In the small New England state of Connecticut, it’s capital, Hartford is known for three things: insurance companies, the home of Mark Twain, and the seat of government. But, drive less than ten miles south of the city to a place fittingly named New Britain to discover the most compelling reason to stop for a couple of hours on the way to Boston, Vermont, and other points north.
Set next to a beautiful park, the New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA) is the first of it’s kind; exhibiting strictly American art, ranging from the 18th century to the present with more than 10,000 works in the permanent collection.
A recent and substantial expansion houses three centuries of American art. Highlights include colonial portraiture, the Hudson River School, American impressionists (many of whom flocked to Connecticut from New York for summer and weekend retreats), the Ash Can School, a gallery of Shaker art and the important and engaging mural series, The Arts of Life in America by Thomas Hart Benton. The mural, painted in 1932, wraps the crimson walls of an entire gallery. Painted during the Great Depression, the work shows Americans in their daily lives and at play, be it a speakeasy, a sporting event or playing music. He showcased America’s major divisions: the South, the Cities, the West and Native Americans.
The mural series has an interesting history of its own. Benton won critical acclaim for his use of vibrant colours and originality, but others considered them frivolous. Under the heading, no publicity is bad publicity, Benton reacted fiercely towards those who criticized his paintings, winning him fame and making for a Time magazine cover story.
The murals sold in 1952 for just $500, a bargain considering they originally cost $4,000. A patron donated them to the NBMAA a year later, where they have resided ever since. Benton’s legacy lives on through his own work as well as that of his most famous pupil, Jackson Pollock who took inspiration from his avant-garde approach.
There are well-known American greats, like Norman Rockwell, glassblower Dale Chihuly, and primitive artist Grandma Moses, as well as George Bellows, whose paintings of the northern New England coastline are filled with thick brushstrokes of vibrant colour.
There is a sense of humour and lightness at the museum, with displays such as a life-like policeman who looks so much like the real thing visitors mistake the installation for a person. Another featured artist paints scenes reminiscent of childhood adventure books, each one a treasure hunt with random objects placed in different parts of the picture, blending into the landscape.
Finish your visit at the café where locally sourced food is served under a cascade of glass bubbles hanging from the ceiling. It looks out onto the adjoining park, itself a feature, for having been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture.