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Farmington Artists and Their Times — Giverny in Connecticut: Part II

By Charles Leach, M.D.

Republished from the Farmington Historical Society newsletter,
March 2008. See also: Farmington Artists and Their Times: Part I, February 2007.

 

The first part of this article reviewed the early history of Farmington folk art, portraiture and landscape painting. Some artists were famous and some not so famous, but all shared a love of our beautiful town and its surroundings. In fact, Farmington – in part as an offshoot of the vibrant Hartford art community – became an art colony in its own right. In the late nineteenth century, a network of artists developed around Robert Bolling Brandegee and his colleagues. This group of friends, who taught, socialized and worked together, included Charles Foster; half-brothers Montague and Charles Noel Flagg; William Gedney Bunce; Allen Butler Talcott; and Walter Griffin.

The talented Charles Foster (1850–1931) had studied in Paris with Brandegee’s teacher, Louis Jacquesson de la Chevreuse. Foster taught for a time at the National Academy of Design. A lifelong bachelor, he lived and worked in Farmington for many years. Many of his paintings remain here – seven in the Farmington Library’s collection and several more (perhaps finer) examples in private homes. Foster loved the local landscapes and captured their beauty in a quiet Impressionistic style. His studio was at the rear of 42 Mountain Road and is shown on page 189 of the “Green Book,” Farmington, Connecticut, The Village of Beautiful Homes. Though not a painter of the so-called “first rank,” he was nevertheless a talented member of the art community and devoted to the town. He was remembered as “a true gentleman who was loyal and kindly, broad in his sympathies, modest, a searcher after the elusive truth ….”

Walter Griffin, the noted American Impressionist painter whose words began Part I of this article, often visited Brandegee and Foster. He taught at the Connecticut League of Art Students and at the Art Society of Hartford, which became the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford. In later years, Griffin employed a rapid Impressionist style, replacing the darker Barbizon style that he had learned during his years in France in the 1880s. Like his friends, he left murals on Farmington walls and doors. He also published and sold portfolios of sketches showing “interesting features of Farmington.” Griffin’s later years were spent mostly in various European countries.

An almost exact contemporary of Griffin was a British Impressionist with the remarkable name of Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864–1939). Fresh from Giverny, in 1893 he turned Hartford on its collective ear when he taught at the Hartford Art School and advocated a bright, colorful Impressionist style. He summered here and did more than one Farmington landscape. One of these, “Early Morning on the Farmington,” hangs at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. Dawson-Watson later moved on to other locales, but not before he had fallen under the spell of Farmington’s beauty.

Another of Farmington’s resident artists was James Britton (1878–1936). Born in Hartford, Britton lived a few years here in the “Red House” before moving to New York. (The Red House was most likely the small red cottage that evolved into the modern home of Polly Hincks at 22 Church Street.) Britton worked as an illustrator for the Hartford Times and art critic for the Courant, edited art magazines and exhibited widely. His work can be seen at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Very active in Hartford’s art circles, he was a cofounder of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts with colleagues Henry C. White, Charles Noel Flagg and Brandegee. Britton clearly missed Farmington. After he moved to New York in 1915, he wrote: “When … I heard from the men back in Connecticut who were out in the country painting landscape all day, every day, I felt like throwing up the entire New York game and going in for a life worth living.”

The old gang centered around Brandegee broke up gradually with the deaths of Montague Flagg in 1915 and of his half-brother Charles Noel Flagg and William G. Bunce in 1916. Brandegee died in 1922, and the last of his colleagues and friends lived into the mid-1930s.

Brandegee’s successors at Miss Porter’s included professional artists Betty Lane, Rebecca Jones and later Penny Prentiss. Miss Porter’s students with careers in art included architect Theodate Pope Riddle (1867–1946); respected Connecticut Impressionist Helen Savier DuMond (1872–1968); portraitist Cecil Clark Davis (1877–1955); illustrator Norah Hamilton (1873–1945), sister of classicist Edith and physician Alice; the twin Cowles sisters (born in 1871); and others. Actually, there were four Cowles sisters who became professional artists. All worked in stained glass, two were muralists, three were illustrators and all were easel painters.

Mary Cassatt (1843– 1926) entered the Farmington scene as the friend of Theodate Pope Riddle. Theodate had been a Brandegee student and became a force of her own in the art world when she inspired her industrialist father to collect French Impressionist paintings. She had evidently met Cassatt in Paris when she and her parents were acquiring their collection. Cassatt visited Hill-Stead twice – last in 1908 – and corresponded extensively with Theodate, a fellow spiritualist. As far as we know, Cassatt didn’t paint in Farmington, but she may well have been captivated by its beauty and might have incorporated Farmington memories in her later work.

Theodate was also an avid amateur photographer. She owned and experimented with the earliest cameras in 1888, and in the Hill-Stead archives are her photographs of Cassatt, William and Henry James and other notables. She must also have worked with the prominent professional photographer Margaret Kasebier, who visited and photographed Hill-Stead and the Pope family.

