Published: April 11, 2017
“Who is Twachtman and where is Branchville?” Two questions, prompted by her 1976 purchase of the John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) etching “Old Mill, Branchville, Connecticut” of circa 1888-89, set Dr Susan G. Larkin on her path to becoming a foremost expert on Impressionist and early Modern Connecticut art. Research for her 2001 book The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore and other similarly focused studies piqued the art historian’s interest in Matilda Browne (1869-1947), the only woman to be accepted as a peer by the male painters of the Old Lyme art colony. Intent on giving Browne, a gifted painter, sculptor and illustrator best known for her depictions of farm animals, gardens and flowers, her first museum retrospective and first solo exhibition since 1931, Larkin worked with curator Amy Kurtz Lansing to assemble “Matilda Browne, Idylls of Farm and Garden.” The groundbreaking exhibition of astonishing beauty and impressive depth continues at the Florence Griswold Museum through May 28. Larkin writes, “To research Matilda Browne is to be amazed again and again: by her precocious talent, which emerged before she entered her teens; by her study with strategically chosen artists in America and Europe; by her wide ranging exhibition schedule spanning five decades; by her recognition as an accomplished professional when few women artists were acknowledged as such, and most of all by the beauty of her paintings.”
Why is this Matilda Browne’s first museum retrospective?
Browne’s work has remained almost entirely in private hands. Therefore, her art has remained largely unseen, unresearched and unpromoted. I hope we’ve turned that around with this show.
How much did you know about Browne when you began this project?
For a long time, I knew Browne only through two cattle paintings, one at the Florence Griswold Museum and one at the Bruce Museum. As other works came on the market, I recognized her scope and began to research her. Florence Griswold Museum director Jeff Andersen and curator Amy Kurtz Lansing shared my enthusiasm. When the museum acquired Browne’s dazzling “Peonies” in 2013, it was a hit with visitors and the exhibition project emerged.
In what ways was Browne exceptional for her time and place?
She was exceptional in her focus and professionalism. Many women studied art but few started as early or pursued a career with such single-minded devotion. She was described as soft-spoken, modest, well-dressed and feminine. That description could apply to other more famous American women artists, including Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux. It’s no coincidence that neither Cassatt nor Beaux married, and Browne not until she was 48. For many women of their day, marriage marked the end of a career.
How did you reconstruct Browne’s life and career?
I had built a large file on Browne to start with. The museum had even more material, including snapshots of works sent to them by private collectors. I researched Browne’s exhibition history in the files of the National Academy of Design, the Archives of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Art Reference Library. I had expected to end up with a couple of pages but found that she had exhibited for five decades, sending her work across the country. On a more personal note, Amy and I contacted Browne’s grand-nephew, who lives in Stonington, Conn. His anecdotes gave a glimpse of Browne’s personality and her warm, relaxed manner toward a little boy.
How hard was it to locate Browne’s work and establish provenance for it?
Old Lyme, Conn., dealer Jeff Cooley had handled more of Browne’s work than anyone else and generously helped us contact owners. The museum had records of works that owners had sent to them over the years. The museum also publicized the upcoming exhibition in its newsletter, asking readers to let them know of any works.
Your favorite Browne painting?
It’s hard to choose just one. “Peonies” is a star, but I also love other garden paintings. Among the animal pictures, “The New Calf” captures the tender relationship of the cow and her calf as well as her vigilance toward the human observer. The watercolor “Connecticut Landscape in Spring” is as fresh as an April morning.
How often do Browne’s paintings and bronzes come up for sale?
Browne’s paintings do come on the market, but her sculptures are exceedingly rare. The bronze in the exhibition is the only one we have found. I’d love to see more of them.
The Florence Griswold Museum is at 96 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. For more information or to purchase the accompanying catalog by Susan G. Larkin with Amy Kurtz Lansing, visit www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org or call 860-434-5542.
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