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Rare Light: J. Alden Weir in Windham, Connecticut, 1882–1919

Rare Light: J. Alden Weir in Windham, Connecticut, 1882–1919

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Rare Light: J. Alden Weir in Windham, Connecticut, 1882–1919

271 pages
2 heures
Mar 15, 2016


Winner of the Ruth Emery Award (2018)

Rare Light is a collection of essays exploring little known facets of the life and career of a major American Impressionist painter. J. Alden Weir (1852–1919) painted some of his finest canvases while living in Windham in eastern Connecticut's picturesque "Quiet Corner," and this rural location played a crucial role in Weir's artistic development. The four essays that comprise this book offer in-depth contextual information about the architecture, culture, environment, and history of the region, allowing us to see Connecticut as it appeared in Weir's lifetime. Interweaving photos, paintings, and letters—some never before published—Rare Light documents the artist's sense of Windham as a place for social gatherings, physical and psychic rest, and art making. Taken together, the essays celebrate the interconnectedness of art, architecture, family, history, and place. Includes essays by Charles Burlingham Jr., Rachel Carley, Anne E. Dawson, and Jamie Eves.

Mar 15, 2016

Lié à Rare Light

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Rare Light - Wesleyan University Press



Charles Burlingham, Jr.

In 1795 Robert Weir, my great-great-grandfather, came to America from Scotland. He was twenty-five years old, and the first of my Weir ancestors to set foot in the New World. In 1802 he found himself a wife, Katherine Brinkley of Philadelphia, and over the next twenty years they had eight children. The oldest of these, Robert Walter Weir (1803–89), was appointed by Andrew Jackson to be instructor of drawing at West Point, and became a distinguished American artist whose subjects included portraits, landscapes, and scenes from history and classical literature. His best-known work, an enormous canvas entitled The Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1837–44), hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.¹ Robert Walter’s first wife, Louisa Ferguson, bestowed nine children on him before dying, perhaps of exhaustion. His second wife, Susan Martha Bayard (1817–1900), presented him with seven more children, of whom Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919) was the fourth. He was my grandfather.

Julian spent much of his early youth in his father’s studio watching his father at work. Early on it became apparent that he had remarkable artistic talent himself. When he was sixteen or so he began studies at the National Academy of Design in New York. His work showed so much promise over the next several years that in 1873 his godmother Mrs. Bradford Alden, whose husband had been the commandant at West Point, offered to pay for him to go abroad and continue his studies in Europe. Returning to the United States in 1877, Weir took studio space in New York, and tried to earn a living painting portraits and teaching. He gave private drawing lessons to several students in a little room off his studio. One winter day a student, Ernestine Fabbri, brought her best friend to join the lesson. The new pupil, soon to be his fiancée, was the nineteen-year-old Anna Dwight Baker.

FIG. 1.1 J. Alden Weir at the easel in his Windham studio. National Park Service, Weir Farm National Historic Site, Wilton, Connecticut.

Anna Baker’s credentials as an American were flawless. Three of her ancestors came to America on the Mayflower: John Howland, Richard Warren, and William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Deacon John Baker, left Hull, Massachusetts, and came to Windham about 1746, settling in the southern part of the parish (now the town of Scotland). A man of prodigious fecundity, he had ten children and at least sixty-one grandchildren. For obvious reasons their area of Windham became known as Baker Town. Among Deacon John’s Windham descendants was Rufus Lathrop Baker (1790–1868; see fig. 4.5).

In those simpler days rural folk usually married someone from their own village. Rufus, who was born in Scotland, Connecticut, and had risen to the rank of captain in the army, married a nearby Windham neighbor, Eliza Taintor (1794–1868; see fig. 4.4), in 1818. When Rufus retired from the army in 1854, the couple settled in a colonial-era Taintor family house on Windham Center Road, just south of the village green. In 1855 the Bakers added a Victorian wing to the south end of the colonial structure. The new wing included a large living room with fourteen-foot ceilings, a dining room, a small kitchen, fireplaces, several upstairs bedrooms, a cellar, and an attic. The project, including a new roof for the entire house, cost $3,702.²

