Out in the Field: A Visit to Hill-Stead

All right, I have a confession to make: I had never been to Hill-Stead Museum before Tuesday.

Well, OK, that’s not true. I had been before to visit one of their weekly Farmer’s Markets. But I had never been inside the house, or taken a tour, or gone on one of their popular nature walks. I had never really seen first-hand what makes Hill-Stead such a wonderful place to visit.

I heard through the grapevine (namely our Welcome Center Coordinator and frequent Hill-Stead visitor and volunteer, Susan Williams) that the museum was mounting an exhibit of rare and never-before-seen prints and sketches by Degas, Goya, William Nicholson and a number of original Japanese woodcuts purchased by the Pope family. And I thought, OK, this is my chance to go. And somewhere along the way (probably through the same Susan grapevine), Hill-Stead’s Director and CEO, the wonderful Sue Sturtevant, found out that I had never been out to Hill-Stead before and offered to give me my own private tour of the museum.

I consider my self pretty “in the know” when it comes to the arts and heritage community of Greater Hartford, but even I held some misconceptions about the museum. For years I thought of Hill-Stead as simply a historic home—which it is, featuring some of the finest colonial revival architecture, landscape design and late 19th century furniture you’ll see here in central Connecticut. But Hill-Stead is also a nationally renowned art museum, featuring a collection of impressionist paintings and pieces by famous European masters that would rival any major gallery in the United States. In fact, Departures magazine named Hill-Stead one of the best small art museums in the country.

Sue took me past the hordes of visiting students for my private tour through the museum’s latest exhibit, Wonders Revealed: Rarely Seen Original Prints from Hill-Stead’s Collection, featuring a stunning array of Degas studies and sculptures and some of the finest, most colorful Japanese woodblock prints I’d ever seen. And, unlike a “traditional” museum setting, you can view the exhibit as you travel through Theodate Pope Riddle’s meticulously preserved home—there’s the Degas bronzes in the library, the Nicholson prints upstairs in the hall and the Monet and Manet masterpieces adorning the parlor. I’m talking about fully furnished and decorated rooms here, not white walls and track lighting. It was amazing to imagine a time when these pricey paintings were owned by individuals who hung them above their mantlepieces and in the dining rooms in the same way I tack up IKEA prints in my one-bedroom apartment.

Edgar Degas' "The Tub," hanging in a bedroom at Hill-Stead.

Hill-Stead isn’t just a place where you go to see art, it’s where you go to appreciate it as well. Sue brought me into the downstairs bedroom and pointed out a particular painting, Degas’ The Tub, one in a series of paintings depicting a woman bathing. She told me that she runs a program with a local university where she invites medical students to sit on the rug and stare at the painting as they compose their own haiku poems about what they observe. “It’s about getting doctors-in-training to think about people and detach from all the science,” she explained. It gives the students a rare opportunity to see the world beyond the test tube and try to analyze and think about the patients they’ll be treating. “They’ve written some pretty amazing pieces” she confessed. Pretty cool, huh?

One of the things I love about this job is the chance to escape the confines of the office and go out and see our arts organizations in action. I promised Sue I’d be back in the springtime, when the sunken garden is in full bloom and the grounds are full of thousands of colorful tulips. That will be a sight to see.

Click here to learn more about Hill-Stead and their ongoing exhibition. Don’t miss it!

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