Editor's note: The following 1997 essay was published on April 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Ann Smith. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Ms. Smith through the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, CT.



 

The Mattatuck Museum

by Ann Smith and Frances Chamberlain

 

The Mattatuk Museum occupies a central location in the heart of Waterbury. Its dramatic structure, designed in 1986 by internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli from a 1912 Masonic Hall, rises impressively on the western corner of Waterbury's Green. Pelli, who also designed renovations to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, created a new entrance wing and gardens leading into the older building. The impressive scale and classical detailing of the older building are preserved and enhanced in the renovated facility which is a fitting home to the Museum's collections.

The Mattatuck Historical Society was organized in 1877 to preserve the history of that part of Connecticut "anciently known as Mattatuck." The group first published a history, and then opened its first museum in 1911. They continued to occupy the room of this historic mansion, with a three story exhibition hall added in 1912. The collections were eclectic, in terms of both archaeological specimens and art, although throughout the forty-five year tenure of Director Rawson Haddon an impressive collection of booklets on area history were compiled.

In the 1950s the Mattatuck took on a new focus when a plan was developed to collect the works of artists who have lived or worked in the state. Today, the Mattatuck remains the only museum to concentrate exclusively on the work of Connecticut artists.

As the collections were refined, both in history and art, the Education Department grew, and the Mattatuck was accredited by the American Association of Museums, one of the first museums in the state to be so recognized.

In 1983, the Museum Council undertook a successful $4.2 million capital campaign which enabled the Mattatuck to relocate to its current 50,000 square-foot facility. The new facility provides modern exhibition spaces for a more effective presentation of the collections and greatly improved public program spaces for an audience that continues to grow.

New York Times architect critic Paul Goldberger called the new Mattatuck, "an exquisite gem...that brilliantly resolves a difficult urban site." The museum has, in fact, become a landmark on the Waterbury Green, and a thriving cultural institution in this aging industrial city.

The Mattatuck Museum is a treasure house of rich collections featuring Connecticut art and decorative arts, as well as the history of farming villages and industrial centers in Western Connecticut. The Museum's painting collections include works by nationally recognized American Impressionists, like Maurice Prendergast, who were associated with the summer art colonies along the shoreline in the southern part of the state, and plein-air landscape artists who were attracted to the northwestern corner of the state in the late nineteenth century.

Maurice Prendergast's Autumn Study is typical of the Impressionist's work. Prendergast summered in the Westport home of his brother and was attracted to Connecticut for the same reasons as many other Impressionists: the region's easy proximity to New York and the area's natural beauty. This particular painting is, however, inspired by a scene in Central Park.

Because it is a study, it gives the viewer a better sense of how the artist worked, the reaction of his eye and hand to a scene. The subtle nuances of how the artist responded to a particular landscape and how he structured a picture becomes more accessible to the viewer through the study. Autumn Study is a good example of his mature style. He discretely balanced color patches, which created prismatic and scintillating effects. From Impressionism he took color, laid side by side in tiny strokes, like a mosaic.

As part of the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, the Mattatuck Museum is well represented by its collections containing the work of artists who were part of the colonies in Old Lyme, Cos Cob and Weir Farm. Although the most well known of the Impressionists gathered at a few shoreline art colonies, there were others working in this style scattered throughout Northwestern Connecticut. Strong examples by the artists of the Old Lyme colony include works by Guy Wiggins, Edward Rook, Henry Ward Ranger and Chauncey Ryder.

Guy Wiggins' Edge of the Woods, Spring is a rural Old Lyme scene, rather than the urban scene the artist is better known for. The painting's freshness and originality were perhaps inspired by the natural beauty of the location. He is best known for his Impressionistic snow scenes of New York.

Guy was the son of Carleton Wiggins, one of the earliest painters of Old Lyme. The elder Wiggins painted in the Barbizon style, but his son adopted the techniques of Impressionism. He lived in Essex and Old Lyme, where he operated an art school. The Connecticut countryside was conducive to his Impressionist technique of plein-air painting and broken brushwork.

Edward Rook, one of the most enduring artists of the Old Lyme group, arrived in 1905 and painted many versions of Bradbury's Mill Pond over a long period of time, in all seasons and light. Like Monet's series done to study the effects of light, Rook painted this same fulling mill over and over. He wrote about standing in the icy waters of the mill pond to capture the changes and the effects of light with different seasons. This work is a particularly good example of the Impressionist technique, with broken brush work, and the use of patterned color to create a sense of depth and structure for the two dimensional picture surface.

Henry Ward Ranger, one of the founders of the colony in Old Lyme, arriving in 1899, was a Barbizon artist who liked to create moody atmospheric landscapes with rich, warmly lit color. His woodland interiors with a dominating tree off center in mid-ground, characteristic of the Barbizon style, are usually enhanced by the late afternoon sun.

Ranger built his summer studio in Noank, across the inlet from Marcus Island. When he began to paint there in 1902, that spot became a favorite subject. A charismatic figure who established a purchase fund for young painters at the National Academy of Design upon his death, Ranger played an important role in bringing artists to the Connecticut shoreline art colonies.