Interestingly, another famous female artist did work in Farmington, the popular portraitist Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942). She became friends with Brandegee, and they painted each other’s portraits. Her painting of Brandegee hangs in the Farmington Library’s Barney Branch. Beaux kept Brandegee’s portrait of herself; I do not know its present location. Though Cassatt and Beaux came close in time and space, Cassatt’s correspondence in the Hill-Stead files reveals that she held Beaux in scorn and thought she was merely a “society artist.”

There is a second portrait of Brandegee at the Barney Branch Library. This one, by Helen Frances Andrews (1872–1960), a Farmington native, shows him in a different light and as an older man. Andrews trained in New York and Paris, taught at private schools and became head of the art department of the Massachusetts School of Art in Boston. She had a studio on Waterville Road in Farmington (shown on page 63 of the “Green Book”). Her image of the Farmington River and Farmington Canal aqueduct’s piers hangs at the library and is well known from reproductions.

One of America’s great portraitists – also a woman – was active in Connecticut and in the Farmington area. National Academician Ellen Emmet Rand (1875–1941) is represented here by her images Theodate Pope Riddle’s mother, Ada Brooks Pope, at the Hill-Stead, and of members of the Cowles family (in a private collection).

Rand’s extensive oeuvre includes portraits of Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and other notables. If we think of Farmington art as a continuum, Rand can be thought of as representing the first quarter of the twentieth century.

A few artists of perhaps lesser rank are also represented in the Farmington Library’s collection, at the Unionville Museum and the Plainville Historical Society. These include Ruth Douglas, Alfred Hepworth, Margaret Miller Cooper and William Bradford Green. An outstanding portrait of Julius Gay hangs in the library’s Farmington Room – the work of Norma Wright Sloper (1892–1984). The library also owns a set of Farmington flood illustrations by author and illustrator Lois Lenski (1893–1974).

Surprisingly, one of America’s early and very influential abstract painters also painted in Farmington. Milton Avery (1893–1965), was a Hartford native and worked in the area before his move to New York. He studied at the art schools founded by Brandegee’s group. In 1915, his first exhibition (at the Atheneum) included a painting titled “Glimpse of Farmington” – done long before he became the earliest forerunner of Color Field painting, a type of Abstract Expressionism.

In the late 1930s and the ‘40s, after a century or more of sedate portraits and landscapes, came the era of Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin (1900–1957). The iconoclastic Atheneum director found in Farmington wealthy art patrons and collectors, and he brought to our quiet little town internationally known and startlingly different contemporary artists.

Austin’s collaborator, James Thrall Soby (1906–1979), entertained at his 29 Mountain Spring Road home the likes of Salvador Dali and Alexander Calder. And preliminary frolics before the Atheneum’s famous 1936 Paper Ball included a party at which the Richard Bissells entertained abstract artist Fernand Leger and poet Archibald MacLeish. Of the art luminaries, only Calder (to my knowledge) actually produced art in Farmington – in the form of a mobile wellhead and andirons at the Soby home. But the glitter and excitement of the avant-garde art scene pervaded the town for a brief time. Then, Austin was gone and the great art patrons dispersed or died. The village was left as it had once been – lovely and quietly supportive of local talent.

Farmington continues to nurture and inspire artistic talent. A few examples herewith: In the recent past, artist Alexander Zarick (1930–1983) and sculptor extraordinaire Fred Jones have worked in town. Attorney William Hoppin’s sketches of Farmington landmarks hang in our Town Council chambers. Environmentalist and balloonist Katherine Wadsworth is also a printmaker and illustrator. Professional art photographers among us are Clare Brett Smith, Gay Ayres, Anne Weathers Ritchie and M. I. Cake.

Distinguished illustrator Donald Moss retired to Farmington a few years ago and continues to work here. Like many before him, he is profoundly affected by the beautiful scenes along the Farmington River, and his subjects have changed from Sports Illustrated covers to bucolic Farmington landscapes.

Charles Ferguson, director emeritus of the New Britain Museum of American Art and a prolific artist, lived and worked many years in our town. Abstract artist Carey Smith grew up in Farmington and painted here. Penny Prentiss has done portraits of many Farmington people; she and Donald Moss have recently exhibited at our library.

Polly Hincks and Terry Donsen Feder paint professionally, and the latter teaches art at the University of Hartford. Photographer and potter Donna Gorman for years headed the Farmington Art Guild at the old Academy building.

In fact, we still have among us artists, sculptors and printmakers too numerous to mention, but all part of Farmington’s ongoing art tradition. Are we a Connecticut Barbizon? Giverny? Or are we simply a beautiful and inspiring small town where landscape and streetscape beauty, nature and neighborly portrait subjects inspire the artist? Perhaps all of the above: From a distinguished past to the twenty-first-century present, art is alive, well and there for the looking for all of us in Farmington.