American art in New Britain, Connecticut

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The old museum building is on the right, the new one on the left.

(April 11, 2009) Till a couple weeks ago, we hadn’t been back to the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, Connecticut) since before its new building was built three years ago. We were a little nervous; part of the charm of visiting this museum had been muddling about in the old Victorian mansion (on a quiet city street) that housed its collection. The truth was, though, that the place was cramped and inadequate.

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The fine old houses on the other side of the street from the museum. We were able to park our car on the street right in front of the museum steps.

We now give our belated review of the new facility: it’s excellent. They’ve put up a 43,000 square-foot building with two floors of nicely designed exhibition space (including a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the staircase). The pleasant neighborhood is the same. The old building, next door, is connected by a walkway; it’s just not used for exhibiting art anymore.

Of all the museums that exhibit only American art, the one in New Britain is still our favorite. Its collection certainly isn’t the largest or finest (that would be the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.), and much can be said for other museums of its ilk (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and the Terra Foundation for American Art (not currently located anywhere at all). Still, this collection, benton-boomtown-magespecially in its new digs, touches us at all the right points, and it includes a number of our very favorite American paintings.

For anyone who might go out of his way to see the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the New Britain Museum of American Art must be visited. Here in Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery has one of Benton’s very best, Boom Town, from 1928 (above) — but if Boom Town is the only Benton painting you know, you absolutely must see the Bentons in New Britain, benton-arts-of-the-west-new-britainespecially Benton’s large, lively, mildly racy mural, The Arts of Life in America. The various parts of the mural occupy all four walls of a gallery on the museum’s second floor. (This is the ten-foot section of the mural entitled “Arts of the West.”)

100_7872-croppedAnother reason we’re high on the New Britain Museum of American Art is its superb gallery of American impressionists. There are first-rate pieces by Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Richard E. Miller, J. Alden Weir, and Willard Metcalf, among others. (We put images of a couple of these in this earlier post.) We said earlier that Colin Campbell Cooper’s Main Street Bridge, Rochester (also at the Memorial Art Gallery) is the best Cooper we’d ever seen. But the New Britain museum also has a wonderful Cooper, entitled On the Rhine, which is also a painting of a bridge. We were fascinated to see how differently Cooper approached painting the European bridge in the New Britain painting.

koch-interlude-magOne of the most “hmm”-provoking paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery is John Koch’s 1963 painting Interlude. The painter (presumably Koch himself) takes a break and sits back to think about his canvas; an older woman in an orange morning robe (presumably the artist’s wife) placidly serves coffee to a nude model. In the New Britain museum, we were delighted to see a John Koch painting that depicts his wife in earlier years. From the museum’s exhibition label for Koch’s The Florist, we learned that in 1943 Koch was newly married and had just 100_7933been drafted into the armed forces when he painted this picture. “He thought he might never return to his bride and his career as a painter. Consequently, he worked feverishly to complete The Florist, which he hoped would establish his fame and also serve as a looming tribute to his wife, whom he portrayed surrounded by beautiful flowers.” Fortunately, The Florist was neither Koch’s last picture nor his last portrayal of his wife.

We devoted an entire post several months ago to George Grosz’s 1943 painting, The Wanderer, another of the Memorial Art Gallery’s prizes, which portrays a weary man 100_7913fleeing a burned-out city. So far as we know, the New Britain museum does not have any works by Grosz, but a 1946 painting by Carl Frederick Gaertner (a new artist for us) reminded us immediately of The Wanderer. The scene of devastation in Gaertner’s The Search Begins looks a lot like the product of aerial fire-bombing, and in this picture Gaertner used a palette similar to Grosz’s in The Wanderer. But The Search Begins is not a war scene at all, except possibly figuratively; it shows an area of northeastern Cleveland where in 1944 an explosion of gas tanks devastated a large neighborhood, with a large death toll.

This is the same tragedy described in a novel that we liked when we were young. Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread tells the story of a nine-year-old Cleveland boy who was caught up in the chaos of that very explosion and fire. We re-read the book (still in print) with great pleasure just a couple of years ago.

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The MAG's "Chinese Restaurant", by John Sloan

The Memorial Art Gallery’s pieces by the Ashcan painters and the later American impressionists, including Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and especially John Sloan (the MAG’s two Sloan paintings are among his very best) are good, but so are the ones at the New Britain museum, which are all part of a very satisfying exhibition of “The Eight” at the New Britain museum for the next several weeks. The show includes works from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art. We wish we had a chance to go back and spend more time with “The Eight.”

One thing we do think the New Britain museum could use is a better copy writer. Go back four paragraphs to the museum’s discussion of its John Koch painting; did you gulp at the phrase “a looming tribute”? In what way, exactly, might a tribute “loom”? Then consider this sentence from the gateway page of its website:

The NBMAA is thought to be one of the nation’s most dynamic art museums by exhibiting the permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

What a dreadful, ungrammatical, jargon-full sentence! Ouch.

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