The established Connecticut Art Trail features 14 distinctive museums, each with its own aesthetic bent or niche. To best sample the state’s treasures, a casual weekend art tour of Connecticut might take in four of its best museums, with stops in Old Lyme, New Haven, Ridgefield, and Hartford.
Florence Griswold Museum
The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme bills itself as the “Home of American Impressionism,” that light-and-airy painterly style that has become so popular in this country, although it was revolutionary and controversial when it was first developed in Europe in the 1860s.
Florence Griswold (1850-1937) was an entrepreneurial spinster who took in artists as boarders at her Georgian mansion on the banks of the Lieutenant River. Between 1899 and her death in 1937, “Miss Florence” played hostess to more than 200 artists, chief among them Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, and Willard Metcalf. In so doing, Miss Florence established Old Lyme as a conservative summer art colony, an identity it retains to this day.
Her historic 1817 Griswold House is a sunny yellow manse with white trim and pillars and green shutters. The hallways and rooms are intimately hung with paintings by many of the boarders, although the still-beating heart of the great house is the rear dining room, where visiting artists painted directly on the walls, cupboards, and door panels.
The primary exhibition focus of the Griswold Museum, however, is the Krieble Gallery, behind the house and its lovely gardens. Opened in 2002, the gallery is a metal-roofed complex with the festive look of a grand white circus tent. It showcases and stores the museum’s more than 7,000 works of art and attracts some 54,000 visitors a year to changing exhibitions.
The featured exhibition of the 2008 summer season is “Impressionist Giverny: American Painters in France, 1885-1915” (May 3-July 27),
a visual celebration of the French roots of American Impressionism selected from the collection of Chicago’s Daniel J. Terra Foundation for American Art.
Yale University Art Gallery
To see some of the French Impressionist paintings that inspired their American counterparts, visit the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. Among the museum’s 185,000 objects are masterworks by Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bonnard, and Pissarro. Admission is free, which helps draw 156,000 visitors a year.
The buzz at the Yale museum during the summer of ’08 is all about Vincent van Gogh. Yale owns his haunting 1888 Night Café, which the disturbed artist called “one of the ugliest pictures I have done.” Over the summer, however, Yale has arranged to borrow two of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, both from his 1889-90 confinement at the asylum in Saint-Rémy. The chance to see The Starry Night from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and Cypresses from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — together, outside New York — is a rare occasion not to be missed.
To walk the labyrinth of Yale’s galleries amid the white-noise hum of ventilation and the squeak of slow footfalls is to stroll through the history of art. This will inevitably mean running up against objects that are difficult to understand. And that’s a good thing: Museums are supposed to expand the public’s appreciation of what art is and can be. Everyone loves Van Gogh now, but contemporary works such as Janine Antoni’s stretched brown-and-white Ayrshire cowhide with built-in backpack, or Alan Saret’s untitled tangle of wire, remind us that even Van Gogh’s art was shocking and controversial in its day.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
For a sustained experience of cutting-edge art, head out to the luxe little village of Ridgefield on the New York border, where the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is always a step or two ahead of popular taste. That’s a good thing. The Aldrich is a noncollecting institute of contemporary art, specializing in new works and emerging artists. Some 36,000 intrepid visitors a year venture out to see what the art world has been up to lately.
Founder Larry Aldrich (1906-2001) was a New York fashion designer and art collector with a summer home in Ridgefield, a lovely town where every day seems to be Sunday. Back in 1964, Aldrich purchased an 18th-century white clapboard building known as the “Old Hundred” and installed his own collection of contemporary works there. Since 2004, the Old Hundred has served as the museum’s administration building — 25,000 square feet of new exhibition space having been added through construction of a new museum building housing 12 galleries.
The Aldrich’s mission is to be provocative. As such, exhibitions are as apt to feature activities, installations, and environments as art objects. Earlier this year, for example, the Aldrich was emitting all sorts of strange noises from an exhibition of sound art titled “Voice & Void.” Among this summer’s offerings are a site-specific installation by Ester Partegas, The Invisible, which takes the form of an illuminated awning on the facade of the Old Hundred — a reference to its mercantile past — and Serge Spitzer’s Still Life, an installation of tens of thousands of camouflage-patterned tennis balls in the museum’s two-acre garden. Visitors with more conventional tastes will find photos by Elizabeth Peyton, a painter best known for her small portraits.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
If the art at the Aldrich confuses or confounds, visit the Wadsworth Atheneum in downtown Hartford, the oldest public art museum in America. This year’s featured exhibition is “Pop to the Present” (January 19-November 9), a survey of contemporary art from the 1960s on, as evinced in some 40 works drawn from the Wadsworth’s own collection. Subtitled “New Questions, New Responses,” the survey, featuring works by the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol (Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986), may provide clues as to how modern art evolved from a form of imitation to a form of inquiry — all true art essentially being a search for meaning.
If “Pop to the Present” isn’t your cup of tea, the Wadsworth offers a collection of more than 50,000 objects — including a wonderful little porcelain gallery filled with fetching figurines and odd curios. This turreted neo-Gothic castle on Main Street is a true treasure house that last year brought 118,000 visitors into the still heart of Hartford.
The museum’s pièce de résistance is the wildly colorful Whirls and Twirls, a geometric acrylic by Hartford native Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), enlivening the interior’s grand marble staircase. Although some visitors may find the artist’s bold, bright embellishment of these hallowed halls startling, even subversive, it is, in fact, a perfect marriage of abstract formalism with the architectural formality of Hartford’s public art palace.
This being genteel Connecticut, however, it’s always possible to retreat into the reassuring past. American Impressionism is loved because it’s so purely sensual and sincere. To return sentimentally to Old Lyme, simply seek out Willard Metcalf’s 1915 The Breath of Autumn, a lovely landscape confection painted in Waterford, not all that far from Miss Florence’s boardinghouse.
For a trip that combines an inn or hotel with a museum visit, see these 5 Art Trail travel packages.