New Life in New London’s Lyman Allyn Art Museum

Brian T. Allen

A few weeks ago, I wrote about silver shows in Providence and Newport in Rhode Island. Before summer is gone, I want to write about one of nearby southeastern Connecticut’s best art experiences. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London isn’t well known, but it should be. It’s a lovely, small museum with a fine collection and exquisite setting. Its shows are impressively entrepreneurial. New London and the towns around it are old Yankee centers of trade, whether seafaring, industrial, or agricultural. They’re 17th-century towns, so among the oldest in the country.

The museum opened in 1932, funded by the daughter of Lyman Allyn, a whaling-ship captain. Its collection isn’t minuscule, at 17,000 objects from all media. It’s surprisingly good. There are great Hudson River paintings, including a lovely Thomas Cole Italian painting and a buttery autumn landscape by Frederic Church, modern and contemporary art, and sumptuous colonial and Federal-era furniture, silver, porcelain, and glass.

The Old Master drawings collection is very nice, with work by both Tiepolos, Copley, and Tintoretto. Hyacinth Rigaud’s Portrait of Philip V, a chalk drawing, is fit for a king. It’s a study from 1700 for a big coronation portrait now at the Louvre, so the young Philip is decked in imperial robes. He was one 17-year-old with no self-esteem issues and a wigmaker working overtime.

The small-city New England museum is a phenomenon mostly from the Teens and Twenties. Cities like New London and New Britain in Connecticut, Fitchburg and New Bedford in Massachusetts, Bennington in Vermont, and Manchester in New Hampshire were not fantastically rich but had an affluent, cultured Yankee aristocracy. A set of families might pay for a museum. Plenty of Old Master and Hudson River art was cheap, and these museums often had savant directors from Ivy League schools who took jobs in the hinterlands.

I knew many of them. Winslow Ames was the first director of the Lyman Allyn, arriving at age 22. He was an old man when I met him, but I imagine he was a swashbuckler. He built a shockingly good collection, in part by taking chances, in part by taking good advice from older directors, and in part from charming the WASP donors from whose class he came.

Invariably, as in the Lyman Allyn, the Yankee families died or moved. Local industrial wealth shriveled and then disappeared. New demands for philanthropic money arose. Old Yankee spinsters kept the riffraff out with the ferocity of dragons. Many of these places withered into monuments to a dying class, empty but for art and with elegant buildings slowly rotting.

The Lyman Allyn followed this script, more or less. For many of these museums, new leadership and revitalization campaigns aimed at the old factory towns have given them new life. The Lyman Allyn is now a lively, fun place if you want that but also intellectually serious. It’s engaged with New London and the surrounding towns. Everyone in town now knows it well and is proud of it.

I often find the old local artists in these places most intriguing. The Portrait of James Francis Smith from 1837, by Isaac Sheffield, a New London artist, is a handsome spin on big-city, high-society pictures by Sully, Peale, and Washington Allston, with a touch of provincialism. Smith’s father was a whaling-ship captain. He’d just returned from a long voyage. His son holds penguin skins acquired along the way.

Portrait of James Francis Smith, 1837, by Isaac Sheffield. Oil on canvas.

The figure is posed like a sculpture, and the palette, contours, and light are crisp and clear. He loses no dignity or authority, though. It works, without the splash or sparkle a New York portrait would likely have. He’s one commanding lad, with the confidence of Rigaud’s Philip V but without the swagger. He’s a Yankee grandee-in-training, and it’s no surprise he became a ship captain, too. That’s one of the precious qualities of the good New England museums. They celebrate local taste, skills, and characters, making for a unique aesthetic.

I was at the Lyman Allyn earlier this summer to see the new galleries devoted to Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose family was local and who made New London a spot not only for long visits but for glass commissions that eventually came to the museum. Some beautiful church windows and lamps are on view as well as solid history of this giant of Gilded Age style.

Rocks and Mountains, c. 1880s, by William Louis Sonntag Sr. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 10 x 12.5”.

New London was one of the country’s great seaports. It’s the place where Long Island Sound opens to the ocean. The museum is showing a strong collection of seascapes, many now on view. They’re watercolors, so they have the tang and freshness of saltwater and sea air. There’s a show coming this autumn on Sports Illustrated photography by Walter Iooss, one of the magazine industry’s best. You don’t have to like professional sports — I couldn’t care less about them — to see the genius of mass-media news photography. It’s often very good art. The work comes from the museum’s own collection. They’re recent gifts. It’s good to see a museum mine its own things.

I also saw a great show last year at the Lyman Allyn on Emil Carlsen, a Danish-American artist who, I suppose, most would call an impressionist, but he had a quirky, decidedly Nordic vision. He was part of an unusual and accomplished art colony in nearby Branchville led by another fine painter, Alden Weir. His seascapes are magical, and you can feel the heat and humidity in his lush summer scenes set on local farms.

The museum hosted an NEH-sponsored show on Prohibition three or four years ago. I loved it. I find it fascinating that this country actually voted to enact something as intrusive, vain, fruitless, and unrealistic as a ban on booze. Maybe there’s hope for the Green New Deal after all.

The museum building is, in my opinion, the most beautiful in Connecticut. I write this knowing intimately the two Louis Kahn museum buildings at Yale and the Wadsworth Atheneum. The Kahn buildings are correctly famous, and the Wadsworth Atheneum is an impressive complex of distinguished buildings done over many years in different styles.

Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Conn.

The Lyman Allyn building is a Georgian Revival classic designed by Charles Platt, the best of the high establishment architects of the Teens and Twenties. Its façade is a triumph of seriousness, restraint, and elegance. There are dashes of ornamentation throughout the place, but the emphasis is on austere masses of space as well as fine materials and finishes unsullied by flash. The design is based on Platt’s Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy, which I directed for years.

Each gallery is perfectly scaled to humanity. They’re varied in size. There’s a couple of grand galleries and an elegant, cushy library befitting an old university, but most of the 20 or so art spaces are intimate. You’re in a place for serious looking. It doesn’t feel like a home, but the galleries are small enough for visitors to take ownership of the experience. That said, walking up the steps makes visitors feel they’re approaching a small Greek temple devoted to the ancient god of connoisseurship.

The museum is easily accessible, right off the highway. The Florence Griswold Museum is nearby, in Lyme. It’s a nice museum focusing on American impressionists. I saw a show there in June on environmental art. It had high points — the work of Mark Dion and James Prosek is always strong — but in other places it needed an intellectual sharpener as well as an edit. The region is a mine of old house museums, graveyards whose carved markers are the best in early American sculpture, stately town greens, and the Goodspeed Opera House.

The biggest local art news is the emergence of Old Mystic Seaport as a gallery. Mystic is part of Groton, next to New London. The Seaport is a massive complex on maritime history, but, like most American history museums, its attendance has dropped. It doesn’t help that our schools treat American history as a distraction at best, or an embarrassment and subject for lazy, uninformed finger-wagging. In late October, the Seaport will host a big show of J. M. W. Turner watercolors organized by the Tate in London.

The Tate has an enormous Turner collection. I suspect most will be sea and lake scenes. Mystic is the only North American host for the show. I hope it’s a big draw. I’m excited about seeing the show and what Mystic Seaport is doing to reposition itself. It’s an enormously important center for maritime history but also ocean studies in all disciplines.


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