Published: March 13, 2001
The Bruce Museum Examines Its Early History
GREENWICH, CONN. – “: The Bruce Museum’s First Decade” illuminates the early history of the Bruce Museum, the marketing of contemporary art at the time, and the genteel tastes of wealthy patrons in the years surrounding World War I. On view at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science through May 27, this exhibition brings back to the museum some of the outstanding paintings and sculptures first shown there between 1912 and about 1922.
Working with the checklists of the Greenwich Society of Artists’ exhibitions, guest curator Susan Larkin has selected 27 paintings and ten sculptures that were either shown at the Bruce Museum more than three-quarters of a century ago or are close to them in subject matter and date. Bruce Museum curatorial assistant Cynthia Drayton assisted Larkin with the show.
When textile merchant Robert Bruce left his home to the Town of Greenwich for use as a museum in 1909, he provided neither a collection nor the funds to acquire one. The building stood empty for three years. At about the same time, however, the Cos Cob art colony decided to reach out for local patronage. The art colony, which had thrived since 1890, initially held themselves aloof from the wealthy newcomers who built great estates along the shore and on backcountry farms. Eventually, however, they recognized the new residents as potential patrons, and they organized in 1912 as the Greenwich Society of Artists. The organization changed its name in 1958 to the Greenwich Art Society, which survives to this day.
The artists converted a wing of the Bruce mansion into a gallery for the first exhibition of the Greenwich Society of Artists (GSA) in the autumn of 1912. That exhibition marked the first time the Bruce Museum opened its doors to the public. From that year until 1926, all of the art exhibitions at the Bruce were organized by the GSA. Beginning in 1914, the GSA invited nationally prominent artists who were not members of the Society to exhibit with them. As a result, they mounted impressive surveys of American Impressionist and realist painting and Beaux Arts sculpture.
The works the artists selected to send to the Bruce reveal that they were targeting a genteel taste. Nudes were generally scarce; instead, images of beautiful women in comfortable homes or lush gardens were popular. “The Violet Kimono” by Robert Reid, depicting a woman arranging flowers in her boudoir, was first seen at the Bruce in 1919. It is on loan to this exhibition from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Frederick Frieseke and Richard Miller, who were members of the second-generation art colony in Giverny, France, also sent paintings of lovely women, examples of which will be shown. Childe Hassam’s painting, “Spanish Ledges,” also returns; it was originally shown at the Bruce in 1919 and depicts a view of the sea from the Isles of Shoals.
The early exhibitions reflected American’s growing confidence in their cultural heritage. E. Irving Couse’s “Hunting Wild Turkeys,” depicting an Indian stalking the iconic American bird, returns to the Bruce for the first time in 75 years. Hermon Atkins MacNeill’s sculptures of Native Americans, such as “A Chief of the Multnomah Tribe,” conveys a nobility formerly reserved for figures from ancient Greece and Rome.
Other sculptors implicitly invited commissions with the works they exhibited at the Bruce. Evelyn Beatrice Longman’s lively portrait bus of a young woman demonstrated her ability to capture personality in a domestic-scale bronze. Many of the sculptures were well-suited to display in the gardens of a great estate; among those in this exhibition are Harriet Frishmuth’s exuberant fountain figure, “Joy of the Waters,” Herbert Adams’s graceful “Nymph of Fynmere,” and Edward McCartan’s elegant “Pan.”
The Arts and Crafts movement was strong in the early Twentieth Century, and the GSA responded by adding a Crafts section to their annual exhibitions. In “,” a pair of carved and painted wooden panels by Elmer MacRae, on loan from the Connecticut Historical Society, reflects the enduring taste for Japanese themes in the bold design of irises and cherry blossoms.
In addition to mounting impressive temporary exhibitions, the local artists strove to establish a permanent collection for the then fledgling Bruce Museum. Landscape painter Leonard Ochtman, who settled in Greenwich in 1891, became the museum’s first art advisor. Ochtman steadily reminded the public that any of the paintings in the GSA exhibitions could be purchased for the museum as well as for themselves. Under his guidance, the museum purchased eight American Impressionist paintings from the 1919 GSA exhibition. Those canvases, which include Emil Carlsen’s “Peonies,” form the core of the museum’s art collection.
“” complements related exhibitions and programs at the National Academy of Design in New York and the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Cos Cob. “The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore,” also curated by Dr Larkin, is on view at the National Academy of Design on Fifth Avenue between 89th and 90th Streets, until May 13. Most of the over 60 paintings, pastels, watercolors and etchings in that exhibition were created in Greenwich and Cos Cob by artists including Childe Hassam, John H. Twachtman, Theodore Robinson and J. Alden Weir. At the Bush-Holley House, the favorite gathering place of the art colony during this time, several rooms have been reinstalled and reinterpreted to capture the atmosphere of that period. The historic site has a concurrent exhibition, “The Cos Cob Art Colony at Bush Holley Historic Site,” on view from March 14 through September 3.
This three-part, two-state collaboration is unprecedented for the participating institutions and related programs are being organized by the three institutions. An April 22 seminar entitled “Turn of the Century Tastes” will be held at the Bruce Museum and is co-sponsored with the Bush-Holley House Historic Site to complement the exhibitions “: The Bruce Museum’s First Decade” and the Cos Cob Art Colony at Bush-Holley House Historic Site. The seminar presents three short talks by scholars, who will discuss various aspects of suburban life at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Kate Johnson speaks on “Turn of the Century Interiors,” Eleanor Weller addresses “The Golden Age of American Gardens,” and Professor Kevin Murphy talks about “American Country Estates.” Exhibition curator Dr Susan Larkin will provide the introduction and moderate the discussion. A reception will follow. The seminar is free with museum admission; call 203/869-0376 for reservations.
An illustrated catalogue is available.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive, just off I-95 exit 3. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm