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Strokes of genius
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Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Hart Benton. Maxfield Parrish. Winslow Homer. And more. Many more, in an exhibition entitled Strokes of Genius: Masterworks from the New Britain Museum of American Art on display at the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences through March 20.

“These are highlights from the collection of the New Britain Museum of Art in Connecticut,” says Hollis Koons McCullough, Curator of Fine Arts and Exhibitions for the Telfair. “It was one of the first institutions developed for the exclusive collection of American art.”

What today is the New Britain Museum was developed from the New Britain Institute, which was incorporated in 1858. It provided a library and reading room, as well as a setting for public lectures.

In 1901, an art room was added. Two years later, industrialist John Butler Talcott gave the institute 20 gold bonds for the purchase of original modern oil paintings.

More bonds were added to the Talcott fund in 1905, and by 1909, the first works of art were purchased. “They made the decision to collect everything from historical American art to contemporary works,” McCullough says.

The result is an amazing collection, and a fascinating exhibit for the Telfair.

“It is a really interesting show in terms of the diverse type of subject matter,” McCullough says. “Some are mixed media, but most are paintings,” she says. “It gives us a look not only at the way art has changed, but how the country has changed over time.”

The pieces are hung chronologically. “There was no other way to make sense of it,” McCullough says.

The show fills four galleries and demonstrates why the nearby Jepson Center, now under construction, is needed. “Getting this show into four galleries wasn’t a comfortable fit,” McCullough says. “We had to pack this show in. We’re desperate for more space.”

The first gallery features paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the 1758 portraits of a couple painted by Joseph Badger.

“It was unusual for artists of this time to have any formal art training,” McCullough says. “He was a typical American limner with sort of a practical background. What’s interesting to me is that normally with this kind of portrait, the couple would face each other. Here, they don’t.” (Both are seen facing to the left.)

One painting was created by Mather Brown, a descendant of Increase and Cotton Mather, New English Puritan ministers who are remembered today mostly for their narrow, intolerant views. Cotton Mather was a participant in the Salem Witch Trials.

Mather Brown went to London, where he studied with artist Ben West. “He did portraits of prominent Britons and Americans, including Thomas Jefferson,” McCullough says.

Brown’s 1790 portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright, an industrialist who invented the cotton spinning machine, can be seen at the Telfair. “It’s a typical grand manor portrait,” McCullough says.

Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of Jared Sparks, who wrote a history of George Washington, also can be seen. “It’s interesting to see a canvas in progress,” McCullough says. “Stuart developed the half-bust pose, which he used over and over.”

The first gallery also contains images from the Hudson River School of painters, plus Winslow Homer’s 1864 painting, Skirmish in the Wilderness. “It was done at a time when Homer was working for Harper’s Weekly covering the Civil War,” McCullough says.

“Most scholars think it depicts the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia.” she says. “It was a horrific battle. There was so much undergrowth, it let in little light. The painting is extremely dark, not just because the forest is thick and not a lot of light is getting in, but also because it depicts a low point in American history -- the Civil War,. Homer generally saw nature as antagonistic.”

The second gallery features paintings from the late 19th century, including a landscape by Henry Ossawa Tanner. “He is considered the most important black artist of the 19th century,” McCullough says. “It looks like a simple view of a homestead, but it is the home of a judge who was a famous abolitionist.”

One of McCullough’s personal favorites is The Moorish Prince, painted in 1897 by Elizabeth Norris. “She was an extremely talented artist who studied in Paris,” McCullough says. “American artists moved from the strictly familiar to being interested in different types of people. This painting shows a very noble Moorish man in traditional dress. It reflects an interest at the time in Orientalism -- interest in African and Middle Eastern cultures. Artists were not just looking inward, but starting to look at subject matter.”

The third gallery features artists who were working in the early 20th century. In the Choir by Edwin Austin Abbey was painted in 1901, but depicts a dreamy-eyed woman in 18th century dress.

“He was known for his illustrations that looked back to the English past,” McCullough says. “His work reflects the hankering of an industrialized America looking back to its roots in England.”

Childe Hassam was best known for genteel images of New York City, but paintings such as Ship Rigger’s Shop demonstrate that he spent his summers elsewhere, probably in Province Town on Cape Cod. “He was one of the most successful artists to use the Impressionist technique,” McCullough says. “He studied in Paris, which is where he was exposed to Impressionism.”

Willard Metcalfe’s Mountain Laurel might seem particularly at home at the Telfair. “Metcalfe was known as the poet laureate of the New England landscape.”

Another artist featured in the Telfair collection is Frederick Frieske. In the New Britain exhibition, an image of his daughter is seen. “This painting has a somber quality,” McCullough says. “Frieske was not well at this time.”

One of the most delightful images in the exhibition is The Imaginative Boy by Robert Henri. “He was one of the most influential 20th century artists,” McCullough says. “We have a Spanish scene by him in the Telfair collection.”

The Imaginative Boy depicts a gypsy boy Henri came across in an encampment. “Childe Hassan would never have looked twice at a gypsy boy, but Henri really embraced all of American society,” McCullough says. “He was interested in immigrants and the everyday people he met on the street. He thought they all were worthy of painting.”

The fourth gallery is devoted to contemporary works of art, up through the 1990s. Some of America’s most beloved artists are represented here. `

Two of those artists demonstrate a touch of humor in paintings that are displayed side by side. “In this one, Thomas Hart Benton is painting an image of Denys Wortman,” McCullough says. “In the other, Denys Wortman, a cartoonist, is creating an image of Thomas Hart Benton. They’re collaborative self portraits.”

Maxfield Parrish’s Dusk is a preview of things to come. “The Telfair will have an extensive show of his work later this year,” McCullough says.

Grant Wood is best known for his painting, American Gothic, but his 1940 painting Sentimental Ballad was commissioned by a film studio. If the people pictured seem familiar, it is because they are some of Hollywood's most noted actors, including John Wayne.

While not as well known as American Gothic, Wood considered it to be his most ambitious project. “It shows his photographic, realistic style,” McCullough says.

Strokes of Genius: Masterworks from the New Britain Museum of American Art is on display at the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences through March 20.