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Four Wilton Artists Remembered 



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Four Wilton Artists Remembered


Art Exhibit Opens On Show Weekend,

March 31, At Wilton Heritage Museum

WILTON, CONN. — The rural town of Wilton was, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, a community in decline. The old farms had worn out. Local farmers could not compete with the rich (and rock-free) farmland in the Midwest. Young adults were leaving for greater opportunities elsewhere. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century farmhouses had grown shabby. The roads were unpaved, and there was no electricity or indoor plumbing.

New Yorkers, however, found it a welcome respite from the noise, grit and “unhealthy” environment of a city in transition. Artists found the Silvermine area (a corner of Wilton, New Canaan and Norwalk) an especially welcoming environment. Land and houses were cheap and the landscape was lovely and restful. It was also a short buggy ride from the New Canaan train station, thus a relatively easy commute from New York studios and galleries.

These artists have left a rich legacy in our town as well as within the art history of our nation. This exhibit explores the life and work of four artists who grew to love their adopted home — where their descendants still reside today.

Henry Grinnell Thomson (1850–1937)

Henry Grinnell Thomson was the first artist to call Wilton home, even preceding J. Alden Weir in making Wilton his adopted home. Though raised in New York City, he had been educated as a boarding student at Wilton Academy.

Following attendance at the University of Michigan and several years working in business in New York, he turned to the study of art. He entered the National Academy of Design and studied under William Merritt Chase. There he developed an academic style using dark, rich tones.

Around 1880, now married to a Wilton woman, he returned to quiet Wilton Center, ignoring the New York art scene, and immersed himself in community life. Thomson changed his style from the academic style of Chase to that of an impressionist, perhaps influenced by Weir and the artists of the Cos Cob and Old Lyme colonies. He refined his impressionistic style, painting local scenes and portraits. In 1899 he went to Alaska during the Gold Rush to paint and to Florida in the 1920s.

He joined the group of artists in the Silvermine area, exhibiting at their end-of-summer exhibitions in the Borglum studio which drew art lovers and critics from Boston to New York. He also exhibited from time to time in New York at the Salmagundi Club and the Society of Independent Artists.

Henry Thomson had been largely forgotten until the Cooley Gallery presented a showing of his work in 1988. The paintings had been unearthed in his barn on Ridgefield Road many years after his death. This exhibition will show more than two dozen works loaned by local residents and other collectors.

Solon Borglum (1868–1922)

Solon Borglum who grew up on the Western Plains, left at the age of 25 to study art in Cincinnati, then on to Paris to study at the Academic Julian. While there, he met and married his wife Emma, taking his French bride on a honeymoon to a Sioux Indian Reservation.

After living in New York, Westchester and Paris, the family moved in 1906 to “Rocky Ranch,” a small farm in the Silvermine area of Wilton. With a large barn for his studio and a small house for his undomestic French wife, he began the most productive period of his career. Western life was his most frequent theme, both for monumental commissions and smaller gallery works.

The Borglums lived amidst a large group of artists who summered in the area. This group met every Sunday morning in Borglum’s barn-studio to socialize, critique and “knock” each other’s work. Solon was the leader of this group, called “The Knockers,” around which their social life and art world revolved.

Borglum disliked “modern art.” He was especially disgusted by the Amory Show of 1913, which became dominated by European abstractionists, which he dismissed as “Ellis Island” art. One of his galleries, however, did display several of his smaller works in that landmark event.

During World War I, he served with the YWCA Overseas Service Corp and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his service to the French Army. Following the war he founded the School of American Design in New York City, using his carefully written and illustrated Sound Construction to teach animal, plant and human anatomy to his students.

Solon Borglum died prematurely after an appendicitis attack at the age of 53. His older brother, Gutzon, from whom he was largely estranged, was highly controversial as a sculptor. Gutzon’s most famous work, “Mount Rushmore,” continues to dismay the Indian tribes of South Dakota. While Solon was modest and well-liked, Gutzon was considered arrogant and conniving.

The Borglum grandchildren, two of whom continue to live on Borglum Road in Wilton, gave a number of works to the New Britain Museum of American Art in 1974. This exhibit will include works on loan from the museum, as well as from family members.

Carl Schmitt (1889–1989)

At the age of 17, Carl Schmitt left his native Warren, Ohio to study with William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Emile Carlson in New York City. In 1909 he moved to the Silvermine area, across the road from the Borglums.

There he lived and worked amidst the active group of Silvermine artists known as the “Knockers.” He spent the rest of his long life raising ten children on Borglum Road in Wilton.

Always independent, with a restless intellect, interest in religious mysticism and a believer in traditional representation, he painted local scenes, portraits and religious works. Caring little for the trappings of success, most of his paintings and pastels were sold locally. He did, however, spend time painting in France and Italy. His independence was supported by a succession of patrons, first Mrs Zell Hart Deming in Warren, Ohio, then his father-in-law, architect A.W. Lord, and then through his friendship with English poets, writers and Catholic intellectuals.

The close-knit family of ten children grew up in an environment of modest material goods, but rich in art, love of learning and deep religious convictions. Many of the second and third generations remain in the area, proud of their artist-ancestor. They have formed the Carl Schmitt Foundation and have recently restored Schmitt’s studio, helping to keep his memory alive.

A. Phimister Proctor (1860–1950)

A. Phimister Proctor, son of the Rocky Mountains, is considered by some to be the quintessential sculptor of the American West. Throughout his long life he never lost his love for the mountains, the native animals and the rough-hewn men who became the subjects of his work.

In 1885 Proctor sold his interest in a gold mine in Colorado, bought a suit and boarded a train for New York City to study at the Art Students League. Though he started as a painter, he soon turned to sculpture, prior to continuing his study in Paris.

In 1891, Proctor was invited to produce more than a dozen monumental Western animals for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. In Chicago he met the people who would shape his future: sculptors such as Daniel Chester French, Lorado Taft and Augustus Saint-Gaudens; men of position and means such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot; and a young artist who would become his wife, Margaret.

During his career Proctor created many monumental equestrian statues of Civil War generals, magnificent animals and iconic figures of the west — cowboys, Indians, pioneers — depicting the fast-disappearing masculine life of the west. Proctor and his friends rebelled against the “feminization” of life in the genteel society of the East.

In 1927 the family moved to Wilton after spending several years on the West Coast and in Italy. While in Wilton he created one of his most famous and challenging works, “Robert E. Lee and Young Soldier.” The Ladies of the Confederate Southern Memorial Association of Dallas were more challenging to work with than anything he had experienced. He also conceived the dramatic “Mustangs,” later produced and placed at the University of Texas.

Proctor and his wife left Wilton in 1936, returning to the West Coast. Their son, Gifford, eighth of nine children, remained in Wilton and followed in his footsteps as a sculptor. Near the end of Proctor’s life he and his son collaborated on two portrait-statues to be placed in the United States Capital. Gifford actually sculpted and cast them after Proctor’s death in 1950.

The grandchildren of A.P. Proctor have founded the A. Phimister Proctor Museum in Washington State. The museum has loaned many pieces to this exhibition, as has the last granddaughter in this area. They inspired the production of the comprehensive volume, Wildlife and Western Heroes, Alexander Phimister Proctor, Sculptor by Peter H. Hassrick, 2003.

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