Farmington Artists and Their Times —
Giverny in Connecticut: Part I
By Charles Leach, M.D.Republished from the Farmington Historical Society newsletter,
December 2007. See also: Farmington Artists and Their Times: Part II, March 2008.
“Farmington might be called the Barbizon of America,” wrote the artist Walter Griffin in Farmington Magazine in 1900. He described the little town as “typical of what is best in our villages” and as a favorite locale for artists from Hartford, Boston and New York. Griffin (1861–1935) had painted in the 1880s in the village of Barbizon, France, which gave its name to the dark, gentle landscapes of his friend Jean-François Millet and their contemporaries. Griffin later taught and painted in Hartford and became close friends with Farmington artists Robert Bolling Brandegee and Charles Foster. He taught at the school of the Art Society of Hartford and at the Connecticut Art Students’ League. Faculty and students came often to Farmington to include its beautiful landscapes in their plein air work, and Griffin noted that “almost every day their white umbrellas have been seen near the river, through the town, and among the hills.”
Farmington was one of a number of Connecticut locales favored by artists in the late nineteenth century. In addition to our Hartford visitors, artists came briefly from afar or to remain and paint during the warmer months. There were places to stay, companionship of fellow artists and an appreciative well-to-do clientele. The Farmington River was a particular attraction, and artists would return again and again to favored views along its banks. The setting exactly suited landscape painters seeking the picturesque subjects favored by current taste, and a market developed for portraits and genre scenes as well.
In colonial times, traveling “limners” visited Connecticut towns, offering family portraits for a small fee. For example, the Princeton University Art Museum owns a pair of pendant portraits titled “Mr. and Mrs. George Dresser of Plainville,” thought to date from the 1840s before Plainville separated from Farmington. As wealth increased in the early 1800s, there must have been more formal portraits of better-off local patrons – though it is not known where examples can be found today. As Farmington prospered, it soon was connected more closely with the world outside by canal, railroad and turnpikes, and was more accessible for artists.
Two early Farmington artists were actually engravers: Joel Allen (1755–1825) and Martin Bull (1744–1825). Allen engraved the first American book on musical harmony, and Bull did the Farmington Library’s bookplate. They were craftsmen as well as artists, and the folk art–crafts tradition is also seen in our ancient graveyard, “Memento Mori.” There we see markers carved by men who have been called “the earliest American folk artists.” Names such as Gershom Bartlett, James Stanclift and the Johnson family are well-known among students of this art form. Interestingly, carver Stanclift’s remote descendent John Wells Stancliff was a successful nineteenth-century Connecticut artist.
Hartford Atheneum founder Daniel Wadsworth was the patron of the renowned Thomas Cole (1801–1848), founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. When Wadsworth built his estate “Monte Video” at the top of “West” or “Talcott” Mountain, Cole painted in 1828 a famous landscape showing the house, grounds, valley and Farmington’s spire in the background. This work is now at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Since Avon did not separate from Farmington until 1830, we may fairly claim Cole as a “Farmington artist.” That distinction belongs also to John Trumbull, whose landscape titled “West Mountain” (at the Yale University Art Gallery) shows the same vista as it was in 1791. Wadsworth himself also sketched the area a number of times.
Farmington was first mentioned by name in George Henry Durrie’s (1820–1863) lovely 1855 winter scene “Seven Miles to Farmington,” at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. Like many of Durrie’s works, this painting was later reproduced as a lithograph for Currier and Ives calendars. Other artists worked here in the 1850s; for example, James Renwick Brevoort (1832–1918), a National Academician based in New York State, worked first in the Salisbury area but particularly loved the Farmington Valley. Sarah Porter’s sister Lizzie owned one of his Farmington landscapes and an early view of the Farmington Canal aqueduct by Brandegee’s teacher, J. W. Hill of New York (1812–1879).
The Civil War brought change to American aesthetics, and demand for art of a different style – perhaps to help heal the traumas of the war with paintings of homey scenes. Calm landscapes replaced the sometimes dramatic Hudson River style. With the war over and rail travel available, the influx of artists began. Wealth resulting from an economic boom helped things along. In Farmington, the first postwar artists known to us are the Harts: Scottish James McDougal Hart (1828–1901) and his wife, Marie Theresa Gorsuch (1829–1921). Hart had painted “On the Farmington River” in 1862. Gorsuch was a pupil of Brevoort, and the Farmington Magazine commented that “Miss Gorsuch’s paintings were quite equal to her master’s.” This artist couple probably met in Farmington in 1865, and their 1866 wedding was a gay event for the little art colony. Hart’s brother William and their three children were also artists.
