Connections: How the Berkshires became a cultural center

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By Tuesday, Apr 22 Viewpoints

Author’s Note about ‘Connections’: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history treat it as escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014.

Far removed and sparsely populated, the Berkshires has a disproportionate number of artists and writers. Did it happen overnight? If it did it, it was a night in 1847.

From William Bradford to William Henry Harrison, there was no American aesthetic; no set of guiding principles in artistic creation that was uniquely American. The phrases American art and America literature were considered oxymorons, and there were no American schools of architecture. Americans agreed with the rest of the world that great art was French; great literature was English, and great architecture was Greco-Roman.

By the 19th century, the proud young country wanted a voice of its own, and over the next 50 years, it produced one. Schools of architecture were established at Harvard and MIT. The Hudson River painters created an America vision. Melville, Hawthorne, and others created an American voice. In 1893, at World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, America was prepared to strut its stuff: uniquely American stuff.

Instrumental to the country’s success defining an American aesthetic was the Century Association (CA). Established in New York City in 1847, its purpose, according to founder, William Cullen Bryant, was “advancing American art and literature by establishing a library and gallery of art and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper.”

The name was chosen to signify that the CA was founded by 100 men. The CA grew out of an earlier club called the Sketch Club. Sketch was founded “to turn attention from Old Masters and the Europeans to American artists.” Sketch’s limited focus on painters was insufficient, and the CA broadened to include sculptors, writers, architects, and landscape architects.

The support of the CA and the patronage extended by its members is credited with promoting and assuring the success of the Hudson River School (art), The Columbian Exhibition of 1893 (architecture), Nathaniel Hawthorne and David Thoreau (literature).

For an organization that had such a profound impact nationwide, it is interesting how many of its members had strong ties to a tiny corner of our country called The Berkshires.

Some of the CA’s earliest members were poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, artists Frederic Church, Asher Durant, and George Inness, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, attorney Joseph Hodges Choate, businessmen Ogden Haggerty, William Aspinwall, and New York Stock Exchange President John Hamilton Gourlie Jr. All of them lived or worked in the Berkshires.

Founder William Cullen Bryant was Berkshire born and bred. In letters to Asher B. Durand, Bryant urged him to come and paint the Berkshire Hills. Durant came and painted distant mountain views across Stockbridge Bowl as well as Monument Mountain.

Founder Frederick Church was a friend of Cyrus Field. In 1847 Field invited Church to visit Stockbridge. Church accepted and during his sojourn painted “View of Stockbridge.

Berkshire cottager and CA member Joseph Hodges Choate (Naumkeag) wrote of the CA, “A very early admission into the Century Association in 1858 brought me into relations with the most charming circle of men…we youngsters sat at their feet in devout admiration.”    

Businessman and CA member William Aspinwall was the Berkshire Cottager (Woodcliff) who built the Aspinwall Hotel. CA founder and Berkshire Cottager Ogden Haggerty (Ventfort) was the first and most important patron of artist George Inness.

Haggerty met Inness in 1847 and supported him until his death in 1877. Inness’ paintings adorned the walls of Ventfort. Haggerty introduced Inness to Catharine Sedgwick who used an Inness painting as the frontispiece for her novel “Clarence.” Berkshire cottagers Henry Ward Beecher, (Blossom Farm), and Charles Kneeland (Fairlawn) bought Inness paintings.

As a guest at Samuel Ward’s Highwood, Inness painted “Hills of Berkshire” and 14 other Berkshire views. These were the same views that Nathaniel Hawthorne saw from his windows at the Little Red Shanty in Stockbridge, and views he described in “A Wonder Book.”

New York Stock Exchange President and founding member of the CA, John Hamilton Groulie Jr., was “a permanent summer resident” of the Berkshires as were prominent Bostonians and art patrons William and Caroline Tappan (Tanglewood), the Appleton sisters (Homestead), and Edith Rotch (Gusty Gables). Rotch’s brother, architect Arthur Rotch, designed five Berkshire Cottages, and Fredrick Law Olmstead beautified the grounds of Elm Court and other cottages. Endorsement by CA members was considered enlightened so the reputations of their protégés grew.

The connection? As founders of the CA and their protégés worked to create an American aesthetic, a uniquely American voice and vision, the Berkshires was their home and inspiration. Byrant wrote of “Monument Mountain,” Hawthorne the “Tanglewood” and “Shadow Brook,” Melville saw his whale in a hump of Mt. Greylock, Holmes of Rattlesnake Mountain in “Elsie Venner,” and Durant, Church and Innes painted our hills. The Berkshires nurtured their craft, and in turn, they immortalized the Berkshires as a place for successive generations of artists and writers to live and work.


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