The First Museum Dedicated to American Art

Some observations on a recent visit to New Britain.

New Britain Museum of American Art
Gifford Beal, Elevated, Columbus Avenue, New York, 1916. Oil on canvas, 36½ x 48½ in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. Charles F. Smith Fund 1959.16.

The New Britain Museum of American Art is an institution of notable ambition—founded in 1903, it was the first museum in the country dedicated solely to American art and the first to amass a collection of American illustration. Located on a residential street overlooking a park designed by Frederic Law Olmsted, the NBMAA exists in a blue-collar city with a commitment to the arts. The museum was long ensconced in the home of a woman who’d promised major financial support. When Grace Judd Landers’ wealth was wiped out by the Great Depression, she bequeathed her house on Lexington Street as exhibition space.

 Ms. Landers’ home was not the Frick or the Gardner, and it’s remarkable, or lamentable, that it functioned as a museum for seven decades. At first this wasn’t an issue—in 1937 the museum counted twenty-four paintings in its collection. Under the directorship of artist Sanford Low, by the mid-1960s, the number exceeded 1,500, including the Thomas Hart Benton murals that Low acquired from the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was in the Landers house, frayed at the edges, that the museum stayed until 2006, when the Chase Family Building opened alongside. The Landers residence continues to house the museum’s offices. 

Under the direction of Douglas Hyland, the collection grew dramatically, and the architectural footprint expanded yet again in 2015, the last year of Hyland’s leadership. The move into new quarters constituted a dramatic upgrade, allowing the museum to present more work, spread out over two airy floors. One of the goals of the expansion, according to a 2000 analysis by the University of Connecticut, was to increase the proportion of NBMAA’s collection on public view from 7% to 50%.

New Britain Museum of American Art
John Singer Sargent, Miss Cara Burch, 1888. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25¼ in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. Charles F. Smith Fund 1942.02.

There’s a lot worth seeing. New Britain’s collection is evidence of a determination to obtain the best art possible, even if it was gathered on a shoestring. Considering the museum’s early budgets and reluctance to spend more than $1,000 on any individual artwork, the quality is impressive (Savvy and good fortune didn’t hurt—a Thomas Cole purchased in 1945 for $1,000 is now valued well into the millions.) There are a number of masterpieces, particularly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many paintings are either first-rate efforts by second-tier artists (Gifford Beal’s Elevated, Columbus Avenue, New York, is a marvelous depiction of urban life a hundred years ago, supported by a geometric grid of street, stairway and elevated tracks) or minor works by masters (the winsome Sargent portrait Miss Cara Burch, her youthful impatience at having to sit barely disguised.)

New Britain Museum of American Art
Mary Stevenson Cassatt, A Caress, 1891. Pastel on paper, 29¼ x 23¾ in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. Harriet Russell Stanley Fund 1948.14.

To pluck a handful of favorite paintings from a wide survey, among the works I return to each visit are the following: Mary Cassatt’s A Caress, a pastel that satisfies for its draftsmanship, color, and composition—no artist since Raphael had so successfully and repeatedly essayed the mother and child theme, or so well co-mingled the abstract design of maternal embrace with tangible physicality; Frederick Frieseke’s The Bird Cage, a sensual fusillade of color which hangs together despite hairpin changes in color and texture; Rockwell Kent’s Toilers of the Sea, a view of the cliffs of Monhegan Island and the fishermen who made a precarious living there, painted while still under the influence of Robert Henri but handled with cool and clear control; and N.C. Wyeth’s “One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out!”, an illustration for Treasure Island, the project that reinvigorated Wyeth at a time when he’d grown bored with commercial work.

New Britain Museum of American Art
Rockwell Kent, Toilers of the Sea, 1907. Oil on canvas, 38⅛ x 44⅛ in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. Charles F. Smith Fund 1944.01.

Later twentieth-century and contemporary art are well-represented, as are current denizens of the Art Students League. Paintings by Harvey Dinnerstein, Max Ginsburg, Ronnie Landfield, Mary Beth McKenzie, Dan Gheno, and Robin Smith are featured in the permanent collection. At present a work by Ginsburg is installed in an exhibition of highlights from the Sanford B. D. Low Illustration Collection.

New Britain Museum of American Art
N.C. Wyeth, “One more step, Mr. Hands, “said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out!”, 1911. Oil on canvas, 47 x 38⅜ in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. Harriet Russell Stanley Fund 1953.18.

 

A personal association with NBMAA began in 2002, when I met with the director, who expressed interest in one of my figure paintings. Initially the painting was hung between portraits by Andrew Wyeth and Aaron Shikler. I was honored to be represented in New Britain’s permanent collection. This has led me to a slender, if unwarranted, proprietary interest in the museum from afar. The New Britain isn’t a large museum, but given its dedication to American art, a generous segment of which is figurative, its direction is worth noting. In late 2014, I learned that NBMAA was planning a gallery devoted solely to current figurative painting, a room to be set aside for “Post Contemporary” art. The term refers primarily, if not exclusively, to artwork made in the mold of classical realism—well-drawn, carefully rendered, allegorical, and sometimes unabashedly kitschy. A hyper-conservative approach to realism isn’t new to me; I was one of Ted Seth Jacob’s first students when he began teaching at the League in 1979-80. But in its apotheosizing of Bouguereau, retro-academicism struck me as a fringe philosophy. I was wary that in New Britain, it’s gained a sort of official consecration.

New Britain Museum of American Art
Frederick Carl Frieseke, The Bird Cage, 1910. Oil on canvas, 32 x 32 in. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art. John Butler Talcott Fund 1917.02.

Lest one get worked up over such things, it is entirely possible that these distinctions will seem deeply esoteric to anyone other than a career figure painter. Nonetheless, I emailed Douglas Hyland to express my reservations, and was assured that the intent of the gallery was not so narrow. Some 150 contemporary works, including my painting, are on a list to be rotated through the room. Ambivalent about the prospect of inclusion—I’m not consciously “post” anything, thank you—my hope is that sooner rather than later, the “Post Contemporary” designation will be jettisoned. Though there are more subtly rewarding works therein—of particular note is Christopher Gallego’s Interior with Three Rooms—the small gallery is dominated by Graydon Parrish’s 9/11 allegory. Set at the far end of the second floor, the room in its present configuration can’t pretend to offer a true overview of contemporary figure work.

New Britain Museum of American Art
Dan Gheno at the New Britain Museum of American Art

In a nearby gallery runs a forty-three-minute performance video by Nick Cave, a juxtaposition that underscores the museum’s breadth and the pluralism of its collection. That breadth is welcome. Still, pending a re-installation of works by Dinnerstein, McKenzie, and Gheno, I prefer to pay my respects to the likes of Beal, Cassatt, and Kent. They are the heart of the museum, and very much worth visiting.