Published: January 23, 2007
The Torrington Historical Society recently acquired two important paintings of former Torrington residents, the Reverend Harvey Loomis and Ann Battell Loomis. The portraits were painted in 1822 by the celebrated American artist John Brewster Jr (1766–1854). This acquisition is a significant addition to the museum’s collection of early American portraits by itinerant artists. The paintings will be placed on exhibition where they will provide the public with an opportunity to learn more about Brewster, the Loomises, as well as the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century world in which they lived.
“This is a very significant addition to the Torrington Historical Society’s collection both in terms of artistic importance and historic value,” said Gail Kruppa, curator, “We are thrilled to add these paintings by John Brewster Jr to our noteworthy collection of nine early Nineteenth Century portraits by Ammi Phillips and Erastus Salisbury Field. The portraits are important for their connection to two Torrington families — the Loomises and the Battells — and it seems fitting that their permanent home will be in Torrington where they’ve been for the last 180 years. This acquisition would not have been possible without the generosity of Harvey B. Loomis, who allowed the society to acquire the paintings through a partial gift/partial purchase.”
The paintings have a fascinating history. Both the Loomises and Brewster hailed from Connecticut, but it was in Maine that their paths crossed and where Brewster painted individual portraits of the couple. Just three years after the portraits were completed, Reverend Loomis died in his Bangor, Maine, church. His widow returned with her children to her parents’ home on Torringford Street, bringing the paintings with her. For the next 180 years, they hung in the home as succeeding generations came and went. For the last 50 years, the paintings were stored in a darkened, locked room in the house.
In 2006, the Loomises’ great-great-grandson, Harvey Battell Loomis, made the difficult decision to sell the family homestead. He contacted the Torrington Historical Society to discuss the disposition of several historical artifacts. At that time, historical society director Mark McEachern and curator Gail Kruppa were able to identify the portraits as the works of Brewster. Thus began a dialog, the goal of which was to keep the Loomis portraits in Torrington where they had been for 180 years.
Harvey B. Loomis has made a generous donation in selling the portraits at a reduced price and a fund has been established at the Torrington Historical Society to raise the money for this partial gift/partial purchase. The paintings are in original condition, having never been restored. Their current condition will require conservation work, which will be accomplished with a donation from Loomis’s siblings, Worth Loomis at Hartford and Sally Loomis Campbell of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.
Brewster and his subjects have interesting personal histories. Harvey Loomis, born in Torrington in 1786, was associated with the Reverend Samuel Mills Jr of Torrington. In 1806, as students at Williams College, Mills, Loomis, and others were participants in the Haystack Prayer meeting, which set into motion the American foreign mission movement. Reverend and Mrs Loomis migrated to Maine in 1811 when Reverend Loomis was called to Bangor as a Christian missionary. His sudden and untimely death in 1825 prompted his widow’s return to Torrington. Ann B. Loomis remained in Torrington until her death in 1861.
Brewster was born deaf in Hampton, Conn., in 1766 and followed a career as an itinerant portrait painter. He left Connecticut in 1795 and settled in Buxton, Maine. In 1817, America’s first school for the deaf opened in Hartford and Brewster returned to his home state for two years to attend the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. Today, this school is known as the American School of the Deaf.
Brewster painted with a charm and authenticity that gives a magnetism to his work that grips the viewer. His two primary goals as a portraitist were likeness and projection of personality. For the first his straightforward, honest representation of the sitter together, perhaps, with a few defining possessions seemed to satisfy his clients.
But it was his painting of the eyes that set him apart from most other limners, and allowed him to delineate personality. This is clearly illustrated in the paintings of Harvey and Ann Loomis. It is their gaze that brings the viewer back again and again to their faces where viewers begin to understand their humanness and even their character. It is this ability to “get inside” his subjects that makes these paintings so valuable both culturally and intrinsically.
Brewster returned to Maine in 1819 and in 1822, he was commissioned to paint the portraits of Reverend Harvey and Ann Loomis. Brewster died on August 13, 1854, at the age of 88 leaving nearly 250 portraits as his legacy.
Today, a major retrospective of Brewster’s work is traveling to museums throughout the northeastern United States. The exhibit, “A Deaf Artist in Early America: the Worlds of John Brewster Jr,” was organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. It recently opened at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, where it will be on view until March 25. A book by the same title was published in conjunction with the exhibit. It was written by Harlan Lane, a professor at Northeastern University, and was published in 2004 by Beacon Press, Boston.
The Torrington Historical Society is at 192 Main Street. For information, 860-482-8260.
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