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Arts & Culture

NBMAA Exhibition Explores Works From Farmington Art Colony

Ray Hardman
Connecticut Public Radio
James Britton's 1921 painting "Council of Artists"

A new exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art celebrates the history of the Farmington arts scene, a little known but influential chapter in American art.

"Art in Farmington Village” spans over 100 years, from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. The art produced in Farmington during that time reflects overarching trends in American and European fine art, like Hudson River School, Impressionism, Pre-Raphaelite and Barbizon School.

The first artists to come to Farmington, Connecticut were limners in the late 18th century, traveling portrait artists who plied their trade among the affluent families in town.

On display is the work of renowned limner Richard Jenneys. In 1794, the Boston-based artist painted Catherine and Martha Hooker Mix, young sisters from Farmington. The sisters are rosy cheeked with a precocious smile, and their large brown eyes are clear and sparkling.

“Jenneys' work is particularly striking among the works of limner artists because he achieved a fullness in the figures and a liveliness of the color, and a wonderful attention to their expression that others sometimes did not,” explained Dr. Charles Leach. Leach is a docent at NBMAA, and a member of the Farmington Historical Society, which contributed to the exhibition.

As American fine art flourished in the 1800s, Farmington became a destination for artists. Not only were there plenty of wealthy patrons in town who needed paintings for their large houses, artists found in Farmington a rustic and pastoral setting perfect for landscape painting.

Lisa Willams is New Britain Museum of American Art's associate curator. She said many of the images on display will be familiar to people who know Farmington, like the “Old Gate” house on Main Street.

“That name refers to this very elaborate carved gate at the front of the home that became a favorite subject of many different artists,” said Williams, “so we have two different depictions here, one by Walter Parsons Shaw Griffin from 1900. Harold Wade Douglas also depicted the same architectural feature of the home. So, one can still pass by today and see the gate.”

By the late 1800s Farmington had become an artist colony of sorts. In 1880, Sarah Porter, the founder of Miss Porter's School hired influential artist Robert Bolling Brandegee to teach painting there. For the next 30 years, Brandegee lived, painted and taught at Miss Porter's.

Credit Ray Hardman / Connecticut Public Radio
Portrait of Robert Bolling Brandegee by Cecilia Beaux.

“He was a very magnetic person; he attracted his colleagues and friends to Farmington. And that developed into a coterie of artists who worked in Farmington,” said Charlie Leach. “A number of the artists represented here studied at Miss Porter's under Robert Brandegee. So the connections just go on infinitely.”

Among the works by Brandegee in the exhibit are three paintings of the same scene - the bend of the Pequabuck River, where the Pequabuck and the Farmington rivers converge. Painted at different times in Brandegee's life, each one is distinct. Lisa Williams said what unifies these works are the passion and energy he put into all three works.

“You get a sense of him so enjoying creating these paintings,” said Williams, “the paint is thick and juicy, you can see the brushstroke in many sections, and you can get the sense of him applying the paint in these luscious areas, and even scraping the surface in some sections to indicate grass or reeds, and it completely, perfectly conveys and encapsulates the feeling of being there.”

That particular bend in the Pequabuck was painted over and over again by other Farmington artists. Williams said so many local patrons requested paintings from that site that Brandegee called it “the mercantile bend.”

Credit Ray Hardman / Connecticut Public Radio
Robert Bolling Brandegee's "Bend in the Pequabuck"

The exhibit also highlights the legacy of these painters and how they how they helped establish Connecticut as an important hub for the arts. James Britton's 1921 painting "Council of Artists" portrays a group of Farmington artists, seated on a couch and chairs. The occasion was the founding of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts in 1910.

“Here he depicts many of the artists who were present on that day,” said Williams. “We see Robert Bolling Brandegee, Charles Noel Flagg here, and James Britton himself, and at that time the group held regular exhibitions at the Wadsworth Atheneum, they supported and promoted each other's art work, and really helped to foster an active artistic network here in Connecticut that laid the foundation for years and years to come.”

"Art in Farmington Village" runs through October 7 at the New Britain Museum of American Art.

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