Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on October 11, 2010 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. It was authored in conjunction with the exhibition Reflections: The Collection of Dr. Timothy McLaughlin, on view at the Museum September 10 - October 24, 2010. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through this phone number or web address:



 

Connecticut Composed

by Erica E. Hirshler

 

Although he grew up in Maryland, Dr. Timothy McLaughlin feels like a native of Connecticut; he has adopted the state, or has allowed himself to be adopted by it, and he holds a deep affection for its rocks and wooded hills, for its history and heritage.[1] "The man who loves New England and particularly the spare region of Connecticut loves it precisely because of the spare colors, the thin lights, the delicacy and slightness of the beauty of the place," declared the poet Wallace Stevens in a national radio broadcast in 1955. Stevens was the author of complex philosophical poems that address observation, perception, and reality; at the same time, he worked -- hard and successfully -- for a large Hartford insurance company. Originally from Pennsylvania, he frequently found his artistic inspiration in the Connecticut landscape, which he embraced as his own. "Once you are here," Stevens wrote, "you are or you are on your way to become a Yankee. I was not myself born in the state. It is not that I am a native but that I feel like one." [2]

Like Stevens, Dr. McLaughlin has espoused Connecticut while also dividing his world between issues of logic and those of aesthetics. A practicing surgeon, he has created an artistic refuge in an old Connecticut house filled with canvases by painters associated with the state. The house forms a sanctuary; the paintings speak to their owner of peace and serenity, acting as an antidote to the hurly-burly of his professional orbit. "It is a question of coming home to the American self," to use Stevens's words, "in the sort of place in which it was formed. . . . It is an origin which many men all over the world, both those who have been part of us and those who have not, share in common: an origin of hardihood, good faith and good will."[3] With much good faith and good will, Dr. McLaughlin has decided to share his collection with the public, hoping that visitors to the New Britain Museum of American Art will find, as he has done, inspiration, solace, and pride in the accomplishments of Connecticut's painters.

Connecticut "has given the world more artists of acknowledged ability than any other State," Henry W. French declared in his 1879 monograph on the topic, and he went on to describe the works of more than 160 painters and sculptors with connections to the area.[4] His criteria were liberal; French included men and women who were born in Connecticut, others who settled there permanently or temporarily, and even those who had simply passed through. McLaughlin has been equally open-minded about defining his sphere, collecting some works that appealed to him for their geographic accuracy, others that communicate the spirit of the place, and some that break its character deliberately -- a New York cityscape, a stylish woman in an interior, a colorful abstraction. The collection is changing over time, nurtured as a living and growing entity.

The first painting Dr. McLaughlin purchased was a pastoral river view in a classical style by Asher B. Durand. It has nothing to do with Connecticut but everything to do with what can be found in its landscape: order, clarity, and, most of all, a supreme sense of calm and tranquility. Durand worked in a formula established by the much-admired seventeenth-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, creating a carefully balanced vista through which the eye meanders, traveling vast distances within a composition not much larger than a sheet torn from a legal pad. Cows graze placidly in the foreground, man's presence is only lightly impressed on the land (the road, the scattered houses, a distant sail), and the scene is suffused with a golden light that Durand found sacred. "The true province of Landscape Art," Durand wrote, "is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation, independent of man, or not dependent on human action."[5] Through this painting, and others like it that soon entered his collection, Dr. McLaughlin discovered the redemptive power of landscape -- the heavy, suffused light of Sanford Gifford's view of the Hudson, the river waters so calm that they serve to mirror the high cliffs that line its banks; the delicate tints of blue and violet in Worthington Whittredge's gemlike panorama of the Catskills; the clear golden light of John F. Kensett's Italian scene, the earth marked by generations of men; and the last dramatic red glow of the sun as the land beneath it succumbs to darkness, captured forever in Aaron Draper Shattuck's anonymous and seemingly unpopulated wilderness.

With Kensett, who was born in Cheshire and spent many of the last years of his career near Darien, and Shattuck, who moved to a farm in Granby in 1870, the collection takes a decided turn toward Connecticut. Dr. McLaughlin relates that the artists of the Hudson River School taught him to look at landscape painting and to discover the meanings that could be communicated through it, mysteries that could be contemplated in the ordinary and familiar. He then began to seek images of places that had personal resonance. James Hart's Farmington River pastoral, John F. Weir's somewhat forbidding view of East Rock, Henry Ward Ranger's oak forests and abandoned stone walls, Robert Logan's ruined aqueduct, Lawrence Mazzanovich's scrim of autumn foliage, William Chadwick's enveloping forest of laurel: all of these are familiar sights to a lover of Connecticut's landscape. In each case, however, the viewer is asked to look beyond the readily identifiable subject matter and to enter a quiet and private world of contemplation, as if, as Dr. McLaughlin has done, we ourselves are experiencing the meditative peace and beauty that can come from a solitary journey outdoors by foot or kayak. There are no intermediary figures in the paintings themselves; we confront each scene directly and thus experience the contemplative, healing power of place.

