HARTFORD — For lovers of European and American art, few museums anywhere in the United States feel as well-rounded and satisfying as the Wadsworth Atheneum. There are gaps, of course, but if you like, let’s say, postwar and contemporary American art, the Atheneum has the good stuff. Once you’ve seen the recently reinstalled gallery containing a cluster of works by Duane Hanson, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselmann, Alex Katz, Richard Artschwager, Andy Warhol, Hank Willis Thomas, and Kara Walker, you won’t soon forget it.
Nor, if you love European modernism, will you likely feel let down: The Atheneum has great paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Balthus, and Klee, and a famous spray of works by Surrealists like de Chirico, Dalí, Magritte, and Ernst. Several other parts of the collection likewise impress.
But right now it’s the collection of earlier European painting and decorative arts that has quickened my pulse. That’s partly because it’s been off view these past few years as the museum renovated. Mainly, however, it’s because I’m only now realizing how packed it is with chewy surprises.
I’m thinking not just of the recognized, world-beating masterpieces for which the Atheneum is justly famous: paintings by the likes of Caravaggio, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Poussin, and van Gogh. I have in mind even more the extraordinary array of genuinely odd or unexpectedly brilliant things by the likes of Sebastiano del Piombo, Salvator Rosa, William Holman Hunt, Joseph Wright of Derby, Giuseppe Crespi, Alessandro Magnasco, Hubert Robert, Theodore Rousseau, Francois Millet, and Paul Gauguin.
The trigger for these revelations is the reopening of the museum’s European galleries in the beautifully refurbished Morgan Memorial Building. Led by Linda Roth, the museum’s senior curator and its curator of European decorative arts, and Oliver Tostmann, curator of European art, it’s the first total reinstallation in a generation — and the biggest in the museum’s history.
Tostmann, it seems, has made it his mission to emphasize oddballs and eccentrics in the paintings collection. But the result is neither capricious nor perverse; instead, it triggers a wonderful journey of discovery.
The earliest Beaux-Arts building in the United States, the Morgan Memorial was conceived and largely paid for by the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, a Hartford native who named it in honor of his father. In 1915, it opened to the public, 73 years after the museum itself was founded by Daniel Wadsworth. (The Wadsworth Atheneum is the oldest continuously open art museum in the country.)
The Morgan Memorial is the largest of the museum’s five interconnected buildings in downtown Hartford. All are in architectural styles that reflect the period of their design. Four have been overhauled as part of a five-year renovation, overseen by retiring director Susan Talbott. The undertaking has added 17 new galleries, and increased the museum’s footprint by 27 percent.
But even more pressing than adding space was the need to fix chronic, long-term issues, especially in the Morgan Memorial Building, where $26 million of the $33 million overall budget was spent. The money has gone into unsexy but vital areas such as waterproofing, new roofs, skylights, flooring, climate control, storage, lighting, disabled access, and an effort to return parts of the museum’s historic interiors to their original appearance.
I didn’t mention new toilets. But that’s not why you’re thinking of driving to Hartford, right? You want to hear about the art. So good, listen up.
The great strength of the Atheneum’s European paintings collection is its Baroque art. A run of galleries running the length of the building is given over to Baroque painting, from early to late, and it’s quite fabulous.
In Italy, the Baroque began with the Carracci brothers and Caravaggio, and in Caravaggio’s “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” the Atheneum has one of his most influential works. It shows the humble, animal-loving Francis swooning into the arms of an angel after experiencing a vision.
Caravaggio’s was the first version of this popular Counter-Reformation subject to show Francis cradled by the tender angel. The pose invites viewers to make a connection between his swoon and the Pieta (Christ’s body cradled by his mourning mother). It is made especially serene and mystical by the dark expanse of water, picked out by glimmers of moonlight, in the picture’s left half.
Building on Caravaggio’s feeling for drama, his expressive naturalism, and his genius for breaking down the emotional wall between the viewer and the depicted scene (all hallmarks of the Baroque), artists like Jusepe de Ribera, Bernardo Strozzi, Orazio Gentileschi, and Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia all advanced the new style in southern Europe.
