Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | Picture Perfect: Landscape Tourism in Northwest Connecticut

by Ann Smith

The northwest hills of Connecticut have inspired artists for more than two centuries. Nearly 250 professionally trained artists worked here before 1940 (Figs. 1 and 2). A great influx of artists arrived during the nineteenth century with the development of the tourism industry. Their paintings encouraged other summer travelers to take advantage of new rail lines and tourist accommodations in the region. To a greater extent than in art colonies elsewhere in the northeastern United States, the artists attracted to Connecticut's northwest hills bought homes there. Within an easy commute by train to metropolitan art markets, they remained active in New York's cultural affairs while engaging in year-round activities in Connecticut's rural communities.

Fig. 1: Ralph Earl (American, 1751-1801), Landscape View of the Canfield House, 1796. Oil on canvas, 35 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Conn.

The Arrival of the Artists and the Era of Landscape Tourism
The region's geology and history combined to form a powerful attraction for landscape painters in the nineteenth century, even as the farms and mines established in the area in the eighteenth century ceased operating. The rugged hills, reaching elevations of nearly 2,400 feet, were admired by travelers and painters alike. In 1874, the popular publication Picturesque America, which featured the most highly recommended destinations for travelers seeking "the cult of scenery," described the area. Other local sites appealed to travelers because of their historic associations with George Washington or with various Indian legends.

Sites along the Housatonic River were made accessible in 1842 with the completion of train lines through the Connecticut foothills to the Massachusetts border. Beginning in the early 1840s, artists exhibited landscapes of the region at the top institutions in New York such as the National Academy. The Shepaug River and the Bantam River, tributaries of the Housatonic, also attracted painters when the Shepaug Railroad opened in 1872.

Fig. 2: William Merritt Post (American, 1856-1935), Brook in Spring. Oil on canvas, 14-1/4 x 20-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Conn.

After the Civil War, the Housatonic Railroad improved its depots and began advertising the route to tourists. By 1911, there were seven trains a day running on the line. Hotels near the depots catered to the landscape tourists, and farm families took in urban visitors who were seeking a healthful vacation in the country. Tourist hotels were built along the lakes in the region and in some of the more charming villages, such as Cornwall, Washington (Fig. 3), and Litchfield. Hotels catered to artists by offering studio space.

Many artists painted the picturesque Twin Lakes in Salisbury in the 1850s and 1860s. Even with a blast furnace on their shores, the lakes supported a tourist hotel and wealthy local families built estates in the hills nearby. Artists who painted the lakes, such as Jasper Cropsey, Edward Gay (Fig. 4), Richard Hubbard, Edward Nichols, James Brevoort, and Homer Dodge Martin, ignored the industrial setting and focused instead on depicting the aesthetic symbols of man in harmony with nature.

Farther south along the Housatonic, the ninety-foot Great Falls attracted painters in the mid-nineteenth century. From inns situated south along the river, David Johnson, John Bunyan Bristol, and many others painted views along the Housatonic as if they were overlooking the Garden of Eden, leaving out details of the industrial and tourist activity in the neighborhood.

Fig. 3: William Hamilton Gibson (American, 1850-1896), Mid Summer, Washington, Connecticut, 1880. Watercolor, 10 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Conn.

Painting a Rural Retreat after the Civil War
The post-Civil War decades were a period of disillusionment for Americans. Travel to the country was still welcomed as a healthy escape from the cities, but the pervasive attitude about nature after the war was more personal and introspective. Painters, such as Ben Foster who was active in Cornwall and Charles Warren Eaton in Colebrook, reflected this shift in sensibilities with scenes that place the viewer in an enclosed forest interior or a private meadow where the distance is hidden from view by a line of trees in the middle ground. The surface texture of these paintings is sometimes rough, suggesting the artist painted quickly to capture a fleeting moment. Colors are muted, evoking a poetic melancholy. Paintings of this postwar era, often influenced by the artists' study at French academies, can be described as Barbizon or tonalist in style.

This focus on a more intimate encounter with nature is also reflected in genre painting after the Civil War. Depictions of everyday events capture quiet moments in garden settings devoid of symbolism. E. L. Henry and William Henry Lippincott painted scenes in the northwest hills that reflect the middle class’s increasing leisure time.

Postwar illustrators, in great demand to enliven new periodicals aimed at the middle class, included naturalists who specialized in the careful rendering of animals, insects, flora, fauna, and rocks. Two of the best known naturalist illustrators of the era, William Hamilton Gibson and Fidelia Bridges, owned homes in northwest Connecticut.

By the turn of the twentieth century, many of the nation's leading impressionist painters also traveled to the area, including Willard Metcalf, who stayed at Woodbury's venerable Curtis House Inn in 1919, and Ernest Lawson, who painted in Norfolk during the summers in the 1930s.

Fig. 4: Edward Gay (American, 1837-1928), Twin Lakes with Cattle, 1868. Oil on canvas, 31 x 54-1/4 inches. Courtesy of The Salisbury Association, Salisbury, Conn.

Artists Become Neighbors
By the 1870s, artists began to buy homes in the area. Emil Carlsen settled in Falls Village (Fig. 5), and Robert Nisbet in Kent. The region provided affordable living, beautiful scenery to paint year round, and an escape from urban life.

Affluent painters, such as William Hamilton Gibson, H. Siddons Mowbray, and A. T. Van Laer, purchased country homes and studios in the stylish, architect-designed Colonial Revival villages of Washington and Litchfield.

Fig. 5: Emil Carlsen (American, 1853-1932), Woodland Scene. Oil on canvas, 20 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Conn.

As they settled in, resident artists influenced other artists to become neighbors. Formal art associations were established in the early decades of the twentieth century in several of the communities and students gathered for summer art schools. The artists and their families began to play active community roles, serving as selectmen and leading efforts to guard the historic and cultural assets of their towns. They painted the local countryside in all seasons and with greater familiarity.

Artists established art associations in Kent, Falls Village, Washington, and Lime Rock, which was promoted by a Westchester developer in the 1920s as an artists' colony. Groups of artists also gathered and exhibited in Cornwall, Litchfield, Norfolk, Warren, Colebrook, and Torrington.

The experience of the artists who became residents in the region helped establish the continuing tradition of artist communities in the northwest hills. Their work records the place, values, and lifestyle of an earlier era in Connecticut.

The Exhibition
Picture Perfect: Images of Northwest Connecticut, an exhibition of 40 paintings of northwest Connecticut, borrowed from museums and private collectors, will be presented at the Mattatuck Museum, 144 West Main Street, Waterbury, Connecticut, from June 1 through September 18, 2003. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00-5:00 and Sunday, 10:00-5:00. The exhibit will then travel to the Newington Cropsey Foundation in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, from October 4 through November 14, 2003. During the summer, related exhibits will also be held in Litchfield, Washington, Bethlehem, New Milford, Kent, Cornwall, and Woodbury, Connecticut. For a complete listing of exhibits and programs, visit www.LitchfieldHillsArtTrail.org. This project was produced with support from the Connecticut Humanities Council, the Connecticut Office of Tourism, and the Connecticut Tourism Council.

Artists of the Litchfield Hills, the companion book by Robert Michael Austin, will be available after June 1, 2003. 136 pages, 116 illustrations, many in color. $45 hard cover; $32 soft cover. To order the book, phone the Mattatuck Museum at 203.753.0381, ext. 10

Ann Smith is the Curator at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, which specializes in the work of Connecticut-based artists. She has served as curator of a number of exhibitions on nineteenth century landscape painting in Connecticut and has lectured and written catalogue essays and articles on landscape painting, and on Alexander Van Laer and John Kensett.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.