Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted in Resource Library on March 16, 2005 with permission of the author and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Great River Remembered: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley

By William Hosley

 



 

The Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, an 1985 exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, consummated the quest that inspired me to pursue of a career in museum work. After twelve years of picking and poking around the antiquarian fields of Vermont and the upper Connecticut River Valley, and after a memorable summer spent studying architecture and decorative arts in Old Deerfield, I became captivated by a sense of the power of place and the power of art and antiques to evoke a sense of place. Object knowledge has been my route to the heart of regional identity.

Aside from its scholarly value or its relationship to the increasingly vibrant "sense of place" movement, The Great River was a fine example of public and private partnership. Our three sponsors, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation's Program in American Art, and The Travelers Co. Foundation, each contributed in an indispensable way to the creation of what was then the largest and most difficult program of research, exhibition, and publication ever carried out at this venerable old New England museum.

The Great River involved three years of exhaustive field and archival research, which is available on microfilm in the research libraries at Winterthur, Old Sturbridge Village and Historic Deerfield. Influenced by the innovative system of regional analysis first developed by Frank Horton and Brad Rauschenberg at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, research associate Elizabeth Fox (now curator at The Connecticut Historical Society) and I photographed more than 7,000 buildings, objects and artworks, and worked with a team of six research volunteers to carry out a survey and analysis of artisan account books, newspapers, and probate inventories. We ended up with an extraordinary data base from which we selected more than 400 objects to be included in the exhibition.

Our lenders were terrific, ranging from the grand to the obscure, but mostly institutions in the region itself; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Winterthur to the Dickinson Public Library in Northfield, Massachusetts. It was a registrar's nightmare, but, once gathered, it was a joy to behold two centuries of regional treasures.

The exhibition was organized in nine thematic groupings, subdivided chronologically. It was first and foremost an art exhibition, and by "art" I do not mean just paintings. But paintings there were -- arguably the best selection of work by New England "provincial" artists since Nina Fletcher Little teamed up with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1976 to mount Paintings by New England Provincial Artists, 1775-1800. Portraits, landscapes and ornamental painting are rarely brought together to tell the story of the origins of American painting, but that is the story of this region and it is, essentially, the story of American painting at its birth.

The Great River included almost too much furniture, but what splendid examples. Probably our greatest discovery in the furniture realm was the work of Timothy Loomis, the leading cabinetmaker in Windsor, Connecticut, the oldest town in the Valley. Loomis' documented furniture and a remarkable collection of ledgers, practice books and journals turned up on the campus of a private secondary school (Loomis Chaffee) located on the site of a farm first settled by the Loomis family in 1639.

In seeking a full panorama of colonial and early national period arts, The Great River did not overlook architecture and gravestones merely because such works cannot be borrowed or exhibited. We exhibited photographs of interiors and exteriors and of gravestones photographed for us by the artist and legendary gravestone photographer, Daniel Farber of Worcester.

Ever faithful to the traditions of antiquarianism, The Great River featured books and prints, including the first issue of the "oldest continuously printed newspaper in the country," the Connecticut (now "Hartford") Courant, and the first architectural book by an American author, a rare first edition of Asher Benjamin's (1773-1845), Country Builder's Assistant (1797).

Metalsmithing is one of the few areas in the arts where Connecticut and the Connecticut Valley achieved international distinction. Too often, when metals are featured in surveys of the colonial arts, the story begins and ends with silver and gold. Actually, the Valley's silversmiths were not among America's first, best or most prolific. The region excelled in humbler branches of metalsmithing and these were amply presented. Pewter, brass, iron, and weapons were included.

The most sophisticated branch of metalsmithing practiced in the Valley was clockmaking. Eli Terry (1772-1852) is one of the great figures in the history of American invention and industry for perfecting the mass production and, eventually, international mass marketing of shelf clocks made of interchangeable parts. His story was told, as well as that of the man who trained him, Daniel Burnap (1759-1838).

Textiles, clothing, and needlework appeared in abundance, ably chosen and analyzed by consulting curator Jane Nylander. Here, not one of the twenty-plus textile objects featured had ever been published or closely analyzed.

The Great River did not and does not represent the mainstream in American art studies. We won some awards at the time and there have been several successful efforts at regional study via art and material culture that have credited The Great River as an inspiration.

The Connecticut Valley has long been a symbol of the other America, or at least the other New England. Set apart from the dominant cosmopolitan maritime cultures, it was in many ways the first American frontier, a region that quickly moved beyond subsistence to achieve a sense of purpose, comfort, and style. Connecticut Valley art attracted some of the earliest scholars of American art and it has been often compared with the urban and cosmopolitan traditions as something not better or worse, but certainly different.

The Great River made a difference in the life of this region and of the institution that sponsored it. If it also made a difference in the study of American art and decorative art, then we all have the Henry Luce Foundation to credit for making it possible.

 

About the author:

Historian Bill Hosley is an advocate for Connecticut and New England history and art who was formerly the Director of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society where he cared for several of Connecticut's premiere historic properties. As a curator at Wadsworth Atheneum, Mr. Hosley organized several major exhibitions including The Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley (1985), The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America (1990), Sense of Place: Furniture from New England Towns (1993) and Sam & Elizabeth: Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire (1996). He has shared Connecticut's stories with hundreds of audiences throughout the country, is a member the Place board of The Hartford Courant, has consulted on PBS and BBC documentaries and has written five books and numerous articles about early New England.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

This essay was previously published in American Art Review, Volume VII, Number 1, February-March 1995, pages 96-97.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Elizabeth Kornhauser, Chief Curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, for her help concerning the above text.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Resource Library.


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