“If you want to look at art, there is more of it to be seen per square mile on the east coast of the United States than there is in any other place on earth.” So said British art critic Richard Dorment. In New England’s art museums, you can see everything from rare Egyptian relics to French Impressionists and the most up-to-date contemporary art. Not forgetting the great American painters who were — and still are — inspired by the region. And, even if you have been to one of these museums before, the special exhibitions are well worth a repeat visit.
No state outguns Connecticut when it comes to great collections of art. No wonder there is a Connecticut Art Trail linking 18 sites, from art studios and art colonies to grand old homes and modern art museums. Highlights include the exhibits at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest public art museum in the United States, with Surrealist and Impressionist paintings, American colonial furniture and even the Samuel Colt firearms collection. In Farmington, 10 minutes west of the state capital, the Hill-Stead Museum is a gem. This grand 1901 mansion is filled with antiques and stunning French Impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet and more. The first museum in the USA dedicated solely to American art is the century-old New Britain Museum of American Art. Its new state-of-the-art building, located 15 minutes south of Hartford, is a showcase for works by America’s best-loved modern painters.
Thanks to Yale University, New Haven has two heavyweight museums. The Yale Center for British Art is the largest and most comprehensive collection of British art outside Britain (John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough). The Yale University Art Gallery covers the world, from ancient times to the present day.
The Lyme Art Colony in Old Lyme was seminal in the development of American Impressionism. At the Florence Griswold Museum, see where artists boarded with Florence Griswold and thanked her by painting her walls; and the Krieble Gallery where the works they painted outdoors are on display.
In Maine, it is easy to find the best galleries: just follow the Maine Art Museum Trail, linking eight fine collections. Since the 19th century, Maine’s land and seascapes have inspired some of America’s favorite painters. Winslow Homer, Fitz Henry Lane and Childe Hassam, for example, are shown in the impressive Portland Museum of Art, whose wide-ranging collection also includes Europeans, such as Picasso and Renoir. In Rockland, the Farnsworth Art Museum is famous as a showcase for three generations of the fabled Wyeth family (NC, Andrew, and James); it also has works by Edward Hopper and George Bellows. On the coast, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art is worth a visit for the contemporary building overlooking the ocean as much as for the ceramics, paintings, sculpture and photographs — all by American artists.
When it comes to world-class art galleries, Boston rivals any city in the world. The must see is the MFA, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, where The New MFA, designed by Sir Norman Foster, has been a decade in the making. This stunning space opened in November 2010 and displays 5,000 works of art from across the Americas. The MFA’s collection extends to European masters, particularly French Impressionists, Asian, Egyptian and contemporary art. Do allow time for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just a few steps away. Set in a Venetian-style palazzo are works by Titian and Rembrandt, Raphael, Botticelli, and Vermeer.
The Harvard Art Museums house one of the largest and most renowned art collections in the United States, and are comprised of three museums (the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums) and four research centers (the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums Archives, and the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis). Over on Boston harbor is the dramatic Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), with its edgy visual and performance art.
By contrast, north of Boston, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is built around the treasures brought home by 18th- and 19th-century sea captains and merchants. Highly advised is the Yin Yu Tang, an historic Chinese house reassembled in the museum. On Cape Cod, the Cape Cod Museum of Art focuses on outstanding artists associated with this famous seaside region and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Nearby, in Cotuit, is the Cahoon Museum of American Art, home to a collection of American art with historic breadth from the early 19th century to contemporary art with a special focus on regional art of the New England.
In western Massachusetts, Williamstown boasts The Clark, with its must-see French Impressionists, while nearby in North Adams, MASS MoCA transformed old factory buildings into America’s largest contemporary arts center. Don’t miss the extraordinary Wall Drawing Retrospective by New England artist Sol LeWitt. And be sure not to miss the Norman Rockwell Museum featuring the largest collection of original art by Rockwell, whose cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post captured the essence of America. See his museum and studio in the picturesque town of Stockbridge where he lived and worked.
In New Hampshire, visitors to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester discover that there is more to see in this state than mountains. Think Picasso and Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Andrew Wyeth. One gallery is dedicated to accomplished New Hampshire artists, past and present. From the museum, you can also tour the Zimmerman House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in New England that is open to the public.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, the Hood Museum of Art is noted for its American portraits, as well as the collection of African art.
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the Union, but Little Rhody enjoys a rich artistic heritage and a vibrant contemporary scene. In the state capital, find out more about the Providence Arts & Cultural Trail. At the city’s Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum of Art, the huge collection ranges from ancient Greek sculpture to contemporary paintings, while America’s second-oldest art club, the Providence Art Club, founded in 1880, is still going strong. Newport’s Grand Mansions, such as the Breakers, Marble House and Rough Point, are filled with art, but don’t forget the Newport Art Museum, with collections reflecting Newport and southeastern New England, from Fitz Henry Lane and George Inness to contemporary artists, such as Dale Chihuly.
In Vermont, folk art has long been popular. The delightful Bennington Museum has the largest public collection of works by Grandma Moses, who first picked up a brush in her 70s! Outside Manchester, the Southern Vermont Arts Center always has something new to see, thanks to its regularly changing exhibitions.
One of the greatest collections of Americana in the USA is at the Shelburne Museum. South of Burlington, the village-like setting includes 25 historic buildings that house everything from handmade quilts to Impressionist paintings by Monet, Manet, and Degas. In Burlington itself, the collection of the Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont ranges from works by Winslow Homer, Sol LeWitt, and Andy Warhol to Pre-Columbian ceramics. At the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the highlight is one of the largest paintings you will ever see: Albert Bierstadt’s vast Domes of Yosemite (1867) is an astonishing 10 feet by 15 feet!