Arts & Culture
Whether your tastes run to Impressionist art, residential architecture or mid-century modern, Connecticut is a treasure trove of riches – both historic and fully up to date. Save some time for an exploration of Irish culture – in fact, make it a multiday feast!
A Taste of Ireland
It’s not clear exactly when the Irish took over the month of March, but now that ownership seems to be extending into the entirety of spring. And as it does, it makes sense to get out and celebrate what has become one of Connecticut’s dominant cultures. The centerpiece, of course, is St. Patrick’s Day, but that’s just for starters. A true Irish education includes a full slate of sights and sounds.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. Before the celebrations begin, be sure to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden. The museum, a part of Quinnipiac University, is home to the world’s largest collection of visual art, artifacts and printed materials relating to the starvation and forced emigration that occurred in Ireland, mostly during the 1840s. Since most of those leaving Ireland at that time ended up in the United States, and brought their traditions with them, it is appropriate to learn the back story.
St. Patrick’s Day Parades. Here’s a tradition that remains vibrant in Connecticut, with many cities and towns observing the day with music and marching. Among the largest celebrations are held in Hartford, where 10 area towns will participate in the 44th Annual Greater Hartford St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 21; the granddaddy of them all in New Haven, where the Irish have been stepping out for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade since 1842 and some 300,000 spectators are expected this March 15; the Greater Bridgeport St. Patrick’s Day Celebration will have the advantage of being held on St. Patrick’s Day itself, March 17; and a relative newcomer, the Mystic Irish Parade, will step off for the 12th time on March 22.
Irish Dance. A Feis is a traditional Gaelic arts and culture festival, but in recent years it has come to mean an event mostly centered around Irish dancing, and competitive dancing at that. Connecticut is home to many such festivals during the year, most being put on by dance academies. If you’re in the mood for Irish costumes and step dancing, this spring offers several opportunities. The Horgan Academy Spring Feis will take place April 11.
Irish Pubs. An Irish pub can be great all the year ‘round, of course, but you might really feel the urge in springtime. You may already have a favorite, but if you don’t, or if you’re just visiting, here are few where the food is notably good: Try the clams Shannon at The Black Sheep in Niantic, or the Shepherd’s Pie at Trinity Bar & Restaurant in New Haven, the big Irish breakfast at Tigin in Stamford, and the warm scallop salad at The Half-Door in Hartford.
Making an Impression
Connecticut was an important creative seed bed of American Impressionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With colonies of talented painters taking up residence in Cos Cob and at Florence Griswold’s boarding house in Old Lyme, many of the great Impressionist scenes painted during those years are scenes of Connecticut. Because of this rich heritage, many museums in the state are home to Impressionist masterworks - in fact, there’s even a Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail that will take you to 17 museums and historic sites throughout the state. As you make your travel plans for this spring, here are a few key sites to put on your list:
The Florence Griswold Museum was the home of the woman who took in and encouraged painters in what was called the Lyme Art Colony. It’s now known as the home of American Impressionism, with one of the best collections of Impressionism in America. Here you’ll see major works by Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman and Willard Metcalf. Be sure to see the ongoing exhibition An American Place: The Art Colony at Old Lyme.
Bush-Holley House is the centerpiece of the Greenwich Historical Society's site on Cos Cob Harbor in Greenwich. Here, the historic buildings, landscape and gardens evoke the turn of the 20th century when Cos Cob became an art colony and cradle of American Impressionism. The Storehouse museum gallery features changing exhibitions.
Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton was home to three generations of American artists after Julian Alden Weir, a leading figure in American art and the development of American Impressionism, acquired the farm in 1882. Today, the 60-acre farm, which includes the Weir House, Weir and Young Studios, barns, gardens, and Weir Pond, is one of the nation's finest remaining landscapes of American art.
The galleries at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum feature work by Connecticut artists from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including American Impressionists such as J. Alden Weir and Willard Metcalf.
Widely considered to be the first museum in the world dedicated solely to American art, the New Britain Museum of American Art is renowned for its preeminent collection spanning three centuries. The Chase Family Building features 15 spacious galleries that showcase the permanent collection and 15-20 special exhibitions annually. Works by American Impressionists at the museum include a pastel by Mary Cassatt and works by Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, Willard Metcalf and 11 oil paintings by Childe Hassam.
Meanwhile, Impressionist Art by the French Masters can also be found in Connecticut, most notably at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art - which houses masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pisarro and Cézanne - and the nearby Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, whose collection includes works by Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet and Whistler.
The Beverly Hills house tour has always been a staple of a visit to Southern California, and we’ve got one in Connecticut, too. Except that with ours, you can go inside the houses and take a look around, and learn about the famous residents, and maybe even something about culture, the arts, architecture and America, too. Here are several of the better-known houses that are open to you.
The Mark Twain House & Museum. The 19-room Victorian gem known by all as the Mark Twain House offers a wonderful look into the life of what many consider to be America’s greatest writer. Twain lived here from 1874 to 1891 and was at his most productive, writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other timeless classics. Tour the house and visit the adjacent museum as well.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Right next door to the Twain House is the house of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin took the nation by storm and was credited by no less than Abraham Lincoln as a factor in the fighting of the Civil War. You’ll learn much about a writer’s life at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and also the Victorian grounds and gardens.
The stunning Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk is regarded as one of the earliest and most significant Second Empire Style country houses in the United States. Built between 1864 and 1868 by financier and railroad baron LeGrand Lockwood, the Gilded Age mansion combines jaw-dropping interiors and architectural flourishes with a suitably rocky domestic history through the economic ups and downs of the 1860s to 1960s century.
