Sam Stout's great-grandfather went to Hartford Public High and sat in class behind Frederic Church. He remembered it in his diary. "He wrote 'He was not a very good student. He was always looking out the window and drawing. I guess that worked out well for him.'," Stout, 67, of Hartford, said.
Stout's great-grandfather, John Butler Talcott, had no artistic inclination himself. He was an entrepreneur and founded two successful hosiery factories in New Britain. But he understood the value of art in improving people's minds. In 1903, Talcott bequeathed the fledgling New Britain Institute, an educational community gathering place, money to buy paintings.
That's how the country's first museum dedicated solely to American art came into being.
Today, 111 years later, the New Britan Museum of American Art has 11,000 works of art and occupies an elegant, still-expanding space a few blocks from where that New Britain Institute used to be. (That buliding now houses the city library.)
Every year that goes by, the NBMAA has a more impressive international reputation. But still, Stout sees his family's fingerprints all over the museum.
"That museum was the real love of my grandmother, Helen Hooker Talcott Stanley. She was a watercolorist," Stout said. "When my grandfather died ... she gave a wing to the museum in his name. When you walk up the stairs, there it is, at the top of the stairs, the Helen T. and Phillip B. Stanley Gallery."
"I like the [Thomas Hart] Benton murals my uncle, Alix Stanley, bought for $500," he said. "How can you forget those? They are so awe-inspiring."
Founded In 1903
The NBMAA was established in 1903, but its parent organization was founded 50 years before that, in 1853, when the New Britain Institute was founded.
"At that time, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington [established in 1846] was the gold standard and other cities like New Britain aspired to having a complex of buildings — a library, an art musem, a natural history museum, a children's museum — like the Smithsonian," said Douglas Hyland, current director of the NBMAA. "So the New Britain Institute was started by industrialists with the idea that the working classes of New Britain would be elevated as regards to education, by having access to learning at the library and by the visual arts in the art room.
"They wanted the people of this region who were coming from Poland, France, Germany, Ireland, to all become Americans and to become assimilated, not just in terms of language but also in cultural identity," Hyland said.
The institute had a library, children's room, natural-history museum and, on the top floor, an art room. In the first decades of the institute's existence, there were just a few pieces of art, including a portrait of George Washington, a painting of the Battle of Monmouth and portraits of local notables.
The game changed in 1903, when John Butler Talcott gave the institute 20,000 worth of New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company gold bonds to purchase "original modern oil paintings either by native or foreign artists ... in the departments of art known as figure, landscape and genre subjects," as recorded in "New Britain Museum of American Art I: Highlights of the Collection," which was published in 1999.
That donation put 1903 in the log books as the year the museum that later would be called the New Britain Museum of American Art was founded.
"For the time it was not an incredible amount of money. ... He then augmented the original gift with several more gifts. It was enough at that time with 5 percent [interest] to buy paintings," Hyland said.
At first, the board did not know how to proceed with purchases. To help them choose the museum's direction, after a time they sought advice from Bryson Burroughs, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"He said 'all our great patrons are interested in Old Master paintings, in impressionism, Asian art, the spoils from Cairo. But if you buy American art, you can have the pick of everything you want for a couple of hundred dollars'," Hyland said. So it was really a very opportunistic, very Yankee thrift idea."
Over the next 16 years, the museum bought a total of 20 pictures; the first purchases were a landscape by George Inness and "Venice" by William Gedny Bunce. Then acquisitions stalled for a while, especially after the 1929 stock market crash. But loan exhibitions began, showing works borrowed from many other museums, under the leadership of the Institute art room's first curator, Fanny J. Brown.
The museum then found its permanent home. In 1934, New Britain philanthropist Grace Judd Landers bequeathed the museum $100,000 and a mansion at Walnut Hill Park. The artworks were moved out of the institute building. On July 1, 1937 the public got its first look at the Art Museum of the New Britain Institute on Lexington Street.
In the decades since, the museum has steadily expanded its square footage and its art holdings, while gradually cutting ties with the New Britain Institute in order to stand alone as a community institution. It became the first fine-arts museum in the country to acquire a Norman Rockwell and the first museum to collect illustrations. NBMAA owns the complete graphic works of Winslow Homer.
Fledgling artist Sol LeWitt was featured in a "Young Talent" showcase in 1949 and today, the museum in the town where he grew up owns 3,000 of his creations. "We have engravings, lithos and the first and last works of art he ever did," Hyland said.
Among the museum's 8,000 works on paper are the complete works on paper of Thomas Hart Benton, a good friend of the museum's first director, Sanford B.D. Low. The NBMAA is especially known for its holdings in Hudson River School, American Impressionist and Ashcan School works. Among the artists in the museum's collection now are N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, Romare Bearden, Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, William Glackens, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Reginald Marsh, Willard Metcalf, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Fairfield, Porter, John Singer Sargent, Hartford resident Milton Avery.
Expansion is constant. Hyland estimated that the museum acquires 300 to 500 pieces of art every year. In April, ground will be broken for a new wing, adding 20,000 square feet to the exhibition and education space.
Another constant through the history of NBMAA were Talcott descendants: Starting in 1903, members of the family of the museum's founder have served on the board of directors. The most recent was Stout's wife, Donna, who is now a board member emeritus.
But even that may change. "My children don't live in Hartford and my brother's children don't live in Hartford. We are the last of the Talcotts in the greater Hartford area," Sam Stout said. "My cousins? It's not their cup of tea. ... [Donna] may go back on the board at some point, but after her, I don't know."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun