Published: September 12, 2000
At Home and on Retreat
GREENWICH AND WILTON, CONN. – In his lifetime, (1852-1919) was considered one of America’s leading painters, but for years after his death his achievements were all but forgotten. In the last several decades there has been a deserved resurgence of interest in his oeuvre, reflected in major museum exhibitions and now, two complementary shows of his art in Connecticut. Indeed, this summer’s Weir exhibitions suggest why his standing is likely to improve for posterity – due to the quality of his art and the fact that the Connecticut farm that inspired some of his best work is preserved as a National Historic Site in the National Park System.
The major art exhibition, “A Connecticut Place: Weir Farm, An American Painter’s Rural Retreat,” featuring over 70 paintings, as well as photographs and artifacts, is on view at The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich through September 17. Organized by the Weir Farm Trust and the National Park Service and curated by Hildegard Cummings (retired curator of education at the William Benton Museum of Art) and Harold Spencer (professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut), it showcases works by Weir and friends of his Branchville farm. Designated a National Historic Site in 1990, Weir Farm is the only national park in Connecticut and the only national park in the country devoted to an American painter.
The fully illustrated catalogue accompanying the show contains thoughtful essays by Cummings, Spencer, Nicolai Cikovsky (curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art) and Elizabeth Milroy (professor of art history at Wesleyan University). Published by the Weir Farm Trust in collaboration with the National Park Service, it is exceedingly well done.
The companion exhibition, “: An American Painter at His Home,” is on view just up the way at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, also through September 17. Displayed are some 20 watercolors, drawings, prints and archival rdf_Descriptions, offering glimpses into the artist’s activities at his rural retreat.
Together, these shows provide a unique opportunity for art lovers to view both the art and the place that inspired it.
Weir’s output was characterized by what collector Duncan Phillips termed a “reticent idealism,” while at the same time reflecting a wide-ranging, inquiring mind. For a period in his career, he adapted his own brand of Impressionism to depictions of his Connecticut farm and its environs. Weir’s still lifes, portraits, figure studies and landscapes reflect an integrity and quiet, individual vision that grew out of his family heritage.
Raised in a large, artistic household, he was the youngest son of Robert W. Weir, longtime art instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point. Like his older brother, John Ferguson Weir, a painter who taught for years at Yale, Julian Alden Weir was trained by his father before studying at the National Academy of Design and in Paris. Weir traveled frequently to Europe, soaking up a variety of artistic influences.
Handsome, well connected and with a gift for warm friendships, he flourished in New York as a painter of academic still lifes and portraits. Throughout his career, Weir exhibited widely and was honored with medals and prizes. His work is represented in most major American museums.
Weir was a founder of the Society of American Artists and The Ten American Painters, president of the National Academy of Design and the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and active in numerous other art organizations. He taught for years at the Art Students League.
On his death in New York in 1919, he was saluted as a gifted artist, able teacher, respected art-world leader and cherished friend who advanced the cause of American art through works and deeds. He was buried in Windham, Conn., the home of his two wives, where he owned property.
In 1882, just as he was about to build a country retreat at Keene Valley in the Adirondacks, the 30-year-old rising star was offered a 153-acre farm in Branchville (straddling the Ridgefield-Wilton line), Conn. in exchange for a painting he owned. “Home is the starting place,” said Weir, and for four decades he made this “quiet little house among the rocks” his main summer home. In 1883 he married Anna Baker of Windham, who bore him several children.
Over time, Weir enlarged the Branchville farmhouse, built a studio, created a fishing pond and acquired more land, for a total of 238 acres. The ways in which Weir Farm became a major source of artistic inspiration for the owner and visiting artists in the subject of these fine exhibitions.