Other nineteenth-century landscapists worked in Farmington. Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832–1928) painted “Farmington River and Shore Foliage” in 1879. Daniel F. Wentworth (1850–1934) painted the Grist Mill in 1884, Allen Butler Talcott (1867–1908) “Route 10” at the turn of the century, and William R. Wheeler (1832–1893) “The Farmington River,” ca. 1884. Sanford Gifford (1823–1880) and Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910) may have painted here as well. The prolific Nelson Augustus Moore (1824–1902) of Kensington summered in Farmington in 1853, and one must imagine that he also painted here.
Though Farmington’s aesthetics remained remarkably constant as the years went by, American styles did change slowly under the influence of John Constable, William Turner and John Ruskin (1819–1900). Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, like Brandegee, favored the exact depiction of nature. One of Brandegee’s teachers, in fact, was Thomas Charles Farrer (1839–1891), a pupil of Ruskin and advocate of Ruskin’s ideas in Farmington and New York. As young artists returned from abroad in the 1880s, these English and European influences were felt in Farmington, but they coexisted with the simpler and more austere American styles. Elsewhere in America, painters evolved from Hudson River to Barbizon and finally to Impressionist styles. In Farmington, landscapes remained generally small in scale – quiet, gentle and realistic in execution, avoiding the bright hues and dashing brushwork of their Connecticut Impressionist contemporaries.
Connecticut became studded with art colonies such as Mystic, Noank, Old Lyme, Cos Cob, Salisbury, Falls Village, Norfolk, Lime Rock and Kent – little clusters of working artists in rural settings, small groups of friends who liked to paint together, and plenty of students eager to learn the techniques and styles of New York, Boston, Barbizon, Giverny, Düsseldorf and Munich. The colonies grew where the early railroads ran, particularly along the shore and in the Litchfield Hills. In fact, many of the Litchfield Hills artists had artist friends in Farmington, and Farmington artists such as Brandegee and Foster had country retreats in Salisbury and nearby locations. Portraitist William R. Wheeler worked both at Twin Lakes and in Farmington.
Here we must acknowledge a person who profoundly influenced the cultural life of Farmington, and helped develop a small-town intelligentsia. Sarah Porter (1813–1900), daughter of the long-serving pastor Noah Porter of the First Church of Christ, was of course the founder of Miss Porter’s School in 1843. Among the array of academies for young ladies, Miss Porter’s in the beginning was more domestically oriented than the seriously intellectual schools of Mary Lyon (later Mount Holyoke College) and Emma Willard, founder of a Troy, N.Y., preparatory school for young women. Though Porter’s curriculum strongly emphasized the arts, literature and music, she was a strong-minded woman who also trained her students in the natural sciences, philosophy and other skills perhaps not considered “ladylike” in those days.
Sarah’s brother, Noah Porter Jr., was president of Yale College. He had studied for a year in Berlin and was strongly influenced by German philosophy and educational rigor. Sarah clearly was influenced by her distinguished brother and sought European excellence for her school. She hired, for example, Karl Klauser (1823–1905), who joined her in 1855 and remained for forty years. He was a superb music teacher, and his photographs of Farmington are much admired today. An early Miss Porter’s School art teacher was Sarah Tuthill (1830–1882), who encouraged and taught her nephew Robert Brandegee and bought him his first watercolors. She taught there from about 1864 to 1882. Her mother was a well-respected architectural writer, and one wonders whether she was also a role model for the young Theodate Pope, class of 1888.
Robert Brandegee (1849–1922) was hired by Sarah Porter in 1880 and succeeded Tuthill as art teacher at the school. He grew up in nearby Berlin, studied at E. L. Hart’s School for Boys in Farmington and loved the town. He later studied art briefly with Thomas Charles Farrer (1838–1891) in New York. In 1872 he began an eight-year sojourn in Paris, accompanied by artists Montague and Charles Noel Flagg, William Faxon and Dwight Tryon, all of Hartford, and J. Alden Weir (1852–1919) of New York. He was strongly influenced by the theories of art critic and moralist John Ruskin (a teacher of Farrer’s), and emphasized them in his teachings. Ruskin favored the accurate depiction of natural subjects, and for the country-bred, nature-loving Brandegee this was very appropriate. In fact, Brandegee did still-life paintings of natural subjects and wrote about birds for the Farmington Magazine.