Each is represented here by brilliant works, the most striking of which is “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” painted by the Genovese Strozzi around 1615. Strozzi rarely bettered this painting, wherein the urge toward realism (see especially the dimpled crook of Saint Catherine’s elbow) becomes a vivacity so heightened, so fluttery and irresolute, that real life feels heavy and darkly plodding in its vicinity.
The same room contains the only Crucifixion Poussin ever painted. It’s a penumbral and somewhat damaged but magnificently conceived work. It’s one of several singular paintings which alone can justify a visit to the Atheneum. Others, besides the Caravaggio, include the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott,” perhaps the most erudite and splendidly overwrought painting in the world; and Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Old Man and Death.”
The run of 17th-century galleries also includes some Dutch paintings. The museum’s holdings here aren’t strong, but there is a great portrait by Frans Hals and two wonderful pictures by Michael Sweerts, one of which, “Boy With a Hat,” is as beautiful as Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
The 18th-century galleries include great things by well-known masters such as Chardin, Tiepolo, Goya, Boucher, Melendez, and Longhi. But they also contain surprising and frankly more wonderful pieces by Giuseppe Crespi (“An Artist in His Studio”) and Alessandro Magnasco (“Hunting”).
The hang, as a rule, stands aloof from explicit historical themes. But there is one gallery focused on the French Revolution. It includes a spirited piece of Anglophone anti-Revolutionary propaganda by Johann Zoffany (it shows a feral mob raiding the King’s cellar); a poignant portrait, from 1794, by Hubert Robert of his soon-to-be-executed friend, the poet Antoine Roucher, in prison (probably painted as a posthumous tribute); and a characteristically gorgeous portrait by Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun of the Duchess de Polignac, who dazzled and befriended Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
There are also Sevres porcelains in this room, as well as in succeeding galleries, where the Atheneum’s superb collection of European decorative arts comes to life. Two years after the Morgan Memorial Building opened, J. P. Morgan Jr. donated 1,300 objects from his collection, including Italian maiolica, Venetian glass, and fine examples of Meissen and Sevres porcelain. Examples have been installed in new glass cases; they bring color, tactility, and great charm to the galleries.
The 19th-century galleries, which take us through Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism, contain notable things by Turner, Gericault, Ingres, and Millet, whose early, sympathetic portrait of a sickly looking girl hangs in the air like sulfur. There is also a bewitching landscape by the underrated Theodore Rousseau in an all-pervasive dusky orange hue that must be seen in person to be believed.
A seascape by Manet, a double portrait of two sisters by Degas, portraits by Fantin-Latour and Tissot, an image of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec, several Monets, a van Gogh self-portrait, and an amazing Gauguin round out the 19th century.
Everything I’ve described so far, along with a Cabinet of Curiosities display filled with 200 Wunderkammer objects (about which I plan to write separately), is upstairs in the Morgan Memorial.
What you’ll see first, however, is the building’s Great Hall. After a series of recent experiments with alternative hangs, including modern abstract paintings and tapestries, Tostmann has settled on a salon-style, floor-to-ceiling display, mixing European and American works from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Giovanni Paolo Panini’s dazzling “Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga” acts as a key to the whole enterprise. Recognized masterpieces, by the likes of Tiepolo and Tintoretto, have been placed beside paintings rescued from long periods in storage. Look out especially for Didier Barra’s “View of Naples” and a brooding allegorical picture by the Genovese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione.
The Great Hall is flanked by small galleries given over to the Atheneum’s modest but intriguing holdings of Classical and Egyptian art, Asian art, and medieval art. A display cabinet of Roman blown glass is lovely; a bronze figurine of a Spartan warrior is intensely memorable.
Also on the ground level is a gallery devoted to changing displays of works on paper. The first hang includes terrific things by Courbet, Klimt, Schiele, Anders Zorn, Ingres, and Picasso.
Speaking of Picasso . . . the Wadsworth naturally wanted all its masterpieces ready and available for its grand reopening. It’s missing two sensational works — Piero di Cosimo’s “The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos” and Renoir’s “Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil.” Both are out on loan to important shows.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the museum has received in return, by way of thanks, two works from the borrowing institutions that are at least as famous. One is Picasso’s “La Vie,” from the Cleveland Museum of Art — it’s Picasso’s most important early masterpiece. The other is, I’m not kidding, my favorite painting in the world: Titian’s portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Hartford, here we come.
At: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford.
860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.