This sense of reflection, perhaps somewhat rooted in nostalgia, permeates the collection and links these landscapes with the figurative works by James Carroll Beckwith and Childe Hassam. Beckwith's Figure Study of Minnie Clark captures the likeness of one of his favorite sitters, a professional model admired by several artists for her ability to personify the vitality and purity of a celebrated national type popularized by Charles Dana Gibson.[6] Here, she does not command a public stage but sits in a vaguely defined interior, lost in a moment of introspection. Similarly, in Hassam's small panel, a woman reads before a fire, a timeless illustration of tranquility. While the compositional format and intimate size of this work recall James McNeill Whistler's tightly cropped images of storefronts, with their interlocking repetitions of squares and rectangles, Hassam's setting is clearly New England and specifically Connecticut -- the dining room of the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob. Hassam made several paintings of this well-known interior, carefully constructing confections that celebrate America's heritage and traditional values while also serving as reminders of the inspirational power of art.

When French wrote his survey of Connecticut's contribution to the arts in 1879, some of the men and women who became the state's leading painters were still babes in arms and the aesthetic movements they espoused were yet to take hold. The artists' colonies at Cos Cob and Old Lyme, for example, best known as incubators of the Impressionist style in the United States, began to coalesce only during the 1890s, continuing to flourish well into the twentieth century. No compilation of Connecticut art today would be complete without them. In the McLaughlin collection, Hassam represents the Cos Cob group, whose works have earned national acclaim. The Old Lyme artists include Bruce Crane, whose tonal moonlit farmstead converts the familiar into a poetic mystery, and Edward Smith, who transformed an anonymous view of the Lieutenant River into an exploration of bands of color and vibrating pattern. Dr. McLaughlin has taken his collection even further in time, not only selecting the contemporary realists Tom Yost and Peggy Root, whose luminous paintings speak to their ancestors in his assembly, the Whittredges and Shattucks, but also embracing Sol Lewitt, whose abstract and minimalist progressions of lively line and color are equally integral to the story of art in Connecticut. Lewitt's horizontal decorations can also be read as landscapes-bands of light or water or quivering air that can evoke a sense of place as succinctly as some of the more representational works in the collection.

Dr. McLaughlin has been selective, rather than encyclopedic, in assembling his holdings. The history of art in Connecticut begins before the Revolutionary War and includes artists working in every period and style, but availability and personal taste have, as a matter of course, played a role in shaping this collection.[7] Many of Connecticut's best- known painters -- Ralph Earl, John Brewster, Frederic Church, John Haberle, Willard Metcalf, John H. Twachtman -- have become familiar figures in American art circles, their works desired by collectors and museums nationwide, their prices constantly on the rise. Dr. McLaughlin has accepted their status and also realized that they represent only a small fraction of the artists who created notable images of the region. In terms of style and subject matter, Dr. McLaughlin is more interested in academically trained painters than in folk or outsider artists and more intrigued by landscape than portraiture or still life, though his recent acquisitions of the figurative Beckwith and a haunting still life of a rose by the realist Graydon Parrish (whose Connecticut connections come through his commissions rather than his residence) may hint at a future shift in strategy. Although the region's painters recorded both pastoral and industrial motifs, the landscapes in the collection emphasize the former, reflecting a reverence for nature rather than technology. But these choices, whether made deliberately or unconsciously, give the McLaughlin collection a definitive personality and spirit that another more generic or wide-ranging collection would lack. The soul of this collection lies in its reverence for place, in its desire to make connections between specific locations past and present and between the physical world and its spiritual associations.

It is this idea of place, of rootedness, and of meditation that links these diverse works. They have been gathered with an eye for the natural beauty of Connecticut and for the respite that beauty can offer to those willing to receive it. Through the medium of art, the actual landscapes are transformed beyond their physical appearance; the viewer sees beloved sites that are both real and ideal. Through these pictures, one can find relief in that other, more tranquil realm. As the poet Stevens observed of the Connecticut landscape that surrounded him, in these places one has a sense of restoration and return, a feeling of "coming home to the American self."[8]

 

Select Bibliography

French, H. W. Art and Artists in Connecticut. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1879.
 

Notes

1. My own affection for Connecticut comes from my mother, Marilyn Nair Hirshler, who grew up in New Britain at 81 Columbia Street and at 35 Park Place. She, along with her sister Zecille Nair Gebhardt, gave me their memories of family and place. I would like to dedicate these words to my mother and to the Nair and Rokaw families, who, once upon a time, were such an integral part of New Britain.
 
2. Wallace Stevens, "Connecticut Composed," script for This Is America radio series, April 1955, quoted in Stevens, "This Is Connecticut," Hartford Courant, July 21, 1955, p. 12.
 
3. Ibid.
 
4. French, Art and Artists in Connecticut, p. 1.
 
5. Asher B. Durand, "Letters on Landscape Painting, No. VIII," Crayon 1 (June 6, 1855): 354.
 
6. See David Slater, "The Fount of Inspiration: Minnie Clark, the Art Workers' Club for Women, and Performances of American Girlhood," Winterthur Portfolio 39, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 229­58.
 
7. For a helpful modern survey of the subject, see Amy Kurtz Lansing, "The Artistic Heritage of Connecticut," American Art Review 19 (November­December 2007): 158­65, 167­68.
 
8. Stevens, "Connecticut Composed."

 

About the author

Erica E. Hirshler is Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on October 11, 2010, with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on October 5, 2010. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle and Claudia Thesing of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the text.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy biographical information on artists cited above in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Return to American Reflections: The Collection of Dr. Timothy McLaughlin


Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.