HARTFORD, CONN. – In an unusual settlement of disputed ownership, a Nineteenth Century landscape serendipitously discovered in a Simsbury community center over a decade ago has been acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Until now, the ownership of “Niagara Falls,” an 1855 painting by the Hudson River School artist John Frederick Kensett, had been contested by the Town of Simsbury and Simsbury’s Abigail Phelps Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.
When it was spotted in May 1991 by a staff member of the Wadsworth Atheneum, this large-scale oil painting hung unnoticed above a photocopier near an open window in Eno Memorial Hall, where the Town of Simsbury and the Abigail Phelps Chapter have offices.
At the time of its discovery, Kensett’s “Niagara Falls” was in poor condition, darkened by dirt and cigarette smoke, suffering paint losses and flaking, with a hole in the canvas, and glued to a Masonite panel. But it was deemed valuable by art appraisers and scholars. So at the request of the Town of Simsbury, the Wadsworth Atheneum became the painting’s caretaker.
American art curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser researched the picture, and brought in leading experts on Kensett and the Hudson River School to assist in authenticating it. Chief conservator Stephen Kornhauser spent three months cleaning and restoring the painting, which required removing the canvas from the Masonite backing, while conservation assistant Zenon Gansziniec cleaned and repaired the original gilt frame. This painstaking work was done by the museum at no expense to the town.
In recent years, Simsbury had proposed selling the painting at auction or to a private collector. The Abigail Phelps Chapter wanted it to remain at the Wadsworth Atheneum, where it is displayed amid the greatest Hudson River School collection in the world, and is readily available to the community for their edification.
The Wadsworth Atheneum, the Town of Simsbury, and the Abigail Phelps Chapter have reached an agreement that will resolve all pending claims. According to the terms of the agreement, the town ofSimsbury has relinquished its claim of ownership in return for the purchase of the painting by the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Proceeds from the sale will be used by the town for the support, maintenance, and preservation of Eno Memorial Hall. In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum has agreed to host a “Simsbury Day” annually for the next 13 years. On “Simsbury Day,” residents will be admitted to the museum free of charge.
In furtherance of its charitable purposes, the Abigail Phelps Chapter has donated its claim of ownership to the Wadsworth Atheneum. The Attorney General’s office has reviewed and approved the agreement.
“We are thrilled to add this important Hudson River School painting, with deep roots in our local history, to our renowned collection of American art,” said Kate M. Sellers, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum.
According to Simsbury’s First Selectman, Thomas Vincent, “This settlement would not have been possible without the outstanding cooperative spirit exhibited between the D.A.R., the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the town. I believe that this settlement benefits everyone involved, including the residents of the town.”
Abigail Phelps Chapter Regent, Mrs William B. Gardner, said, “The Chapter is delighted that the painting will remain on public view at the Wadsworth Atheneum. We believe this honors Mrs Wood’s legacy.”
Kensett’s “Niagara Falls” once belonged to Antoinette Eno Wood (1842-1930), a lifelong Simsbury resident and an original benefactor of the Abigail Phelps Chapter, whose bequest to the Town of Simsbury enabled it to build Eno Memorial Hall in remembrance of her parents, Lucy Jane Phelps and Amos R. Eno.
Antoinette Eno was among a long line of Connecticut River Valley patrons of Nineteenth Century American artists. One of the first important promoters and patrons of America’s landscape painters was the Atheneum’s founder, Daniel Wadsworth.
He was closely associated with Thomas Cole and Hartford native Frederic Church, whom he discovered as an up-and-coming young artist, and introduced to Cole. When Wadsworth opened his Hartford museum in 1844, contemporary American landscapes by the Hudson River School artists filled the galleries.
Later in the century, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, with the advice of Frederic Church, created a spectacular private picture gallery in “Armsmear,” the mansion she and her husband Samuel Colt built in Hartford, which displayed commissioned works from the second generation of Hudson River School painters including John Frederick Kensett.
Elizabeth Colt’s entire collection was given to the Wadsworth Atheneum at her death in 1905. Antoinette Eno, as a member of this network of Hudson River School patrons, likely knew Elizabeth Colt’s gallery. The extended Eno family including Antoinette’s husband Charles D. Wood, and her brother-in-law James Pinchot, collected works by Hudson River School artists.
Born in Cheshire, Conn., John Fredericak Kensett (1816-1872) was a popular and prominent figure among the second generation of Hudson River School painters who included Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. He is known for his depictions of the picturesque scenery of New York and New England.
Kensett’s “Niagara Falls” is prominently signed and dated 1855, and portrays the nation’s great natural wonder, a major subject for American landscape painters.
“While this is a grand-scale work, the artist chose an unusual format and subject for his depiction of Niagara,” said Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, deputy director, chief curator, and Krieble Curator of American Painting and Sculpture of the Wadsworth Atheneum. “Most artists of his day chose to emphasize the enormous panoramic sweep of the Falls in horizontal compositions, but Kensett chose a vertical format and portrayed a narrow sheet of water that was known as Luna Falls, located at the far end of the falls on the American side.
“He delighted in the bold depiction of the rocks below, and in the brilliant light effects against the spray of water, leaving the enormity of the full sweep of Niagara to the viewer’s imagination – a romantic response to his subject. In addition, at a time when large numbers of tourists flocked to Niagara, and scampered over the rocks shown in Kensett’s painting, the artist chose to eliminate all signs of tourism. Instead, he depicts primeval Niagara, with two native Americans perched on the rocks as sole witnesses to the awesome power of the scene before them,” she explained.
The Wadsworth Atheneum counts two other Kensetts in its collection – Mount Washington from the Conway Valley” (1867), commissioned by Elizabeth Colt, and “Coast Scene with Figures (Beverly Shore)” (1869), which are among his major works. In addition, the museum has a variety of views of Niagara Falls by other leading American artists including John Trumbull, Alvin Fisher, Thomas Chambers, and Frederic Church.
The Wadsworth Atheneum is at 500 Main Street. Telephone, 860-278-2670.