June 25, 2012

The Art Gallery of the Saint Johnsbury Athenaeum: Stepping Into the 19th Century

Saint Johnsbury, a beautiful town tucked away in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is home to two surprising cultural resources, gems of the 19th century: one is the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, which I wrote about here; the other is the Athenaeum, a library and small art gallery, still maintained in its 19th century style. It is marvelous to walk into the skylit space and see gilt frames glistening against dark walls, with a huge dramatic canvas by Albert Bierstadt, The Domes of the Yosemite, dominating the room.

Saint Johnsbury was a lively town in the late 19th century, thanks in great part to Fairbanks Scales, inventors of the platform scale. This grand Victorian structure was built in 1871, and was a gift, like the Fairbanks Museum, of the Fairbanks family.

The art gallery was added to the library two years after it opened and included the collection of Governor Horace Fairbanks and other family members. One thing I love about this gallery is getting a real sense of late 19th century taste, which included American landscape paintings we still hold in high regard, along with copies of old masters and sentimental images of animals and children, all on view together, with no hierarchy.

Worthington Whittredge, On The Plains, Colorado, 1872; oil on canvas, 30 x 50 in.

Whittredge is one of the American masters included in this collection, along with Sanford Gifford, below,  and Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, and Asher B. Durand. This painting of a quiet riverside scene has the soft light and clear layers of space of a Luminist painting.

On the Plains, detail

The touch is restrained, yet lively and descriptive. The artist was attentive to details of life and landscape.

Sanford Gifford, View from South Mountain, in the Catskills, 1873; oil on canvas, 21 x 40 in.

A golden light suffuses an autumn scene in the mountains, with two tiny climbers to give us a sense of the vast scale of the scene. Foreground, middle ground, distance: each exist in their separate planes, becoming less distinct and cooler. These two landscapes could hang happily in the new American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Emilie Preyer, Fruit and Wine, n.d.; oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. 

There are also some lovely still life paintings in the St. Johnsbury collection. This painting is the only one known to be by a woman artist in the collection. I like its simple clarity, its appreciation of different surfaces, its composition topped by the graceful lines of a wineglass.

William Mason Brown, Raspberries, 1873; oil on canvas, 10 x 12 in.

A spill of raspberries on the ground, their red repeated by dropping leaves at top, hold a brilliant light in their compound surfaces. It seems that the artist was attempting to achieve the translucence of the berries and in this he succeeded; they look as though they're bright Christmas lights dropped and scattered.  

Adolphe William Bouguereau, Going to the Bath, n.d. ; oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 in.

The Atheneum even has a Bougeureau, one of the grand French academic painters, albeit a small and modest one. I'm not a fan of his work, but he is certainly emblematic of a sentimental strain of 19th century painting. 

This grouping of paintings shows more of that overly sweet mood. 

I really enjoy getting a sense of how work was collected at that time; that copies of masters such as Raphael were highly valued and exhibited alongside original works. While at the gallery, I thought of a book by Edith Wharton I'd read some years ago: Old New York. In one of its stories, a young man was sent to Europe in the early 19th century to buy paintings for his father. Instead of the expected late Italian Renaissance and copies of Old Masters, he comes home with paintings of the early Renaissance, which were not yet appreciated. His father disowned him. The Athenaeum's collection is more sophisticated than that, and has some genuine treasures, but it is also a product of its time, which makes it so rare and wonderful. No works are in storage, none are hidden away; the collection is as it was, and as it will be.

Finally, here are two views of the gorgeous interior of the library, which was lovingly restored recently. The experience of being in these spaces, and seeing this art, in a library in a small town is a wonder, and a gift.


  1. I loved this virtual tour, love the ornate gold frame on Emilie Preyer's wonderful still-life, and William Mason Brown's raspberries too. What a charming place, spiral staircase, widow's walk and all.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to discuss that, I really feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed this, Mona and s.

  4. Thanks for the wonderful tour through the magnificent space of the Athenaeum's Art Gallery. It is one of Vermont's treasures, and your photos give people who can't be here get a taste of this special place.

  5. This is a wonderful place to take some work to and spend the day.

  6. This is a treasure, not least for its window into that era. I wonder what they were feeling and thinking with all those sweet paintings of children and animals. We are their polar opposite for better or worse. The building itself is just beautiful.

    Were you ever in the library of the old Mass Horticultural Society building in downtown Boston? Same kind of thing: two levels with balconies, beautiful woodwork and art everywhere, and a pair of presentation Chinese porcelain urns that were to die for. And, of course, their collection of books. It's all gone now, and I'm glad I had a chance to visit before it was disbursed. I'll have to put St. J on my list of places to visit when we finally get to Vermont again.

    1. I've never been in that building in Boston, Ms. Wis. You'd enjoy St. J; along with the Athenaeum, there's the Fairbanks Museum, a small natural history museum with its original 19th century exhibits, including bug art.

  7. Holy smokes, that's the luckiest small town in the country! What an amazing small museum.

    And that Bierstadt, well, really ties the room together.