When he first visited the Connecticut farm that collector Erwin Davis had unexpectedly offered him a few days before, Weir was undaunted by the small farmhouse and rocky landscape. He was immediately taken with the pastoral setting, which he recorded in a bright, atmosphere watercolor, “Spring Landscape, Branchville” (1882). This tiny image, in which a man-made stone wall blends with trees framing a grassy landscape, “depicts the kind of intimate landscape that would interest Weir for the next decades and for which he became famous,” observes Cummings.
The spot where “Spring Landscape” was executed is included in a fascinating brochure available at Weir Farm that details a self-guided walking tour to a dozen sites around the property where significant artworks were produced. Following the “trail,” one can compare contemporary landscapes with those depicted by Weir, Childe Hassam and Alfred Pinkham Ryder; the principal change is the growth of trees on formerly clear land.
Before long, Weir abandoned his Adirondacks project to focus on developing the old farm in Connecticut. A place to escape the pressures of New York, he farmed, fished, hunted and nurtured his family there, but it was eventually the artistic opportunities it provided that particularly captured his fancy.
The sign over the front door of Weir’s farmhouse, inscribed by his friend, celebrity architect Stanford White, was prophetic: “Here shall we rest and call content our home.” In his first few years in residence Weir created several dark-toned domestic scenes of his first wife Anna and their daughters in informal poses around the house. His affection for his dogs animated a rare but highly accomplished watercolor, “Three Dogs Before the Fire” (1887).
For a time after the death of his first wife in childbirth, in 1892, the grief-stricken artist generated few easel paintings. After marrying Anna’s sister Ella Baker, in 1893, however, he began to work again. “Baby Cora” (1894) shows Ella holding the baby whose birth cost Anna her life. A far happier mood permeates one of the most beautiful Impressionist works in the exhibition, “In the Dooryard” (circa 1893-94), showing Ella, Weir’s three daughters and a lamb in their sun-dappled front yard in Branchville.
Having already established his reputation when he acquired the farm, Weir expected that still lifes and portraits would continue to be his bread and butter. Indeed, he did not become a committed landscape painter until the late 1880s, after which he created some of the most subtly harmonious and evocative views of rural New England in our art history. Employing soft blues, greens, silvery grays and pale yellows, he evolved his own kind of Impressionism, which incorporated touches from Japan, John H. Twachtman, James McNeill Whistler and Symbolism. His work reflected an inveterate experimenter always looking for better means to express his personal response to nature.
While other artists also depicted their families at their country houses and gardens, once he embraced landscape work, Weir went further afield, ranging over his expanding property to paint pond, pasture and woodland. These tranquil images, with humans rarely in sight, are intimate, quiet and romantic. Recalling the attractions of the old New England countryside, they were comfortingly familiar to Weir’s contemporaries.
The Bruce Museum exhibition is filled with sunny, brightly hued landscapes that, to turn-of-the-century Americans, on the cusp of becoming world leaders, yet beset by overcrowded cities and other problems, found soothing, welcome – and admirable.
Running counter to the American landscape traditions of the Hudson River School and its successors, that celebrated the vastness, grandiosity and unspoiled beauty of the US, by the late 1880s, Weir was creating at his farm more intimate, subtle, idiosyncratic canvases. “He aimed…,” says Cummings, “at capturing color, light, and pattern in ways that communicate the essence of the Connecticut countryside: intimate rather than panoramic, simple rather than monumental, personal rather than sublime.”
In “Lengthening Shadows” (1887) Weir immortalized the gentle interplay of sunlight and shadow on a dirt road curving up a tree-dotted, verdant hillside that he felt reflected the harmony and tranquility of his little corner of the world. Straightforward and unidealized, yet utilizing a subtly abstract design and soft colors, he captured the essentials of this slide of the natural world around him. “My eyes,” he declared, “have been opened to a big truth.”
One of his loveliest early paintings is the hazy, pastel-like view of blue-green bushes, a golden grain field and a red barn, “The Farmer’s Lawn” (circa 1888-90). As Cummings notes, it “expresses…stability, harmony, and clam, but in a manner closer to the sketchiness and coloring that are associated with Impressionism and Japanese design.”
