The Muse of Hartford

Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America

by Eugene R. Gaddis
Knopf, 494 pp., $35.00

Throughout the museums and galleries of the world, we come upon pockets of interest that owe their existence not to some general group effort but to the achievements of exceptional, sometimes peculiar, individuals. They have left us their houses as shrines—the Herbert Horne in Florence, the Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, the Grobet-Labadié in Marseille—or their collections as the basis for distinguished museums. They have bequeathed us the fruits of their connoisseurship—the objects they bought for themselves and those they purchased on behalf of others. They appear to us both as figures of their time and—for they were often of modest means, and went against the grain in their collecting and their tastes—as figures out of time: prophets, loners, contrarians.

Often their stories are known, but known only to a handful of experts: fellow curators, art historians who have taken interest in following a spoor, researchers into provenances who note that a certain name keeps recurring, writers of memoirs who, toward the end of a busy life, take time to set down their favorite anecdotes of their contemporaries. But these anecdotes perhaps turn out to have been embellished or, as we now say, tweaked. We long for better evidence, for genuine documentation. We have enjoyed the anecdotes; now we want the facts.

How did the late Victorian painters Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon (a celebrated same-sex couple of their day) manage, on an income that seldom exceeded £1,000 a year, to put together a collection of drawings which, when bequeathed, formed the core of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s holdings in Cambridge? Who was W.R. Valentiner, who brought to Detroit not only the traditions of Prussian museum-craft and connoisseurship, but also the spirit of Expressionist Berlin? Whose house is it we are entering when we cross the threshold of the wonderful Van der Bergh Museum in Antwerp? And who was the Stibbert of the Stibbert (in Florence)?

In the Avery Memorial wing of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut—the preamble alone sounds stuffy—there is an elegant courtyard that represents the first American museum interior in the International Style. And in the middle of this courtyard there is a pool with a fountain, featuring a magnificent marble group of Venus with a nymph, a satyr, and two dolphins, signed and dated 1600 by the Mannerist sculptor Pietro Francavilla. One could imagine the architect of the courtyard, with its cool rectilinear themes, tearing his hair out at the insertion of such a sculpture, and such a pool, into his ensemble. Surely the site calls out for a sympathetic abstract work? But it turns out that the designer of this interior, which opened in 1934, was the same man who bought the sculpture and devised the shape of the pool: the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum at the time, Chick Austin.

The architect of the Avery Memorial, Robert B. O’Connor of the New York firm Morris & O’Connor, had the task of pleasing both the conventional …

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