Rufus was not only a distinguished army officer: he was also an excellent man of business. He invested wisely and successfully. At one time he owned property on Broadway in New York. He and Eliza had two sons, Charles Taintor Baker (1821–81; fig. 1.2) and William Rufus Baker (1830–94). Charles graduated from West Point in 1842, but resigned his commission nine years later for reasons of health. Charles married Anna Bartlett Dwight (1826–99; fig. 1.3) of Springfield, Massachusetts, and when his parents died in 1868, he inherited the house. Charles and Anna had three daughters: Ella, Cora, and Anna. It was their youngest daughter, Anna, who came that winter’s day to study drawing with Julian Weir. She was my grandmother. As her daughter Dorothy wrote, The descriptions of Anna by those who knew her all blend to make a figure of haunting loveliness. She had dark blue eyes and golden chestnut hair. She was described as ‘exquisite,’ ‘ethereal’; there was always something of the other world about her. For Julian, it was a thunderbolt, a coup de foudre.³

FIG. 1.2 Robert W. Weir, Portrait of Charles Taintor Baker, c. 1851. According to Rufus Baker’s memorandum book, he paid Weir $200 for two portraits, presumably this one and Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Lathrop Baker, c. 1851, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, Connecticut. Courtesy of John and Barbara McGrath.

Julian and Anna were married on April 24, 1883. Over the next nine years they had four children: Caroline (Caro); Julian Alden, Jr., who died in infancy; Dorothy; and Cora, my mother. Shortly after Cora was born in January 1892, her mother Anna suddenly died. She was twenty-nine years old. To Julian it was a blow so complete and devastating that to expatiate upon it seems an intrusion.⁴ So wrote his daughter Dorothy, my aunt. Fortunately for Weir, Anna’s unmarried sister Ella, who was ten years older than Anna and almost exactly Weir’s age, came to care for the three little girls. Weir married Ella in October 1893, so the three girls were raised by someone who was both their stepmother and their aunt.

The Weir family’s principal residence was a brownstone, 11 East Twelfth Street, in Manhattan. In 1883 Julian had acquired a substantial farm in Branchville, Connecticut, in exchange for a painting desired by a wealthy patron. In Branchville he began to develop his looser, brighter, more impressionistic style, inspired by the beauty of the Connecticut landscape. Windham, too, offered inspiration for Weir, and he established a studio there as well.

FIG. 1.3 Chester Harding, Portrait of Anna Bartlett Dwight, c. 1850. Courtesy of John and Barbara McGrath.

There are some curious stories about the Windham house. During the Revolution the Marquis de Lafayette’s headquarters were located in nearby Lebanon, and it is said that he, Rochambeau, and their fellow officers would sleigh over snowy roads to dance and make merry in the house. This is questionable. But Washington and Rochambeau did start out from Rhode Island in July of 1781, heading for New York. They must have passed through Windham in August or September of that year on the way to Hartford. Lafayette’s visit might have happened in 1824 when, as an old man, he returned to the United States at the invitation of President Monroe and traveled through twenty-four states. Ella Weir recalled that when she was a little girl, the Indians of the Mohegan tribe did sometimes make a visit to Grand mother [Eliza T. Baker, who died in 1868] and sit all day by the kitchen fire grunting, with an extra grunt when a good dinner was given to them.

For my mother, the house in Windham was absolute heaven. It was her favorite place in the world. The first thing she did upon arrival was to run up the hill to the barns to greet the horses. Often she would slip out of the house at night, creep up to the barn, and spend the night with the horses in their stalls. Her older sister, my Aunt Caro, wrote a pamphlet in 1965 entitled Lest We Forget. In it she tells of how she and her sisters explored the two attics, the colonial and the Victorian.⁶ Aunt Caro says there were trunks full of clothes dating back to the early 1800s. The three girls would dress up in the antique garments and parade through the house, much to the amusement of their elders. In one trunk they found a heart-shaped piece of rabbit fur suspended from a leather thong. The girls were told that it had belonged to their grandfather, Charles Taintor Baker, who had a heart condition. He would hang the thong around his neck with the fur over his heart, to keep his heart warm.⁷ Also in the attic was a locked trunk containing documents relating to the 1846 court-martial of General John C. Frémont. Colonel Rufus L. Baker, Cora Weir Burlingham’s great-grandfather, had been the presiding officer of the tribunal. The papers were ultimately given to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, while the clothing went to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