Trees, which Weir called “nature’s sentinels,” figure prominently in many of his Branchville paintings, and star in such evocative canvases as “Connecticut Birches” (circa 1898), “Overhanging Trees” (circa 1909), and “White Oaks” (1913).
In a variety of ways, Weir depicted aspects of nature that were quite different from the normal fare of his fellow painters. “I do not care much for subjects that other people like,” he wrote. Thus, he picked out a brush pile, toppled trees, old fences, ravines or wild flowers rather than conventional lush gardens that other artists favored.
One of the more intriguing works in the exhibition is “Landscapes: Branchville, The Palace Car” (early 1890s), a sunny, freely brushed depiction of the heated, portable wooden studio Weir used for painting in winter. It is perched in a swale across the road from the farmhouse and barn, a view that is included in the walking tour of painting sites. This is one of several works on view lent by the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University.
Weir’s farm scenes range from an early tonalist image of a woman in a chicken yard flanked by chickens, livestock and an upland meadow, in “Connecticut Farm” (1886) to a vigorously brushed image of chickens in front of the barn in “Midday” (1891) to a vignette of a white horse standing outside the barn in “New England Barnyard” (1904).
Perhaps his most enigmatic farmscape is the large (48-½ by 33-¾ inches) painting, “Ploughing for Buckwheat” (1898, retouched circa 1912). Here, Weir offered an unusual, brightly colored view of a stalwart farmer pausing behind his team of sturdy oxen to gaze at a nearby child playing with some stones. “The painting weaves together in a bucolic ensemble the juxtapositions of age and gender, work and play, action and reverie, oxen and human presence, tilled land and woods – a full range of experience of the land,” observes Spencer.
Art leader, warm friend and gracious host, Weir attracted numerous painters to the farm. As Weslyan University art historian Milroy notes in her catalogue essay, Weir “generously shared his retreat with selected colleagues as well as family. Fellow artists could spend the day working at their easels, taking regular breaks to explore the wooded areas, or fish in nearby lakes (and the fish pond after that was built).”
Hassam, Ryder, Twachtman and his brother John, the first three among the most prominent artists of their day, were regular visitors to Branchville. Other artists who came to the farm included Emil Carlsen, Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent and Edmund Tarbell. Western artist Frederic Remington, who built a grand stone house that still stands in Ridgefield, stopped by for visits that “seem to have been boisterous interruptions rather than the sedate visits made by Weir’s more intimate friends,” according to Milroy.
Landscape master Twachtman (1849-1902), Weir’s closest friend and fellow organizer of The Ten American Painters, was stimulated to acquire the Greenwich farm that inspired some of his best work as a result of visits to the Branchville property. Twachtman observed that Weir’s farm was “Not splendid for the cultivation of things to eat but finer for the production of things to look at.”
In Branchville the two comrades influenced each other’s work while exchanging ideas about artistic styles and organized an exhibition held in New York in 1889. Twachtman’s paintings of the surroundings reflect the serenity of the site, while the hushed silence of Weir’s Woods in Snow” (circa 1895) and “Winter Landscape” (1897) are reminiscent of Twachtman’s celebrated Greenwich snowscapes.
The two worked together on etchings, such as Twachtman’s spare but accomplished “Branchville, Connecticut” (circa 1888) and Weir’s sketchy, asymmetrical “The Land of Nodd” (circa 1888). In these rather experimental efforts, Weir’s “etching communicates an excrdf_Descriptionent that contrasts with the peaceful feeling in the Twachtman,” comments Cummings in the catalogue.
Although usually called an American Impressionist, Cikovsky argues in his brief essay that style constituted only part of Weir’s artistic makeup. He notes that although Weir had labeled an 1877 Impressionist exhibition in Paris “worse than a Chamber of Horrors,” by 1891 he found in the style “a truth that I never felt before,” as he wrote his brother.
