America's First Public Art Museum

Late last month we visited galleries and art museums in Connecticut, seeing the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, (which carries quite a bit of my own paintings), the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, and finishing up with the first public art museum in the US, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Harford. By the way, I love that charmingly antiquated name "Atheneum." If you're going to be the first, you might as well stand out with an exotic name too.

Often when paintings are misfiring, the problem is the artist has been seized by one big idea and has just dropped it like a bomb in the middle of the canvas where it sits isolated from everything else. Painters like Kensett knew the best way to evoke a "big idea" like a waterfall was to put it into a relationship with something completely different. Here Kensett actually makes his red foreground rocks in some ways more dramatic than the falling stream of water. As he painted the rocks against the background falls he pushed first one stronger and then the other, working his way bit by bit towards a resonating balance. 

Life is like that- things come at us in unexpected combinations with other unrelated things. You win the lottery on the same afternoon that your dog gets lost. It's often confusing and disjointing to try to make sense of the what happened by the end of the day. It can lead one to despair that living can ever make sense. 

Painters at their best provide something of a remedy. They show us that things that at first seem unrelated can actually be made to meaningfully interact with each other. The massive rock formation Kensett gives us can accompany the falling mists of a waterfall. Each making the experience of the other more vivid and authentic. 

We see the same phenomenon in the Atheneum's oil painting Etretat by George Inness (1825-1894). The unusual "flying butress" rock formation reaching out and into the sea is like the waterfall in the Kensett above. It's so unique a form it tends to look if anything too different than anything else in the scene. Like the waterfall it could easily have been overly dominating, preventing us from seeing it as part of a bigger story with other powerful actors.

So Inness decides to give the stone archway a co-star by introducing an intricately involved array of clouds. Look closely at the most bluish clouds and you see he's provided what looks like a gigantic tunnel that leads to a distant space he only hints at. These are huge forms, important enough to say something completely different than the famous stone archway. What's so good about Inness is he knows how to stitch these two opposing worlds together into a seamless whole.

We are drawn to look at art because unconsciously we sense it shows us hints of how the parts of our lives exist in a crazy but very real dance with other events, people, memories, you name it. Paintings like these two Atheneum masterpieces are encouraging reminders that our confusions are with us only part time. Moments come to all of us when our mental clouds part and things, at least for a little while, make perfect sense. 

Here's a photo of the oldest part of the Atheneum building. Pretty fantastic looking isn't it. Maybe the set designers for the Game of Thrones series have spent time in this quirky but elegant museum.


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