Masterpiece Theatres | New England Art Collections
Blame it on the majestic New England scenery that lured artists to its shores and mountains–or on savvy collectors who had the foresight to purchase the preeminent works of their time. The result is undeniable: The bounty of art found in this region is mind-boggling, from the American collection housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to the Hudson River School paintings hanging in Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, to the Impressionist gems of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Add the region’s university collections–such as the vast number of works in all media at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and Yale’s newly expanded Art Gallery–rivaling those of the finest institutions in most midrange cities, and you see how spoiled we are. Yet even with these riches, there remain hidden treasures to be discovered. Several of these sites have undergone recent refurbishing, acquired National Historic Landmark status, or simply added better lighting to enhance presentation of the works. There’s no time like the present to check them out.
St. Johnsbury Athenaeum:
St. Johnsbury, Vermont
With its requisite Irving gas station, diner, and red-brick paper mill, St. Johnsbury at first glance looks like many other small industrial towns in New England. But then you head up a hill to Main Street, and the opulence of yesteryear starts to seep into the picture. Churches share the route with the classrooms of St. Johnsbury Academy and a clutch of grand Victorian homes and venues, including the mansard-roofed public library, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. By all means, pull over, as I have countless times to the delight of any passenger held captive in my car.
Enter the library, past rows of leather-bound books, to the back room. Sunshine filters in from the cupola’s skylight onto the parlor chairs and black-walnut floors, illuminating the more than 100 paintings lining the red walls of America’s oldest unreconstructed art gallery of its type. Built in 1873, many of the gilt-framed works here are by prominent Hudson River School painters, including Asher B. Durand, Sanford Gifford, and Jasper Cropsey. Yet the collection’s crowning achievement is the immense piece that fills the entire back wall of this small space: Albert Bierstadt’s 10-by-15-foot panorama, The Domes of the Yosemite (1867).
Reviewing the mountainous vista of the Sierra Nevada, the New York Times stated that it was “worth a week’s travel to see this great picture.” The artist had been paid the then-exorbitant sum of $25,000 to create the piece for Connecticut financier LeGrand Lockwood. Lockwood would soon go bankrupt and die, forcing his widow to sell Domes at auction; future governor and Athenaeum patron Horace Fairbanks was the top bidder. “Now the Domes are doomed to the seclusion of a Vermont town, where it will astonish the natives,” the Boston Daily Globe reported in 1874. We know, however, that the Athenaeum did receive at least one out-of-town visitor: Albert Bierstadt returned every summer until his death to touch up his masterpiece. stjathenaeum.org
The Olson House:
Veer off Route 1 in Thomaston onto River Road and you soon enter the small community of Cushing, with its rich tapestry of rolling meadows, sheltered coastal inlets, and faded-red barns. This varied terrain and its inhabitants were the perfect fodder for the canvases of Andrew Wyeth. The artist would create more than 70 paintings in his lifetime just from the scenery along River Road, yet it’s the former 18th-century sea captain’s house on Hathorne Point Road that would become the backdrop for his most famous work, Christina’s World (1948).
On the same day Wyeth met his soon-to-be wife, Betsy James, she introduced him to two friends and neighbors, sister and brother Christina and Alvaro Olson. Wyeth became infatuated with the Olson farm, painting every nook and cranny of the three-story home, which became a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Walk inside the house to the smell of old wood, seasoned by salt air, and find Alvaro’s farming equipment, the woodstove that did its best to heat the structure on harsh winter nights, and a vase of fresh geraniums, placed exactly as they were during the Olsons’ lifetime, right next to the rocking chair.