The first work you’ll see as you enter “American Perspectives,” an exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, is an incredible Thomas Cole painting, Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily (1844). Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School, which spurred a new American landscape movement in the early nineteenth century. His success as a painter eventually brought him to Sicily in the 1840s. Cole created multiple paintings of Mount Etna, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has one from just a year earlier.
The works on view in “American Perspectives” are part of the Lyman Allyn’s permanent collection and highlight some of their finest works. The exhibition spans five rooms with more than 120 pieces, including art from the 18th through the 20th centuries. There are also a few works on loan from other museums. Among those belonging to the Lyman Allyn, some were newly acquired for the exhibition, while others were not previously on display.
“The thought behind the show,” says Tanya Pohrt, a curator hired specifically for the project, was to “re-interpret” the collection, and put new art, including some of their best works, on display. “There were multiple parts of the goal [behind the show],” says Pohrt. “To better utilize and understand the highlights from the collection. To assess the collection, and to reevaluate and reflect. We tried to think about what makes the collection special.” Before coming to the Lyman Allyn, Pohrt previously worked at the Yale University Art Gallery for three years, as a fellow in American painting and sculpture, during which the Gallery underwent a renovation and expansion. This renovation had quite similar aspects to “American Perspectives” which was opened last November.
“It had been in the works for a few years,” Pohrt said about the idea of the exhibition. “We wanted to redo the galleries—they had been static and mostly unchanging for about fifteen or so years.” Preparing the museum for the show involved a multiple gallery renovation; walls were moved and repainted and a new LED light system with motion detectors was installed. Pohrt also reiterated the importance of making the show more accessible for viewers by providing more information about individual works in the show. As is typical in museums, each piece is accompanied by a label with basic information (artist’s name, birth and death dates, nationality, year of artwork, medium, brief description and credit line). “American Perspectives” also includes large section labels with general information about each time period featured. The exhibition and renovation were made possible by a generous grant from an anonymous donor.
Part of the appeal of the show is that it celebrates local history and emphasizes regional stories and artists. 18th century silver is among the items displayed, some previously belonging to Paul Revere, and furniture, including a magnificent cherry, satinwood and pine tall case clock made in 1795 in Norwich, just 12 miles away from Conn. “We brought out objects providing windows into areas like industry and technology, objects that aren’t the most high-end, more everyday objects that would’ve been accessible to ordinary people living in the region,” Pohrt explained.
American Impressionist works from the 1880s document the art colonies formed near the Conn campus, in Old Lyme, Mystic and Cos Cob. Guy Wiggins, a renowned artist who was part of the Lyme Art Colony has a few works in the show. Other highlights of the show include a bronze relief made by Paul Bransom, an Art Deco artist best known for illustrating Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” a post-war aluminum sculpture by Sol LeWitt, given to the Lyman Allyn as a gift of the artist, and a post-modernist oilstick on blackboard work by Willie Cole.
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum caters to the greater New London area. Many of its visitors are groups from local schools, who benefit from a Lyman Allyn fund that pays for busing and free admission for the students. Connecticut College professors often bring their classes to take advantage of the museum’s great resources. Christopher Steiner, acting chair of the Art History department and Architectural Studies program, often brings his classes to the museum. “My Introduction to Museum Studies class visits the museum and spends time meeting staff and going ‘behind the scenes,’” he said. “The students have an opportunity to study objects that are in the vault (not currently on display).” The museum also has a personalized app that you can download from the App Store for free. The app includes images of the highlights of the collection (many works from “American Perspectives” are featured!) and Pohrt hopes to expand it soon to include temporary exhibitions as well.
The Lyman Allyn is free for Connecticut College students and residents of New London. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.