Connecticut artist J. Alden Weir first encountered impressionism at an exhibition he attended while studying in Paris in the 1870s. He found the exhibition “worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” Afterwards he was “mad for two or three days.” Ten years later, Weir had changed his mind and established himself as one of America’s greatest impressionists. Weir painted some of his most beloved paintings in and around Windham, Connecticut.
Dr. Anne Dawson of the Visual Arts Department at Eastern Connecticut State University has been researching J. Alden Weir’s work in and around Windham for the past five years. “I was looking for a research topic that connected to my community. I wanted to involve students and local historians,” she said.
Dr. Dawson has launched a website called Weir in Windham that catalogs the life, relationships, and work of J. Alden Weir. On Monday, December 8, 2014 there will be a public screening of a 12-minute documentary about Weir made by ECSU students at the Student Center Theater. The documentary, entitled “Love at First Sight – J. Alden Weir and Windham, CT” features interviews with Dr. Dawson, the director of the Florence Griswold Museum, and the director of the Windham Textile & History Museum. Students filmed historical reenactments for the documentary staged at the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum.
Dr. Dawson believes it is important to inform the public about the significant place Eastern Connecticut has in the history of American impressionism. Artists were attracted by the region’s picturesque landscape and proximity to major urban centers. “Connecticut was one of the major places that impressionists went…Northeastern Connecticut is called The Quiet Corner because there is a huge rural section that hasn’t been fully developed,” said Dr. Dawson.
“I think it is really important for students to be involved in faculty research…[they see] why it is meaningful to learn art history when they see it connecting to their history and their community,” said Dr. Dawson. One student involved with the project said it completely changed her view of Willimantic. “People forget what is really here…people forget how important it was as an industrial center. It was famous internationally for its thread mills. It had two opera houses,” said Dr. Dawson.
Until 1882 Weir mostly worked in New York City. That all changed when he met his future wife Anna Baker, who lived in Windham. “She had come to his New York City studio with a friend of hers. They went to take drawing lessons with him. They fell in love very fast and he came to Windham because this was where her family farm was located,” said Dr. Dawson. Weir also owned another farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut and travelled regularly between them by train. This Ridgefield Property is now the Weir Farm National Historic Site, one of only two national historic sites devoted to the visual arts.
When Weir fell in love with Anna he also fell in love with Eastern Connecticut. Like many people of his social class, Weir and Anna spent the winter in New York City and summered in the Connecticut countryside. Each year Weir could not wait to get back to the farm. “After passing a winter in a city, even the smallest moss-covered rock seems in itself a picture,” he wrote. Anna passed away in 1892. Weir married her sister Ella the following year and continued living in Connecticut until his death in 1919.
In addition to the website and the documentary, Dr. Dawson has co-written a book about Weir. The book is being published by Wesleyan University Press and will be available in March of 2016. To accompany the book’s publication, Dr. Dawson is also curating an exhibit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London and a show in 2016 at Eastern’s new Fine Arts Building that will feature the work of local artist Harrison Judd, who also designed the Weir in Windham website. The Judd exhibition will provide an opportunity to see a contemporary artist responding to the subjects that inspired Weir.
Judd’s photo series “Past Identity/Future Vision” documents the decaying and demolition of Willimantic’s iconic smokestack. “I’ve always wanted to connect this story about the past with what contemporary artists are doing and how they are inspired by the same area,” said Dr. Dawson. Maurice Sendak, the popular children’s writer behind such titles as “Where the Wild Things Are” expressed his admiration for Judd’s photo series. “Each image is a lyrical and sensitive portrait, as a majestic and warmly glowing spire, as a looming monolith or as a reassuring landmark. Harrison has mastered the art of perceiving the extraordinary in the every day,” Mr. Sendak wrote. A catalog of the photo series is available at the Windham Textile and History Museum.