Published: November 20, 2006
The Nineteenth Century was the age of self-invention. Versatile Americans of exceptional ambition and intellect sought their fortunes wherever they could, the country’s vast frontier providing fertile opportunity.
The most famous self-invented man of his time was Hartford firearms maker Samuel Colt (1814–1862). As a 16-year-old at sea in 1830, Colt whittled a prototype of the mechanism that would result in his patented revolver. Still casting about two years later, he toured the East Coast giving laughing-gas demonstrations under the stage name “Dr Coult.” After a series of spectacular business failures, an occupational hazard for habitual risk-takers, Colt became a global celebrity and an immensely wealthy man.
“Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention,” the enterprising exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum through March 4, tells the complicated tale of the intertwining lives of Samuel Colt and another self-invented man, George Catlin (1796–1872), the painter renowned for his sympathetic portraits of Native Americans and stirring visions of the American West.
Colt and Catlin had much in common, says Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, editor of the accompanying catalog Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention and the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Krieble curator of American painting and sculpture. Both men, she writes, “were natural showmen and shrewd marketers who were not above stretching the truth to make a point.”
Linking the two men forever in history is a series of ten paintings, six of which Colt reproduced as lithographs, that Catlin made for his patron. Late last year, the museum announced that it had purchased four of the paintings, which — painted for promotional purposes — depict the artist in exotic Western or South American settings using Colt firearms. From New Haven, Conn., dealer William Reese the Atheneum acquired a pristine set of the lithographs rendered by John McGahey and printed by Day & Son of London and Chester in 1855. “Samuel Colt” displays these important acquisitions alongside two other paintings from the Colt Firearms Series, loans from the Max and Carolyn Williams Family Trust and the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y.
Kornhauser’s fascination with the Colt-Catlin connection began when, hoping to add a major Catlin to the Atheneum’s already outstanding collection of Nineteenth Century American landscape painting, she sought advice from two Catlin scholars, Nancy Anderson at the National Gallery and William Truettner at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both in Washington, D.C. After putting out the word to dealers in New York City, Kornhauser was soon alerted to the four paintings. After her husband’s death, Elizabeth Colt had given the Colt Firearms Series pictures to her sister. The Atheneum’s four pictures were still in family hands.
“I was fascinated with the Colt-Catlin story but frustrated by the lack of information. I didn’t know basic details, such as how many paintings were in the series,” Kornhauser recalls.
Working with Anderson, the curator began teasing apart the tale, a project that involved firming up the fuzzy chronology of Catlin’s painting trips to South America. New Colt documents surfaced, but it took Herbert G. Houze, a Colt authority and firearms historian from Cody, Wyo., to interpret them. Houze cataloged the Colt firearms collection and wrote most of the catalog. Technology historian Carolyn C. Cooper of Yale assessed Colt’s industrial contributions. Kornhauser wrote about the fine art in the show.
“I think the current exhibition really started with our desire to bring the Colt firearms collection to light in a serious way,” Kornhauser recalls. Making sense of the unwieldy Colt trove — which besides firearms includes paintings, decorative art and memorabilia — has challenged past Atheneum curators, who have mounted displays in 1910, 1961 and 1996.
“The present exhibition and publication,” writes museum director Willard Holmes, “marks the first time that the Wadsworth Atheneum has thoroughly documented its world-famous collection of Colt firearms.”
Arranged on one floor in the Susan Morse Hilles Gallery, “Samuel Colt” presents 179 objects, among them inventor’s patents and designs, a Fifteenth Century Chinese hand cannon, pistols and rifles of every description, counterfeits, medals, paintings, miniatures, snuffboxes, lacquer ware, brocade and diamond presentation rings. There are even Japanese matchlock guns given to Colt by Tokugawa Yoshinobu and his court in appreciation for the firearms Colt delivered to Japan via Commodore Matthew C. Perry.
