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A Place In Naugatuck History: The Whittemore Family Art Collection

Art from one of Naugatuck's most famous families is considered a prize today, but not so much back in the early 1900s.

The Whittemore Family’s combined generosity, affection for the town of Naugatuck, and extraordinary vision, changed the footprint of our town forever.

This week let’s explore a form of art at the turn of the century that the “experts” turned their nose up to, but the Whittemore Family embraced.

John Howard Whittemore and his son Harris began bringing French impressionist art into our community in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s at a time when Impressionist art was not highly favored. Not only did the critics feel the work was sketchy and incomplete but impressionist artist choose to paint ordinary people and everyday scenes instead of the Biblical, historical or more refined subjects. The artist applied their paints directly to the canvas instead of mixing on a palate and often worked outside instead of a studio. For all of these reasons the work was considered to be revolutionary and was shunned by the mainstream art scene in Paris and elsewhere.

Harris Whittemore seemed to have been born with a keen sense of art. He was educated in Naugatuck schools until the age of 14, when he attended the Greylock Boarding School in Massachusetts, where he asked his mom to send him artwork for his room. He did well in his studies and two years later in the year 1880, he traveled to Europe to study under Rev. Isaac Jennings, who had been the head of the English and Classical School from Waterbury. Traveling with him was Howard Tuttle from the Tuttle Family in Naugatuck and Fredrick Chase from the Chase Family in Waterbury.

They toured all the major cities in Europe; visiting museums, galleries and landmarks. He would use his allowance to buy gifts at the galleries for his family. Lace, antiques and various art objects were sent back home to Naugatuck.

By his mid 20’s, Harris’ frequent visits to art galleries in New York City and abroad set his love for impressionists’ art in place. Alfred Pope, close friends of the family and father of Theodate Pope (one of the first women architects in the country, commissioned to designed Hop Brook School) encouraged John Howard Whittemore to let Harris buy new art objects for the new Church Street home designed by McKim, Meade and White which was nearly complete.

Harris started his collection of Claude Monet paintings in 1890 and by 1893; the collection included three of the infamous Haystack paintings.

On September 21, 1892, Harris married Justine Brockway of New York. As they traveled abroad for a delayed honeymoon in 1893, he sent the following cable to his father John Howard,

“I have made a purchase through Durand Ruel of three pictures for you but if you don’t like them I will relieve you as soon as I am financially able, but I trust you will. One is a Monet, a most stunning thing, as good as any of his I have ever seen. View of the cliffs and sea off the French coast. The other two are by Degas a portrait of a lady and a small picture of four ballet girls. They are both simply fine.”

He goes on to say, “The three pictures I spoke of amount to $3,260.00. Do you think you can stand it? I think you will be pleased besides having a good investment. P.S. I forgot to say that you may think the picture of ballet girls a trifle queer subject to buy. But when you see the picture I am sure you will like it. I shall be tickled to hang it in my room if you don’t care for it. I made this purchase on the strength of your commission to buy what I pleased of good pictures for the house. “

At this time, John Howard Whittemore was beginning the building of Salem School, the Whittemore Library was in progress and he was preparing the property for the summer home on Tranquility Farm in Middlebury.

The Panic of 1893, considered at the time the worst depression the United Sates had ever experienced, was under way and John Howard was feeling the need to pull back on his spending. He felt he must draw the line on Harris purchases but later recounted with this cable to his son,

“After thinking the matter over, notwithstanding I am spending so much money, I decided to have you use your best judgment in the matter, and buy the three pictures, if, as you say, they are rare bargains. Should you make the purchase, we will have more of the Monet’s than I should think we care for, but it strikes me we can sell some of those we have now, and thereby greatly improve our collection. I know you will use good judgment in the matter and I am very sorry indeed that just at this time I should feel so poor, which is largely owning to the amount of money I have spent in new buildings this summer, together with the fact that financial matters in this country are so very unsettled…”

Between March and June of his trip, Harris had purchased at least 23 paintings including such artist as Monet, Degas, Cassatt. He had his first meeting with Mary Cassatt, an American Impressionist artist from Pennsylvania who was living in Paris. They would become lifetime friends with Mary visiting the Whittemore family homes in both Naugatuck and Middlebury and completing three large pastel portraits of Harris’ Mother, wife and children.

When Mary returned to Paris, she wrote Mrs. Harris Whittemore this heartwarming letter,

“I constantly think of Naugatuck and of your beautiful home, and wonder what you would think of my summer home. I am going to send you a photograph of it; my little pond seems very small and insignificant after the rushing rivers of Naugatuck, and no place I am at home seemed to me so desirable as a summer home as Milbury (Middlebury). That beautiful lake and the woods are often in my mind, and all your circle enjoying the delights of it together.”

J.H. and Harris were also intrigued by the artist James A.M. Whistler, purchasing his infamous painting “Symphony in White, No. 1, The White Girl” in 1893 where it hung in the stairway of the Whittemore home next to ‘Whistler’s Mother of Pearl and Silver.”

In Ann Y. Smith’s beautiful book on the Whittemore family “ Hidden In Plain Sight” she states that Whistlers painting “The Sea” hung over the fireplace in Harris living room on Church Street, possibly inspiring the remodeling of that room in 1915, when the upholstery and curtains were changed to blue damask to compliment the paintings deep marine blue hues.

When J.H. Whittemore passed away on May 28, 1910, Harris continued the family tradition started by his father of using their wealth to benefit the town of Naugatuck as well as the surrounding towns and areas as far away as California where a redwood preserve was donated by the family. Harris continued adding to the vast Whittemore art collection until his death on November 29, 1927, just days after his sixty-third birthday.

J.H Whittemore and his son Harris had managed to collect over 1,000 works of art in their lifetime. They were one of the first American collectors of French Impressionist paintings, most of which hung in their home on Church Street in Naugatuck and their summer home in Middlebury, with various pieces being lent to organizations for fund raising from time to time.

Most of the artwork has since been sold privately or auctioned off. You can find it at the Library of Congress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum, Yale, National Gallery of Australia and countless private collections around the world.

What struck me as I learned this story was the art the Whittemores choose to embrace was of ordinary people. Many could argue the blue-collar town of Naugatuck was also ordinary and yet they saw the same beauty, hiring the best architects and using the finest materials for buildings gifted, sparing no expense to create a beautiful atmosphere for the towns people live and grow.  

Whether you are traveling to the corner store in the town of Naugatuck or the far corners of the world, you can find a piece of the Whittemore Family legacy. Until next week when we find another place in Naugatuck history, may you find your own beauty in the ordinary and everyday moments of your day.

Credits: ArtHistory.net ; Hidden in Plain Sight by Ann Y. Smith

Don Carten June 24, 2011 at 05:08 PM
Thank you again for yet another excellent article on our local heritage. I knew of the collection but knew very little of its contents and origins before reading this wonderful piece.
Marcia Puc June 24, 2011 at 11:20 PM
I love this article. Naugatuck has such a rich history -- thank you for sharing.
Terri Takacs June 25, 2011 at 01:04 PM
Thanks so much Don and Marcia! I just came across a book you might both enjoy ~ I was able to get alot of my info from it ." Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ann Y. Smith ~ she is an expert on the Whittemore Family and it offers alot of insight into out town in that era. They have the book at the Naugatuck Historical Society.It is a bit of an investment but worth it if you love local history. Thanks again for your comments~ have a great week end!

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