Arts & Culture
Plan a tour of Connecticut’s indoor treasures this winter, whether it’s world-class murals, Impressionist masterpieces, or a stroll through one of our great or unusual museums. As you learn and marvel and perhaps even see something amazing for the first time, you’ll realize there are getaways for the mind as well as the body.
The Walls Around Us
If winter drives you indoors, take advantage with a survey course on Connecticut’s murals. These large-size gems are well worth seeking out, and they represent a thrilling variety of styles and subject matter. Tackle them one at a time or make it a tour – but be assured there’s no such thing as cabin fever in these rooms.
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Arts of Life in America” was first unveiled in New York City in 1932, and later removed to New Britain in 1953, where, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, it has dazzled viewers ever since. Four huge wall panels and four more on the ceiling depict the “arts” of everyday life, including music, games, dance and sports, and other subjects as well. Together they make for a fascinating look at Benton’s unique style and life in America during the 1930s.
Work has been completed in Hartford on the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art‘s spectacular renovation and artistic renaissance, all worth going to see, including Sol Lewitt’s brilliantly colored, wildly configured murals in the museum’s entrance gallery. The wall drawings measure 20 feet wide by 45 feet high and are almost certain to lift the mood on a dreary winter afternoon.
The murals of Rudolph F. Zallinger at New Haven’s Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History are known to millions because of their appearance in Life magazine and later in a popular Time-Life book called The World We Live In. Both “The Age of Reptiles” and “The Age of Mammals” will fascinate viewers of any age and bring many back to their own childhood when they first saw these creatures walking the earth.
Many of Connecticut’s public buildings served as canvases for mural painters during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and much of the work survives to this day. Some of the best murals have been catalogued here, and together they could make an interesting road trip. If you’d rather concentrate on one city, Norwalk looks like the best bet, with murals in five or six places around town. Include lunch in the deal and you’re one day closer to spring.
Right Next Door
Sometimes the best visits and vacation days are the ones that don’t involve a lot of logistics and driving from place to place. With that in mind, we’ve devised some days that are simple in design but full of things to see and do: something for the morning, lunch, then something for the afternoon. You may need comfortable shoes, but you definitely won’t need a GPS to get around. And why not do two of them with an overnight in between?
Art & Architecture. One of the great luxuries of downtown New Haven is that so many of Yale’s treasures are practically right next door to each other. Get your art fix at the Yale University Art Gallery, whose recent renovation set the art world buzzing. Its eclectic collections, ranging from Coins and Medals to Modern and Contemporary Art (Hopper, Eakins, John Trumbull), will easily fill your morning. After lunch, take in a walking tour of the university’s truly impressive architecture. Head for the Yale Visitor Center, where you’ll be able to choose between a regularly scheduled student-led tour or a self-guided tour either via download or by printing out a PDF map.
By the Sea. If your interests run to salt water, you’ll be very pleased to learn that one of Connecticut’s top attractions, Mystic Seaport is located right down I-95. At Mystic Seaport, the focus is on America’s long and colorful relationship with the sea. You’ll find a recreation of a 19th-century whaling village, historic boats and ships, classes, workshops and demonstrations. One highlight is climbing aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the 1841 whaling vessel that recently emerged from a five-year restoration.
Dens of Antiquity. If you like antiquing, you’ll think nothing of making a full day of it, and one of the best places is America to undertake such a trip is on Route 6 in Woodbury. Along a five-mile stretch of road between the Watertown line and the junction with Route 64, more than 30 professional dealers have set up shop, selling virtually all categories, periods and styles, related accessories, gifts and bench-made reproductions. Woodbury is also known for its Colonial architecture, art galleries and a wide array of restaurants. And if you’re up for a short side trip, head east on Route 64 to neighboring Middlebury, where Middlebury Consignment offers an entertaining mix of consignment furniture and furnishing, antiques and new items, as well as a café.
Hartford Trifecta. There is plenty to see in downtown Hartford – in fact, you can make a day of it without ever getting into your car. Start at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, one of America’s first and consistently great art museums. Here you’ll find contemporary art, 20th-century European art, and 18th- and 19th-century American art, including its beloved collection of Hudson River School paintings, along with European and American decorative arts and costumes & textiles. More than enough for a morning, to say the least. After lunch, it’s on to the Old State House, built in 1796 after a design by Charles Bullfinch, and long a seat of Connecticut government. Inside, you’ll find exhibits relating to Connecticut and Hartford history, and an old-fashioned Museum of Oddities and Curiosities. Finally, there’s the Connecticut Science Center, set in a spectacular location overlooking the Connecticut River. On four levels, the Center offers 165 hands-on exhibits, a state-of-the-art 3D theater and daily programs events.
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.
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. Gillette Castle State Park is open in winter for hiking and taking in great views.
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion. For lovers of architecture, interiors and design, the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk is an eye-popping treat and one of the most significant Second Empire Style country houses in the United States. Built between 1864 and 1868 by renowned financier and railroad baron LeGrand Lockwood, it magnificently illustrates the beauty and splendor of the Victorian Era. Open through the end of December.
Making an Impression
Connecticut was an important creative seedbed of American Impressionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With colonies of talented painters taking up residence in Cos Cob, Kent 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 18 museums and historic sites throughout the state. As you make your travel plans for this winter 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 one of the key homes of American Impressionism. Here you’ll see major paintings 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.
The newly refurbished 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.
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.
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. And while you’re in town, be sure to see the American Clock & Watch Museum, a delightful repository for well over 1,000 timepieces, many of them beautiful or ingenious or both – and many made in the busy shops of Connecticut.
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 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.
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.
Ridgefield’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is 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.”
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. 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. This fall, be sure to see the special exhibition “Visions from Home: Surrealism in Connecticut.”
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.
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