moment of highest drama, when The Lady looks directly out the window, causing the mirrors to crack and her world, like the tapestry, to come undone. It looks as if gravity has been reversed, the tower turned on its head, as her hair is blown and tossed in a fierce wind. Hunt has chosen to illustrate a quatrain that concentrates the drama of the scene: “Out flew the web and floated wide/‘The mirror crack’d from side to side/The curse is come upon me,’ cried/The Lady of Shalott.”
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford
“Retroactive I” (1963)
The great Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was one of the first American artists to incorporate elements of collage from contemporary media into paintings, setting his works in a definite time and place and emphasizing their role as social commentary. This technique had been established earlier—some 19th-century American paintings integrated newspaper clippings, and Picasso used “found” media in some of his Cubist works, but Rauschenberg was the first to utilize this technique to capture a snapshot in time and comment on it.
“Retroactive I” is his most famous photographic silk-screen painting, combining images found in popular magazines like Life with oil on canvas. There are images of people (President John F. Kennedy), technological achievements (an astronaut in space), and a mass-media product (Sunkist oranges), all painted over with oils. What we make of this amalgam of images is up to us.
Rauschenberg liked to juxtapose incongruous images we would be forced to weave together in a storyline. With today’s quick-edit digital media, we are used to seeing fast frames of dramatic imagery woven together in places as mundane as music videos. But in 1963 this was a revolutionary idea. Rauschenberg essentially invented the concept, and “Retroactive I” is his best-known example.