Connecticut Art Museums
Connecticut is the New England state least defined by its geography — a gentle green landscape of low, rolling hills, highways, and suburbs, a commuter haven more determined by culture than nature. As such, the Nutmeg State is also a splendid destination for art lovers.
The established Connecticut Art Trail features 14 distinctive museums, each with its own aesthetic bent or niche. To best sample the state’s treasures, a casual weekend art tour of Connecticut might take in four of its best museums, with stops in Old Lyme, New Haven, Ridgefield, and Hartford.
Florence Griswold Museum
The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme bills itself as the “Home of American Impressionism,” that light-and-airy painterly style that has become so popular in this country, although it was revolutionary and controversial when it was first developed in Europe in the 1860s.
Florence Griswold (1850-1937) was an entrepreneurial spinster who took in artists as boarders at her Georgian mansion on the banks of the Lieutenant River. Between 1899 and her death in 1937, “Miss Florence” played hostess to more than 200 artists, chief among them Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, and Willard Metcalf. In so doing, Miss Florence established Old Lyme as a conservative summer art colony, an identity it retains to this day.
Her historic 1817 Griswold House is a sunny yellow manse with white trim and pillars and green shutters. The hallways and rooms are intimately hung with paintings by many of the boarders, although the still-beating heart of the great house is the rear dining room, where visiting artists painted directly on the walls, cupboards, and door panels.
The primary exhibition focus of the Griswold Museum, however, is the Krieble Gallery, behind the house and its lovely gardens. Opened in 2002, the gallery is a metal-roofed complex with the festive look of a grand white circus tent. It showcases and stores the museum’s more than 7,000 works of art and attracts some 54,000 visitors a year to changing exhibitions.
The featured exhibition of the 2008 summer season is “Impressionist Giverny: American Painters in France, 1885-1915″ (May 3-July 27),
a visual celebration of the French roots of American Impressionism selected from the collection of Chicago’s Daniel J. Terra Foundation for American Art.
Yale University Art Gallery
To see some of the French Impressionist paintings that inspired their American counterparts, visit the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. Among the museum’s 185,000 objects are masterworks by Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bonnard, and Pissarro. Admission is free, which helps draw 156,000 visitors a year.
The buzz at the Yale museum during the summer of ’08 is all about Vincent van Gogh. Yale owns his haunting 1888 Night Café, which the disturbed artist called “one of the ugliest pictures I have done.” Over the summer, however, Yale has arranged to borrow two of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, both from his 1889-90 confinement at the asylum in Saint-Rémy. The chance to see The Starry Night from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and Cypresses from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — together, outside New York — is a rare occasion not to be missed.
To walk the labyrinth of Yale’s galleries amid the white-noise hum of ventilation and the squeak of slow footfalls is to stroll through the history of art. This will inevitably mean running up against objects that are difficult to understand. And that’s a good thing: Museums are supposed to expand the public’s appreciation of what art is and can be. Everyone loves Van Gogh now, but contemporary works such as Janine Antoni’s stretched brown-and-white Ayrshire cowhide with built-in backpack, or Alan Saret’s untitled tangle of wire, remind us that even Van Gogh’s art was shocking and controversial in its day.