Weir’s artistic heroes included English Grand Manner portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, French academic painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and French Barbizon artist Jean-Francois Millet. He was close to American visionary painter Ryder, admired Whistler’s delicate nocturnes, and subtle Impressionist Twachtman was his best friend. As the current exhibition suggest, Weir’s personalized approach to Impressionism, centered in the 1890s, incorporated elements from many of these sources.
Cikovsky calls Weir one of our best Nineteenth Century figure painters, “in the same class as William Merritt Chase;” among our best still life painters, on a par with John La Farge, and notes his skillful watercolors and distinguished work as a printmaker.
Above all, throughout his career, Weir was a self-described “dreamer” and tireless seeker of new ideas, styles and approaches to making art. As he said in 1913, “Really, I do not know what I am best at. I believe I am a fisherman, dreamer and love of nature and … if I lived to 102 I might become an artist.”
Because his work was all over the lot, it may be easiest to classify him as an Impressionist. “But surely his greatest, most appealing, and most significant virtue,” writes Cikovsky, “is his perpetually youthful curiosity, his restless discontent, his willingness to always do something new or even try something old if he had not done it before. He may have paid a price for his variability, during his life and after his death, but he had no choice and could not be otherwise.”
The interesting companion exhibition at Weir Farm National Historic Site highlights the artist’s qualities as father and friend to painting colleagues, as well as imaginative interpreter of the farm and its landscape. Photographs and Weir’s fishing gear document his keen interest in that sport, while watercolors, drawings and etchings depict everything from buildings and the land around the farm to members of his family. An oil painting, “Weir Family at the Table” (early 1890s) shows the artist, his wife and three children, along with his brother John and his wife, seated in the Branchville dining room.
Other highlights are etchings of a young girl (one of his daughters?) reading a book, “The Picture Book” and “Branchville,” an expansive view of farm landscape.
Sketchbooks with drawings by Weir’s young daughter Dorothy demonstrate her considerable early skills and offer insights into life at Weir Farm through a child’s eyes. In 1931 Dorothy (1890-1931) married prominent sculptor Mahonri Mackintosh Young (1877-1957), who built a studio adjacent to his father-in-law’s. Both barn-red structures are open nowadays for tours. It was here that Young carried out such important commissions as the enormous “This is the Place Monument” in Salt Lake City and the portrait of his grandfather, “Brigham Young,” for the US Capitol.
As Cummings points out, “A retreat in Weir’s own time from the stresses of the day, … (Weir Farm) remains remarkably unchanged in ours, both in appearance and in its ability to provide a memorable and refreshing experience.” Preservation of the farm was aided by the Weir family and interested groups that fended off developers and finally had the site added to the National Park System ten years ago. Since 1958 artists Doris and Sperry Andrews have lived in the farmhouse, which will eventually become part of Weir Farm National Historic Site. Today, artists of all ages seek out the farm on their own or to participate in art classes or artists-in-residence programs.
According to Constance Evans, executive director of the Weir Farm Trust, which provides admirable support as the Park Service’s primary private partner on behalf of the farm, 60 of the 238 acres that Weir acquired between 1882 and 1907 are now owned by the government.
As Roy Cortez, the National Park Superintendent at Weir Farm points out, “Rarely does one have the ability to view works of art and to experience the place that inspired the artist to create them. Weir Farm is special in that visiting the site, to walk the paths and admire the historic structures, make viewing the artwork all the more meaningful. You can understand how Weir and other artists found inspiration in this place.”
As these two welcome exhibitions underscore, ‘s spirit still speaks to us through his art and the landscape of his beloved farm. Even if you miss the shows, do visit Weir Farm, which is destined to provide historical insights, artistic inspiration and balm for the soul in perpetuity, under the watchful eyes of the National Park Service.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science is at One Museum Drive in Greenwich. For information, 203/869-0963. Weir Farm National Historic Site is at 735 Nod Hill Road in Wilton. For information, 203/834-1896.
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