Particularly ingenious is a display of mid-Nineteenth Century photographs of factory workers operating the machinery that made Colt’s state-of-the-art South Meadows Armory the envy of the world. From the collection of the Museum of Connecticut History, the images are projected on a gallery wall on a rotating basis.
Another imaginative touch is the stylized pavilion at the center of the hall. Perhaps meant to suggest the interior of a cupola, it houses four meticulously rendered oils on panel. The bird’s-eye views of Hartford — looking north, south, east and west — were painted in 1855 by Joseph Ropes. Colt, organizers suggest, looked past Hartford’s parochial limits to the world beyond and wanted his fellow citizens to do the same.
Significantly, the exhibition unites Colt’s personal collection of arms. In his office at the time of his death, the weapons are now divided between the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Museum of Connecticut History.
“We’ve put the pieces back together,” Houze says with satisfaction.
Another loan from the Museum of Connecticut History is the Rampant Colt, the majestic gilded zinc statue of a rearing horse with a broken spear in his mouth that once capped the onion dome of Colt’s Armory. Litchfield, Conn., dealer Peter Tillou purchased the famous figure, one of the world’s first corporate logos, in 1990 and offered it at the Fall Antiques Show in New York City before it was acquired by Pratt & Whitney Company Foundation, Inc, for the museum.
The Rampant Colt greets visitors in an introductory foyer painted the same electric-blue as the signature onion-shaped Colt dome visible from Interstate 91 south of Hartford. The dome was built in 1855, destroyed by fire in 1864 and rebuilt by 1866. Colt firearms were produced at the South Meadows Armory until 1994. Under review this fall is a proposal to make the 216-acre Coltsville Historic Industrial District a unit of the National Park System. A final recommendation will be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior and Congress in 2007.
“We wanted to express through design the key personality traits and character of Samuel Colt. He was a promoter and inventor, a citizen of Hartford and the world. We also wanted to balance the display of firearms with fine and decorative arts,” says exhibit designer Cecil Adams, who painted gallery walls in an earthy palette of leather brown and sky blue.
“There is no right or wrong way to tour the show,” says Houze, who hopes viewers will proceed at their own pace, according to personal interest.
“Colt redefined the architecture of handguns, designing revolvers so that they were immediately recognizable as his product. He chose attractive finishes and clean, symmetrical lines,” says the guest curator, who regards Colt as a master of industrial design.
Fine craftsmanship is an overarching theme of the show, which unites otherwise disparate objects. On the left wall, a heroically scaled portrait of Samuel Colt, painted in 1865 by Charles Loring Elliott, depicts the tycoon with a gold and silver Siamese vase that is housed in a Plexiglas case nearby. America’s ambassador to the world received many such glittering gifts from foreign potentates.
“It’s the most famous Colt in existence,” Houze says of his favorite object, an engraved, ivory-handled Number 5 pistol of 1840 that belonged to Colonel Colt himself. There is no telling what the weapon would bring on the open market. In 2003, Greg Martin Auctions of San Francisco sold a cased 1849 Colt revolver engraved by Gustave Young for $828,800, an auction record for an American gun.
An inspiration in his own time, Samuel Colt was the prototype for titans to come. Reflects Houze, “He championed the concept of modernism long before the word was coined, he pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements to promote his products, he introduced the adjective ‘new and improved’ to advertising and he demonstrated the commercial value of brand-name recognition.”
Concludes Kornhauser, “There is no better example of the alliance of art and commerce in mid-Nineteenth Century America than the partnership of these two entrepreneurial showmen, Colt and Catlin.”
Funding a show on weapons, even historic ones, proved challenging for the Wadsworth Atheneum, which postponed the exhibition by four months before opening it in September. In the end, benefactors Melinda and Paul Sullivan stepped forward to make “Samuel Colt” possible, supplementing gifts from other sources.
Published by Yale University Press in conjunction with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention is available for $65 hardcover, $45 softcover.
Following its close in Hartford, the show travels to the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane, Wash., and the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas.
The Wadsworth Atheneum is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860-278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
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