On his return to America, Brandegee kept a studio in New York City but began teaching at Miss Porter’s School in 1880 and continued there until 1903. He was a bit eccentric, it is said, and at times suffered from depression. He lived at 36 High Street in a home he called “Chateau Ingres” after his teacher’s teacher, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. His was a musical and artistic family, and they were an important part of the Farmington art scene for many years. Brandegee was beloved by his students and had many friends in the art world. He did not promote himself as other artists did, and did not exhibit widely. He was, however, very much respected by colleagues. For example, on his failing to submit to a New York exhibition, the eminent American Impressionist J. Alden Weir expressed great disappointment.
In 1892 Brandegee founded with several colleagues, including Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), the Society of Hartford Artists. He later assisted in forming the Connecticut League of Art Students in 1895. Students from these schools often came with their instructors to Farmington to paint en plein air. A favorite subject for these and many other artists was the “bend in the Farmington River,” evidently near the mouth of the Pequabuck.
He was a generous and public-spirited man who saw art as belonging to everyone, not a luxury for the few. His landscapes reflect his love of rambling in the Farmington area, and his portraits are many and familiar. He painted Sarah Porter no less than seven times. One of these portraits hangs in the Porter Memorial; others are at the New Britain Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He and others painted murals on the walls of Farmington homes. Many have been lost, but one remains at St. James Episcopal Church on Mountain Road.
Brandegee inspired the creation of the short-lived Farmington Magazine, which fellow artist Walter Griffin (1861–1935) illustrated. This treasure trove of Farmington materials unfortunately lasted only from 1900 through 1902. Its demise followed the death of Sarah Porter and the turmoil that engulfed her school. Brandegee taught briefly for her successor, Mrs. Mary Dow, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Brandegee wrote on art and nature, and Griffin contributed cover and inside illustrations. A sort of “Farmington Renaissance” was stimulated by Miss Porter’s energy and civic-mindedness, and the little magazine expressed its ideals and achievements.
Farmington Artists and Their Times: Part II, March 2008.
All images on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission.
1. Farmington Art Tercentenary, 1940. Farmington Room, Farmington Library.
2. Farmington’s Old Masters: Catalog of an Exhibit, 1990. Farmington Room.
3. The American Artist in Connecticut, Florence Griswold Museum, 2002.
4. Connecticut and American Impressionism, Benton Museum, University of Connecticut, 1980.
5. Artists of the Litchfield Hills, Mattatuck Museum, 2003.
6. Robert Brandegee Retrospective, New Britain Museum of American Art, 1991.
7. Women Artists of New Britain, New Britain Museum of American Art, 2001.
8. The Hartford Art Colony, 1880–1900, the Connecticut Gallery, 1989, Farmington Room, Farmington Library.
Text, Biography and Nonfiction
1. American Visions, Robert Hughes. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1997.
2. Magician of the Modern, Eugene Gaddis. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000.
3. Patron Saints, Nicholas Fox Weber. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
4. The “Green Book,” Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes, Arthur L. Brandegee and Eddy H. Smith, 1906.
Works by several of the artists mentioned can be seen at Farmington’s main and Barney Branch Libraries and at the Hill-Stead Museum. We thank the Farmington Library for use of images reproduced from the 1940 and 1991 exhibit catalogs. We also thank the Farmington Village Green and Library Association for images of works on display at the main and Barney Branch libraries; the Hill-Stead Museum for images reproduced from the Alfred Atmore Pope Collection and from the Archives; and Lisa Johnson, executive director of the Stanley-Whitman House. The images on this Web site may not reproduced without permission.
Charles Leach, M.D., is a docent and former trustee of the New Britain Museum of American Art. He is also a former president of the Farmington Historical Society.
“Farmington Artists and Their Times,” by Charles Leach, M.D., Copyright © 2007, 2008.
All images are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission.