Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.
Not far from New York City is Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, a superb regional museum. It includes paintings from a number of periods, most of them worth spending a good deal of time with. They raise all the time honored aesthetic distinctions. Modern and contemporary painting is about shapes more than subject matter while painting prior to that is more about the subject matter than the way it is shaped. Portraits are about the persons portrayed, or then again, they are about what people present themselves as rather than what they are. Landscapes get you lost in the tall weeds while group portraits get you to wonder about the relationships that exist between these people. To get these questions to recur to you is one reason to go to museums.
The museum also contains a number of Hudson River artists. They cannot be reduced to a common theme of man in nature, which is a kind of Ralph Waldo Emerson way of reading them, which has a certain amount of historical accuracy to it, but does not capture what remains intriguing about them visually. They all deal with the wooded land that surrounds the river and show the rocky and precarious places that must have been identical to the ones where the artist set up his stand. Each of them is different and marvelous, however, in its own way. The tree boughs in this one cut across one another, while in another it is the plants and trees that upstage one another. Here the human onlooker is important, while elsewhere he is not. Sometimes there are vistas, sometimes there are not. Thomas Cole’s “View in the White Mountains” shows a person coming over a rise, behind him and to his side long vistas of various shades of green. It is a very inviting scene.
Now maybe this is just the way it is with landscapes of woods and forests, the complexity growing out of the way trees are tall and differently colored than the leaves above and the grass and twigs underneath. So it was with Poussin. You can never step into the same forest scene if you just move a few steps forward. Walking in the forest, whether really or in a painting, is just dizzying because there is so much to absorb that most of it will elude your memory, so fast does the sequence of scenes change. But it also suggests that it is hard to get outside a painting of woods and that any that are even competently done will have that effect on the viewer. Movies move too quickly to allow you to see how the filtering of light is different if you walk to the other end of the clearing.
And then you come to some paintings in the Wadsworth Atheneum that take your breath away for a very different reason. They are good paintings but not great paintings and they do what painting as well as other major art forms can do, which is to move you in time so that the life of the American Revolution, which occurred 235 years ago, catches your imagination up in its grip. There are the two John Trumbull's: “The Death of General Mercer” which was painted in 1831, and “The Declaration of Independence”, which was painted in 1832. These were painted in what remained of the afterglow of the sanctification of the Revolution and were among the first paintings bought for the original collection, which suggests that the trustees wanted to treasure the history of the Revolution, however tangentially Connecticut had been involved in the two events portrayed. (It was known as “The Constitution State” because its three original settlements, New Haven, Saybrook and Hartford, each had written constitutions, not because of anything having to do with the United States Constitution.)
“The Declaration of Independence” is much too symmetrical to be true to life. Most of the delegates are posed so that their faces are clear and a similar proportion of their torsos are covered by the person next to them. The idea is to get in the faces, to make some record of that, and that is more important than the action which takes place in the right hand part of the painting. It is also the case that the posing is reminiscent of the gathering of nobility to watch the crowning of Napoleon or paintings of ceremonial occasions much further back so as to make the viewer aware of how historic a moment is being portrayed, one fit for the ages, not for a set of colonies on the edge of the wilderness. The Founding Fathers thought a great deal of the nation they were initiating. It was to be an exceptional place, whatever its boundaries would come to be. They certainly thought they had enough land at the time to make themselves noteworthy among the nations as both a place of wealth and industry and liberty.
In similar fashion, “The Death of General Mercer” points to the painter’s ambitions for America. As the deaths of generals go, this is a bit too crowded to be considered great for its composition and its colors are too dark and thickly laid on to provide much of a sense of place. Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” is much more moving and much more clear about its setting and the feel of the moment. And yet it is as if the artist is celebrating the battlefield death of a great man, a man notable for his place in history, precisely because America was conceived to be and had already become notable in history. Whether France or Britain controlled Canada had faded in importance now that the United States had entered the picture. Parkman, writing about the French and Indian wars at about the same time, treats those events as if they were ancient history, the noble vanishing Indians going the same way as the French on the Fields of Abraham, even though that pivotal and very dramatic battle had taken place only seventy five years before. D-Day is almost that far away today, but still very much in American thought, as is attested to by the number of histories that continue to pour out about the dynamics of the battle and the people who took part in it. And yet, “The Death of General Mercer” remains moving, recalls to you why it should be moving, for the idea behind it as well as its own accomplishment. History pictures can do that. They can make you care about battles you never heard of and will not remember, like the one of a long forgotten Dutch sea battle that fills up a wall in the entrance hall to the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam.And then you come upon Frederic Church’s 1846 painting, “Hooker and Company Journeying Through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636”, which really is a good painting and whose title alone tells you that this is a visual “record” of an important event. Church has chosen to present a moment in the trek from Massachusetts to Hartford when the oxen led wagon, dogs and settlers and children and cows alongside, is crossing a stream that is not as deep as the settlers of the Western Frontier would find to be the streams they would cross a few generations later. The stream is tranquil and the landscape not uninviting, whatever are the dangers of the journey, which appears to be a very orderly progress. The artist presents this scene straight on. The wagon and its train cross the picture from left to right in a horizontal rather than at an angle and the level of the artist’s gaze is that he sees the scene at eye level, rather than from above or below. They cross the stream on a spit of sand that allows neither the progress of the journey or its portrayal to be interrupted and then wander into a shaded part of the trail that would not be inappropriate in a Ruisdael. But rather than Lowland towns seen in the distance, there is just an expanse of similarly hilled land pocketed by lakes. The picture is set in a clearing and that and the tone of the sky adds to the sense of tranquility.
Nothing fancy, even as that is found in later Church paintings, and so the picture provides reportage rather than myth and yet is striking for being so straightforward. There is plenty of vegetation and trees around and even a rocky crag to make you aware of being in the wilderness, and that is enough to make you realize that this is a scene of a time well past, when it was that rough going between Massachusetts and Connecticut. No Turnpike. So you realize that there was a time before Hartford was settled, and that calls forth some trace memories of why people left Massachusetts for Connecticut so long ago. Once, Hartford was the West, the frontier. So even here there is many an echo and actuality of the American experience
And then you step outside the Athenaeum to modern Hartford and modern Connecticut. It is no longer wilderness, given that there is a mall and a development not too far from one another all the way up and down its many highways, Connecticut having the highest population density of any state in the Union. Its cities are slums, while its well heeled suburbs are not. The population is largely Catholic. And with very few exceptions, all the mayors of New Haven since the mid Nineteenth Century have been Catholic or Black while the earlier mayors were all White Protestants. The situations and problems that fill the heads of contemporary residents of Connecticut reflect those facts. How to provide education for very disparate populations? How to develop the health related industries that are already there so as to provide even more employment opportunities? How to live at a place halfway between Boston and New York? Red Sox Nation gives way to the Yankee Empire at about New Haven. The events and places portrayed inside the museum are not the events and places that are met outside the museum, and that is why the museum is such a valuable resource: it takes you back at least one hundred fifty years to a different culture, a different set of characters, a different set of events to spur the imagination, and that is what museums, art museums or not, are for. They take the past and through its artifacts make it present. You see and touch the past and do it now. Connecticut is again for you what it was.
Regional museums are wonderful because they are so good at doing this mental trick, while more comprehensive or world class museums are better at making time a place of many mansions, so that one is in Rome until one moves on a few paces or up a floor and is in Ancient Egypt or among the French Impressionists, which is the case with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. We need more regional museums, even as the Jewish Museum and the Museum of the Barrio might serve that function for communities that reside in New York, though they seem more interested in cultivating a wider art audience, so the Museum of the Barrio presents Spanish painters rather than focusing on Puerto Rican ones.
Just down the Connecticut River from Hartford, where the river gives way to Long Island Sound, are Saybrook and Essex, two towns which also evoke that earlier exciting time in Connecticut history: the period of our two wars with England. Essex is the home of the Connecticut Maritime Museum, a special interest museum that is of much narrower scope than a regional museum. It features an exhibit of Bushnell’s “Turtle”, which was the first submarine and which was used unsuccessfully during the Revolutionary War to try to attach a bomb to a British ship. That is Yankee ingenuity for you. It also contains an exhibit of the British, during the War of 1812, attacking the American privateers harbored in Essex and the shipyards where their ships were being built.
Exciting times come back, as they inevitably do, as tourist attractions. A boat trip on the present day Connecticut River brings you a spiel about how lucky the Connecticut River was that there are sandbars blocking it from the Sound, because otherwise major transAtlantic trade might have occurred on the river, and that would have led to the major cities from which the Connecticut has been spared. To a New Yorker, like myself, that sounds like sour grapes, but everyone is entitled to go on and on about the particular beauties and events of their own region so that, if nothing else, it can continue to be recognized as a distinct region that has resisted total assimilation into the contemporary world.