Chauncey F. Ryder was born in Danbury and summered in Old Lyme in 1910 and 1911, soon after returning from a ten year sojourn in Paris. Adopting the Impressionist's bright palette and loose brush work, Ryder developed a distinctively fluid handling of paint, as seen in Pasture Brook, and fresh spring-like colors, admired by contemporary critics as lyrical and poetic.

William Chadwick's Pepperidge Trees, probably of the salt marshes of Old Lyme, is an excellent example of Connecticut Impressionism. Chadwick, was one of the early members of the Old Lyme Art Colony, arriving in 1902 and returning yearly to stay at Miss Florence Griswold's house, the artists' retreat. In 1915, he and his wife settled in Old Lyme. A native of Yorkshire, England, who focused on portraits before colleagues at the Art Students League in New York introduced him to Old Lyme and the landscape, his work reflects the unique and special rapport with the landscape that could be achieved only through intimate contact over time. Chadwick is known for his ability to capture impressions of the seasonal textures of the New England countryside and nature's atmospheric nuances.

Charles H. Davis, the earliest artist attracted to Mystic, just east of the Old Lyme colony on the Connecticut shore, moved quickly from the Barbizon tradition to the Impressionist style. Davis' Oak Tree in Mystic features a mature oak off center in a Barbizon style composition, but enlivened with the highlights of the Impressionist palette. He is known for his exuberant delight in cloud filled skies, but in this painting, Davis lowered his focus to the rich colors of the Connecticut trees and meadows.

J. Alden Weir's Portrait of a Young Girl is an unusual subject for this artist. More famous for his landscapes and cityscapes, this lovely portrait shows another side to the artist's work with its almost "Whistleresque" treatment of the child's white lace gown. Weir made a name for himself as a muralist in the World's Columbian Exposition, but remained basically a landscape painter. He earned many prestigious awards and was one of the founders of the Ten American Painters.

The Mattatuck also features paintings by his brother, John Ferguson Weir, the first director of the Yale Art School. Although John Ferguson Weir's work is not considered to be part of the Connecticut Impressionists, it adds an interesting perspective to the artist's life and the dynamics of the nineteenth-century art world.

As an academician, John Ferguson Weir's subject matter was Venice, the ultimate setting for the study of the classical arts. John Ferguson Weir's Venice illustrates his evolution toward a more Impressionist palette and painting style. He became an influential and widely respected authority on art in this country, influenced by Impressionism, but perhaps closer to his more famous brother in his still life paintings.

In addition to the Mattatuck's fine collection of Connecticut Impressionists who were active with the shoreline art colonies the museum features artists who painted the hills of Northwestern Connecticut during this period, while maintaining an active presence in the New York art world.

Alexander T. Van Laer, a landscape painter, teacher, writer and lecturer, had studio for many years in Litchfield. He painted many scenes of the rolling hills of Litchfield County, all very characteristic of the Impressionist palette. He was a member of the National Academy of Design, American Water Color Society, and quite likely a friend of William Merritt Post who lived only five miles away in Morris.

William Merritt Post went back and forth to New York frequently, getting off the train at his farm. He was a member of the National Academy and a founder of the American Watercolor Society.

Post's Brook in Spring is probably a view of the Bantam River. Based in New York City, Post traveled throughout the east coast, collecting landscape motifs in his sketch books. After settling in his Morris studio in 1910, he began painting the landscape in the plein-air manner of the Impressionists. The Mattatuck Museum will host a major exhibit of Post's work in the winter of 1997, with a catalogue of many works never publicly displayed before.

Harry Ballinger's Nepaug Creek and Marsh's Pond was inspired by the landscape surrounding his New Hartford home. Ballinger, born in 1892, studied at The Art Students League. His work is particularly interesting because of its bold matching of bright, light spaces, with deep, dark areas, in the manner of John Singer Sargent.

Other works in the Mattatuck collection that might be of interest to those who follow the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail are nineteenth-century landscapes of Connecticut scenes by George Henry Durrie, Edward Nichols, John Frederick Kensett, and Frederic Church.

The Museum also exhibits work by Connecticut's earliest artists, including charming portraits by John Trumbull, Erastus Salisbury Field, Ralph Earl, William Jennys and Ammi Phillips. The twentieth century is represented with works by Josef Albers, Yves Tanguy, Alexander Calder and Arshilc Gorky.

Altogether, the Fine Arts collections include about 600 paintings, about 1,500 works on paper, and twenty sculptures. The collection has been recommended by the New York Times as a "capsule history of American art."

In addition to the permanent art exhibits, there are temporary exhibits, which change about six times each year. These include solo shows highlighting the work of contemporary artists working in Connecticut, and exhibits which examine historical themes of figures from Connecticut's rich artistic heritage. Art historical exhibits have included the recent survey of surrealism in Connecticut and a display of recently discovered paintings by the turn of the century Connecticut tonalist Allen Talcott.

The museum's careful focus on Connecticut art and history has resulted in a delicate balance between art and history in a variety of media and historical subjects. The viewer, whether interested in history or art, gets a fuller, broader picture of Connecticut history -- how history and culture impact art -- all in one museum.

 

About the authors


Ann Smith was the Curator of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, CT, at the time of writing of the essay. Frances Chamberlain was a museum publicist at that time.

 


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