The Connecticut Art Trail, one of the first tourism trails in New England, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It originally launched in 1995 as the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, with 10 museums. Today, the trail includes more than double that number, with 22 museums and historic sites spread across the state.
We confess: We didn’t know much about the art scene in the Nutmeg State. So, we decided the anniversary was as good an excuse as any (along with an overwhelming desire to leave our houses) to check it out. Here are some of the highlights.
Our first stop was the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (www.thewadsworth.org) in Hartford. The museum, founded in 1842, has five interconnected buildings, with a collection of nearly 50,000 works spanning 5,000 years. We visited the new “Made in Connecticut” exhibit, which includes art and objects from the collections of each of the Art Trail museums.
The exhibit, curated by James Prosek, an artist, naturalist, and current artist-in-residence at the Yale University Art Gallery, showcases the state’s natural resources, history, and creativity, and the artists who have lived and worked in Connecticut. There are works from Louise Bourgeois, who had a country home in Easton, Conn., contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, who lives and works in New Haven, and American Impressionist Frederick Childe Hassam, who made frequent painting excursions to Connecticut.
The exhibit, which will run through Feb. 7, includes a curio case filled with brass buttons, highlighting the brass industry in Waterbury, once the center of gilt button manufacturing in the United States; a sleek 1966 sports car by inventor and race car driver John Fitch; and a necklace made of wampum by contemporary artist William (Smiling White Wolf) Donehey of the Mohegan Tribe. And, did you know that Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous “Peterson Field Guide to Birds,” lived and worked in Old Lyme? We didn’t, until we saw his “Falcons, 1980” work included in this exhibit.
Our next stop, the New Britain Museum of American Art (www.nbmaa.org) was a delightful surprise. The spacious, bright museum was founded in 1903 by a community of immigrants, brought in to work in the factories, when New Britain was a major manufacturing hub. “It was one of the few museums not founded by a wealthy individual,” says museum director Min Jung Kim. “It was very equalitarian, very progressive.”
Today, the museum houses nearly 9,000 works, with a strong collection of Hudson River School American Impressionists, and an additional collection of about 2,000 illustrations, including about 200 pulp art works. Other strengths include 60 works by members of the Ash Can School, and works by Thomas Hart Benton, including the whimsical, five-panel mural “The Arts of Life in America” (1932).
We were most taken by the special exhibits, including a large, diverse collection of works from contemporary artist Shantell Martin, including sketches, murals, garments, furniture, jewelry, and more. The “NEW/NOW: Shantell Martin” exhibit will run through April 18.
Also showing is the “Some Day Is Now: Women, Art & Social Change” exhibit, featuring campaign posters and advertising from the women’s suffrage movement to works from contemporary artists promoting racial and gender equality through their art. The exhibit, which will run through Jan. 24, showcases more than 100 works by more than 20 artists, including Jenny Holzer, the Guerrilla Girls, and Yoko Ono.
We ended the day with a drive to Old Lyme, a pretty little town, tucked along the Long Island Sound shoreline, and once home to the Lyme Art Colony, one of the most prominent gatherings of Impressionist painters in the country.
We checked into the Old Lyme Inn (www.oldlymeinn.com), a restored, circa 1856 home, originally built on a 300-acre farm. Today, the old manse has 13 classically decorated rooms, some with four poster beds, antiques, original art, and gas fireplaces. The grounds are pretty, including a seating area surrounding a firepit, and a large, leafy front lawn. The dining room, with a special occasion-style vibe — white tablecloths and wine glasses formally set on the table — was closed due to the coronavirus, as was the adjacent Side Door Jazz Club. We brought in takeout from a nearby pizzeria, and had a quiet, comfy overnight stay.
The Florence Griswold Museum (www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org), located across the street from the Old Lyme Inn, includes 13 acres of beautiful grounds butting up to the Lieutenant River, with gardens, the modern Krieble Gallery housing temporary exhibitions, and a historic 1817 Georgian mansion that was once a summer boardinghouse for artists and the center of Impressionism in America. Florence Griswold owned the home and welcomed a virtual who’s who of American Impressionists during the turn of the 20th century. More than 100 artists, including Childe Hassam, Matilda Browne, Henry Ward Ranger, and Willard Leroy Metcalf stayed at the Griswold home, drawn by the beauty of the surrounding Connecticut countryside, and Florence’s warm hospitality. The restored home features period antiques and artifacts, and a remarkable collection of painted door and wall panels. “Florence refused to take art from her boarders,” our guide said. “So, they began to paint scenes on the doors in the house.” The dining room also features painted wall panels.
It was a short, 20-minute drive to our next stop: the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London (www.lymanallyn.org). Housed in a 1932 neo-classical mansion, this museum is spacious and well laid out, showcasing works from around the world, with an emphasis on American art from the 18th through the 20th centuries. The collection has some 18,000 objects, including the permanent “Tiffany in New London” exhibit. Louis Tiffany had strong family ties to Connecticut, and this exhibit highlights his life and works, and includes lamps, jewelry, archival photographs, and artifacts. A separate room showcases three large ecclesiastical stained-glass windows.
Our original plan was to continue on to visit the Mystic Seaport Museum, considered one of the leading maritime museums in the country, and then perhaps to pop down to New Haven for a visit to the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. But we’d run out of time, so those and the others on the trail would have to wait.
For more information, visit the Connecticut Art Trail, ctarttrail.org. Refer to individual museum websites for hours and admissions; most are requiring advance online reservations.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org