One of my mother’s earliest memories was of accompanying her father in the gig to Willimantic, where he was painting The Factory Village (see fig. 2.1). Sitting in the shade of the huge tree shown at the left of the canvas, she watched her father at work. Perhaps one day they had forgotten to bring their picnic lunch. In any event, her father asked her to drive the gig alone, back to the house in Windham, and to return at lunchtime. It was a seven-mile round-trip, across what was known as the plains. She told me many times that that was the first time her father allowed her to drive the gig. She thought she was about seven years old, but since the painting was completed in 1897, she would have been only about five and a half. Perhaps the incident occurred while Weir was painting one of his other mill scenes.

One hot summer day in Windham when Cora was about ten years old, her father was going out for a ride. He was sitting on a large, beautiful chestnut horse, and had stopped for a moment at the foot of the front steps. Cora, who had an apple switch in her hand, took one look at the big, shiny, chestnut backside, and brought the apple switch down on it with all her strength. The horse bolted and carried Weir pell-mell on a long, thunderous, circuitous ride, like John Gilpin himself. When he finally returned, he gave his daughter the same treatment she had afforded the horse. Cora called it, What Paddy gave the drum.

Cora so loved the Windham house that she committed it and its contents to memory. She could remember every chair, every picture, every carpet, and every lamp in every room, even seventy-five years later. My mother also remembered everyone in the village of Windham. In a little monograph written in 1978, when she was eighty-six, she named them all: the Larrabees, the Abbes, Mrs. Towne, Mrs. Maine, the Watrouses, the Frinks, Ida Spafford, Gertrude Arnold, Mary Perkins, Mrs. Fenton, Miss Classen, and Miss Stokes. One of these women owned a pet monkey. On a cold autumn day, the monkey discovered that there was a warm pot of soup on the stove, and jumped in to ease the chill. He didn’t know that the stove itself was very hot, and as the soup heated up, the monkey began hopping up and down, up and down. Fortunately the woman came into the kitchen and rescued him. (I always wanted to know what happened to the soup.) Mother had other animal stories, too. Miss Classen and Miss Stokes thought their old tomcat was too amorous, so they would sit him in a pail of cold water before letting him out.

Weir’s two finest landscapes, The Red Bridge and The Factory Village, were both painted near Windham. When I was growing up, The Factory Village hung in our dining room in New York. It now hangs in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Red Bridge is there as well, having been given to the museum by my mother’s aunt, Cora Baker Davis Rutherfurd. My dad was a railroad enthusiast. He knew all the stops on the Philadelphia Main Line, had committed to memory the timetables of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, and was a friend of many a conductor and several engineers. Weir’s painting The Train to Norwich hung appropriately over his desk in New York, and on an adjacent wall hung Weir’s Obweebetuck, a westward view from the Windham house. The frame on that painting was crafted by Stanford White, a close friend of Weir’s. Clearly, Windham permeated my childhood.

And the house is still giving. When my step-grandmother Ella died in 1931, my mother inherited three little chairs made from barrels. Rufus Baker had those chairs made when he was the commanding officer of the Watervliet Arsenal in Troy, New York. Mother remembered exactly what room in the Windham house those chairs came from. I have those chairs today, and when the material on them became faded and tattered, I had them re-covered. In the process I found that the old upholstery was stuffed with newspapers: The Troy Daily Post from March 11, 1848, containing a gothic story by John Greenleaf Whittier, and a copy of The New York Herald of May 20, 1850, detailing the latest news (and gossip) from Paris. The seats of the chairs are very low, fit today for smallish children. They probably were perfect for the colonel’s wife, Eliza. She is reported to have been less than five feet tall. Mother also had some nice old rush-seat chairs from Windham which were uncomfortably low. She told me that they’d cut all the legs down, so that Eliza’s feet could touch the

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