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Worth 1,000 Words: An Illustrated Companion to My WSJ Review of the Wadsworth Atheneum

At the Wadsworth Atheneum, an Old Building Gets New Life—my article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the gloriously transformed Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford—paints many verbal pictures of what I enjoyed during my visit. But “verbal” is often a poor substitute for “visual.”

To help you see what I saw, here’s my illustrated tour of what I described in the WSJ (and a bit more). In yesterday’s post, I provided images of the paintings in or near the Great Hall.

Excerpts from my WSJ article are in italics.


The filtered natural light from the newly restored and louvered lunette windows along the sides of the arched ceiling smooths out the uneven artificial glare of spotlights. On the sunny day that preceded the cloudy public opening, the paintings seemed to glow.

Here are those lunettes:


On a temporary platform, high up in the Great Hall, craftsmen re-created the ornate but damaged plaster trim that had embellished the ceiling.

Here’s a close-up of the plaster trim:


The sweeping transformation, overseen by Susan Talbott, the Wadsworth’s director since 2008, includes an intelligently rethought installation of the European, Asian and ancient art collections.

Here’s the triumphant Talbott in the Great Hall, backed by Frederic Lord Leighton‘s “Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis,” c. 1869-71. (Did she regard this as an allegory of wrestling with the death of the crumbling infrastructure at the Wadsworth?)


A similar overhaul of the postwar and contemporary art galleries was completed in January.

Talbott, whose specialty is contemporary art, was particularly proud of unearthing significant works from storage (including sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Martin Puryear) and restoring the Brutalist architecture of the Wadsworth’s Goodwin building, home to its contemporary art collection.

Below is a portion of those spaciously installed galleries. (A Nick Cave “Soundsuit,” 2009, is in the right foreground.)


Many objects now on display will be unfamiliar even to Wadsworth regulars, because the curators have been shopping their storage closets. They have also made strategic purchases, most notably “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” (c. 1615-18), featuring a sumptuously clad but intimidatingly grim-faced Artemisia Gentileschi.

Spurned by Christie’s bidders at a January 2014 old masters sale in New York, the sale catalogue’s cover girl was snapped up by the Wadsworth after the auction for significantly less than her $3-million low estimate:


She [Artemisia] now keeps company with a gruesome painting by her father, Orazio—“Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes” (1621-24)—in the museum’s most riveting gallery, where its celebrated trove of early Baroque paintings is arrayed.

Here’s the Orazio…


…and here’s the Power Wall in the early Baroque galleries where the Gentileschis are displayed, along with works by Caravaggio (second from left) and Salvator Rosa (right):


Also residing there is what’s arguably the Wadsworth’s greatest masterpiece—the haunting “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” (c. 1595-96), Caravaggio’s first known religious composition:


Sadly missing, though, was another Hartford masterpiece I had longed to see again—the recently conserved “Saint Serapion,” 1628, a disturbing depiction of the white-robed, lifeless martyr, hanging from his wrists. It was the cover image for the catalogue of this summer’s Francisco de Zurbarán show at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, from which it was about to return when I visited the Wadsworth.

The museum’s “Cabinet of Art and Curiosities” is crammed with everything from nautilus shells to rock crystal goblets to an assortment of butterflies and other insects:


The touchscreen guide for the Cabinet of Art and Curiosities was the only technological innovation (other than wi-fi) that I encountered in the galleries. In yet another addendum to my recent museum-tech article for the WSJ, my own tech test run was aborted when two of the four touchscreens froze. Senior curator of decorative arts Linda Roth and chief curator Robin Jaffee Frank rushed to the crash scene and searched for solutions in their troubleshooting guide.

Here’s Roth, seated at one of the touchscreens, the day before I tried to use them myself:


And here she is on opening day, diving under the Cabinet of Art and Curiosities to reboot.


My chief gripe about the new Wadsworth has to do with wayfinding—both in the Great Hall’s deliberately chaotic installation and throughout the sprawling five-building facility.

The several guards I consulted for directions during my visit were universally clueless. Some in-depth orientation sessions might help.

As for the densely installed Great Hall, its 85 paintings “are unlabeled and the gallery-guide handouts are confusing,” as I wrote in the WSJ. Part of the problem is that only a small selection of the works on the schematic map of the installation are represented by thumbnail images; the rest are shown only as gray boxes.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what a CultureGrrl reader wrote to me today:

When I visited the wonderful Morgan Court recently, it was a tad confusing as to which was north, south, etc. to locate details of paintings listed on the visitor card.

They should consider including a copy of a compass in the center floor or include north, south, etc. signs over the appropriate corners so folks can acclimate themselves more easily. Others found this difficult to navigate as well. The good thing is that it causes visitors to chat while trying to solve the problem!

I think a better fix would be to number each artwork uniquely and consecutively, instead of starting over at “1” for each of the four walls. More importantly, there should be a corresponding number on the wall next to each artwork, so it’s easy to match the work to its information in the gallery-guide handout.

As I wrote here, similarly confusing handouts compromised the visitor experience at the Museum of Modern Art’s majestic (but inadequately explicated) Picasso Sculpture show. In such an art-historically weighty show as this, I would have hoped for some words of curatorial wisdom in labels on pedestals. But at least there’s now greater ease of identification (as I tweeted here): The bases now bear numbers that correspond to the numbers in the handout.

When they’ve done so well in tackling the hard stuff of assembling and installing an outstanding display, it’s hard to understand why museums sometimes overlook easy stuff like this:



an ArtsJournal blog