Unique New England Museums: The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

ART ON DIPLAY- “The Days”  By Thomas Wilmer Dewing, , is one of the many pieces of art on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art


By Carla Charter

HARTFORD, CONN.-The oldest continually operating public art museum in the United States, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, one of the first major American art patrons, and opened its doors in 1844.

The Wadsworth is comprised of five connected buildings. The first was the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building of 1844, designed by the architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. The Tudor Revival Colt Memorial of 1910 and the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial of 1910-15 were designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, which provided additional space for the growing fine arts collection. The Avery Memorial opened in 1934 and became the first American museum building with a modern International Style interior.  The Goodwin building, designed in a late modernist style, was opened to the public in 1969.

The Wadsworth displays a wide range of art from antiquities to contemporary and includes a  collection of nearly 50,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years.   These include the Morgan collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and European decorative arts; baroque and surrealist paintings; a collection of Hudson River School landscapes; European and American Impressionist paintings; modernist masterpieces; the Serge Lifar collection of Ballets Russes drawings and costumes; the George A. Gay collection of prints; the Wallace Nutting collection of American colonial furniture and decorative arts; the Samuel Colt firearms collection; costumes and textiles; African American art and artifacts; and contemporary art.

The Wadsworth Atheneum is home of the Auerbach Art Library which has extensive holdings of scholarly monographs, exhibition catalogues, fine art periodicals, museum bulletins, and auction catalogues, ranked among the most comprehensive art historical collections in New England. “Museum founder Daniel Wadsworth envisioned the library to be a multipurpose cultural center dedicated to the preservation and presentation of diverse knowledge – historical, literary, and artistic,” according to Kim Hugo, Director of Marketing for the Atheneum.

Also housed at the Wadsworth is the Amistad Center, an independently incorporated non-profit organization. “Inspired by its collection of 7,000 items including art, artifacts, and popular culture objects, the Amistad Center’s mission is to interpret and celebrate African American arts and humanities and to educate the public about their importance and influence in American life,” Hugo said.

European art at the museum includes works by such artists as Caravaggio, Dalí, Panini, Picasso, Ribera, Hals, and Zurbarán, as well as porcelain produced by Meissen and Sevres.  Within the European collection are major French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Van Gogh. The holdings of English art include works by Turner, Wright of Darby, Holman Hunt, and Stanley Spencer.

In the American collection there is art by Alexander Calder, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Thomas Eakins, William Harnett, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Trumbull.

In Modern and Contemporary art there are works including those by Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Sean Scully, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley who painted President Barack Obama’s portrait.

The Wadsworth also houses works by New England artists as well as art that depicts New England. “The roots of the museum began with the collecting American paintings that celebrated New England’s beauty, and were symbols of a new, independent nation,” Hugo said.

Some of the New England artist highlighted at the Wadsworth Atheneum include Frederic Church who was born in Hartford, and who painted “Coast Scene, Mt. Desert” which depicts Maine; Theodore Robinson who painted “Beacon Street, Boston”; Thomas Wilmer Dewing, “The Days”. Dewing was born in Boston and worked in New Hampshire, but the subject matter of the painting is literary. Also at the musueum is Andrew Wyeth’s “Northern Point” which depicts Maine.
The American Decorative Arts collection embodies the history of material culture in New England and America. Pieces include elaborately carved and painted 17th century chests to the modern masterpieces of Marcel Breuer and Frank Lloyd Wright. “The collection contains works ranging from the utilitarian to the luxurious,” Hugo continued Unique forms come to life in the modern meets natural ethos designs of George Nakashima (1905-90). Connecticut craftsmen are celebrated through fine examples of Samuel Loomis (1748-1814), maker of Colchester/Norwich style furniture, and Eliphalet Chapin (1741-1807), Connecticut’s most renowned colonial cabinetmaker.

A current display entitled “Bed Furnishings in Early America, An Intimate Look”, explores the evolution of privacy, intimacy, status, and global exchange through the bedstead, its textiles, and their placement within the home from the seventeenth to early nineteenth century.

“While the names of the artists who created the beautiful objects in this exhibition are not as familiar or in some cases are unknown these are exceptional works of art most of which were made here in New England, “ Hugo said.

Those interested in more information about the Wadsworth Atheneum and all of its currents displays can visit www.thewadsworth.org.