Gillette Castle. William Gillette was a famous actor, best known for his portrayals on stage of Sherlock Holmes. Once he became successful he built a wildly eccentric castle for himself on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River - spectacular in spring. Gillette Castle State Park is today open for touring, picnicking or simply strolling the 184-acre park. The grounds are open year-round.
If you can get to Ridgefield, be sure to see the Weir Farm National Historic Site. The 60-acre estate was home to three generations of artists, including Julian Alden Weir a leading figure in American Impressionism. You can visit his former home studio, barns, gardens and Weir Pond. Time your visit well and you can even try your hand at painting.
Litchfield County is where you’ll find Edith Chase’s summer estate, now known as Topsmead State Forest. Chase’s English Tudor cottage is the focal point, but her grounds spread out in all directions, encompassing more than 500 acres in all. Its great for a spring hike, too!
Turns out the Land of Steady Habits is a showcase for Modern Art. In fact, Connecticut has been home to a good number of modern artists, including Philip Johnson, Jasper Johns, Kay Sage, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Cleve Gray and Sol Lewitt, just to name a few. Now it’s also home to the works of many modern masters. Here’s an extensive tour from which you can pick and choose.
Set on 47 acres in New Canaan, the Philip Johnson Glass House, intended as “a catalyst for the preservation and interpretation of modern architecture, landscape and art,” is worth the trip from anywhere. But don’t stop with the Glass House itself. There are a dozen more unique structures, notably art and sculpture galleries where Johnson displayed works by Warhol, Stella, Rauschenberg and more—spectacular.
A short scenic drive north and you come upon Ridgefield’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, one of the first U.S. museums devoted exclusively to the genre. Always cutting-edge, it has no permanent collection. Still, you’re likely to find pieces that move you to “think in new directions.” This spring, for “Circumstance,” The Aldrich turns the entire museum into “rooms” designed by exhibiting artists who will show their own work alongside objects and/or artworks by other artists they have selected.
Make your way to I-95 and set your compass for Bridgeport and points east. First stop: Housatonic Museum of Art, whose modern art collection is exhibited in galleries and throughout the campus of Housatonic Community College. Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Warhol et al displayed outside a major metropolitan museum—who knew?
On to New Haven’s splendidly renovated and expanded Yale University Art Gallery, where you’ll find works by Giacometti, Picasso, Calder, Diebenkorn, Stella, Chuck Close and Roy Lichtenstein (check out his “Blam”), a gallery devoted to Joseph Albers (17 works), and special exhibitions, including, this spring, “Whistler in Paris, London and Venice” and “The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art.” Free admission, too.
In Hartford, The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art just opened up its new Post-War and Contemporary galleries, which is great news for lovers of modern art. Here, in striking new surroundings, you’ll find pivotal works by artists such as Franz Kline, Sol LeWitt, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock and many more. Don’t miss the extraordinary exhibition this spring, “Coney Isalnd: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.”
Looking for the next frontier? Then move on out to Hartford’s Real Art Ways, dedicated to the latest in art, film and music. Share thoughts on what you’ve just seen, life and art with fellow art buffs over drinks at R.A.W.’s Loading Dock Lounge.
Museums of a Different Color
If you are looking for an off-the-beaten path attraction or perhaps travel with someone who thinks museums are not for them, explore Connecticut where one-of-a-kind museums display intriguing curios, reveal interesting histories and educate visitors on a variety of little-known topics.
Take a trip down memory lane at the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire, where comic strip, cartoon, western, television and advertising memorabilia transport visitors as far back as the 19th century. See 80,000 everyday items that children used or played with from 1873 to the present, such as the Lone Ranger gun, Ronald McDonald phone and Roy Rogers lunchbox. The museum also houses the only official Celebriduck Museum in the world. See more than 150 members of the celebrity bathtub duck line, featuring the likenesses of some of the greatest entertainment, athletics and history icons.
Take a journey through time in one of Waterbury’s old brass mill building at the Timexpo: Timex Group Museum, exploring exciting exhibits spanning in three floors. The museum showcases the history of the Waterbury Clock Company, and (because the current Timex owners are Norwegian) there’s an exhibit of Thor Heyerdahl’s voyages across the Pacific and a replica Easter Island “head” that looms over I-84. Enjoy a variety of timepieces and memorabilia, hands-on exhibits, computer inter-activities and good deal on Timex watches in the gift shop.
In Bristol, see one of the largest collections of antique carousel pieces in the country at the New England Carousel Museum. Learn about the evolution of carousel animals, as well as their place in American folk art history, during a guided tour.
All the world’s a stage at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs. Located on the University of Connecticut’s Depot campus, the museum exhibits puppets from around the world, as well as those created at the University of Connecticut, the only school in the United States to offer a Master’s degree in puppetry. Some of the puppets were designed by the famous puppeteer and UConn professor Frank Ballard, while others have been donated by his friends and world-famous puppeteers. The diverse collection includes puppets that date back hundreds of years. The museum also features rotating exhibits.
Want to know about a museum where it is okay to talk trash? The CRRA Trash Museum in Hartford features 6,500 square feet of educational exhibits that begin at the Temple of Trash. Visitors learn about the problems that come with old-fashioned methods of disposal, as well as the solutions, and can watch the on-site Container Processing Facility in operation. Follow recyclables from the tipping floor and through the processing equipment to the final crushing and baling before being shipped to markets or made into new products.
See giant dinosaur fossils, primate skeletons, Native American artifacts and Egyptian mummies at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. Founded in 1866, this museum contains one of the great scientific collections in North America. Among them are the comprehensive mineralogical and ornithological collections, the second-largest repository of dinosaur artifacts in the United States, and the largest intact Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) in the world.
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