American Artists Arts & Letters Features

Artful Stories of Historic New England

Historic New England is the largest regional heritage organization in America today. Founded in 1910, it was the earliest organization of its type with a focus on the preservation and continued use of properties of historic significance. Historic New England aims to educate the public on their archives and collections and engage in public outreach by establishing house museums—working with homeowners and communities to protect buildings and landscapes.

With a collection of over a million records of photographs, homes, paintings, objects, sculptures, and documents, Historic New England has been able to tell the most complete story of how New Englanders lived from the 17th century to today. There are over 6,500 works of fine art housed across the New England states. Recognizing the importance of their collection, and to engage with the public, “Artful Stories” has brought together works from ten different house museums as well as a number of works from Historic New England’s storage.

The exhibition is held at the historic Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts—a jewel of late-19th-century American architecture built in 1878. The estate was designed by William Ralph Emerson, prominent American architect and cousin of transcendentalist American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only was Emerson of the eponymous family, he was a close friend of leading Boston painter William Morris Hunt, and he collaborated with American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It was a time of cultural renaissance in America, when bronze foundries produced full-scale works on American soil for the first time, and the cities were filling with Neoclassical architecture.

Eustis Estate, Milton, Mass. Public Domain.

Curated by Nancy Carlisle (Historic New England’s Senior Curator of Collections) and Peter Trippi (European art historian and editor-in-chief at Fine Art Connoisseur), “Artful Stories” explores regional stories told through art. Rather than simply showcasing Historic New England’s best paintings and sculptures, the curators selectively chose artists, portraits, and settings to give the artwork and theme a larger sense of context. As Carlisle noted, the experience of curating a show like this reveals new information every time you scratch at the surface of history.

The exhibition was well planned, but just as society had to contend with the pandemic lockdowns, so did “Artful Stories.” They quickly pivoted to online programming and immersive 360-degree videos. Karla Rosenstein, the site manager of the Eustis Estate, shared that “from the beginning, we had planned to utilize the interactive touchscreens to add extra multimedia materials to ‘Artful Stories,’ so we luckily had already been developing some online content for the exhibition.” As it became clear that they would not be able to open up as scheduled, they wanted to provide an online preview that was a full version of the exhibition. “While working from home, we created a far more robust version than we had initially planned” added Rosenstein.

“Homeward Bound” by John George Brown, New York, 1878. Oil on canvas. Gift of Ralph May.

The curators chose to present the works in a variety of themes across four galleries. The first gallery, “Land & Sea,” is a survey of the historical geography of New England. The second gallery, “At Home in New England,” showcases how and why the people of New England came to settle there, while the third gallery, “New England’s People,” reveals the cast of characters involved. The fourth gallery, “Wide World,” is about how the New Englanders interacted with people and places outside their region.

Unlike other exhibitions that would source works from outside their collection, Rosenstein noted, “it was very fortunate that this show was entirely from Historic New England’s collection as we did not need to negotiate date changes with other institutions.” The gallery was open to in-person visits in October 2020 and welcomed small groups of visitors to enjoy the exhibit. “We had a good number of members eager to attend it and get back into our museums,” added Rosenstein. “We also found ways to pivot our planned programming online and hosted a series of conversations between the curators and scholars, artists, and other curators that was attended by far more people than we would have expected in person.”

The show is full of interesting distinctions—a striking, perfect copy of Vigée LeBrun’s self portrait was a surprise for Carlisle. “The copy of Vigée’s portrait was by Elizabeth Adams, an artist about whom we knew nothing. During our research, we discovered who she was and the lengths she went to receive professional training.”

Copy of “Self-Portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun” by Elizabeth Adams, Florence, Italy, 1865–74. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist’s nephew, Boylston Adams Beal.

As our collective American [MISSING NOUN] shifted so much throughout 2020, this allowed the curators to examine some of the asymmetries of the past, confronting the history of race and social class through the lens of today. Two such landscape paintings are hung in the first gallery, “Land & Sea.” One painting is a tight, Hudson-River-School-influenced panorama by the son of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while the other is a pure Barbizon, Romantic landscape by an African-American barber who had to strive for his training as a painter. On these two paintings, Peter Trippi noted “the contrast between the landscapes painted by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow and his neighbor (on the wall), Edward Mitchell Bannister—what different life journeys they had, but they both ended up being talented painters flourishing in New England at the same time!” Truly, one of the most important aspects of representational painting is its ability to transcend setting and social class and rely on truth, skill, and beauty.

Left: “View of Boston Across the Flats” by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston, 1876. Oil on canvas. Gift of D. Codman. Right: “Woman Reading Under a Tree” by Edward Mitchell Bannister, probably R.I., 1880–85. Oil on canvas.

Throughout the show, there are a number of thoughtful arrangements and connections made that came to light through their research. In gallery four, “Wide World,” there is a wall which showcases not only the talent and skill of the artists, but the ingenuity and distinction of the American art patrons during the late 19th century. One is a portrait painting of Richard Norton by Italian artist Antonio Mancini. Hanging next to it is Edward Burne-Jones’ portrait of Sara Norton, Richard’s sister. These two paintings couldn’t be more stylistically distinct; Edward Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite, a classicist in the truest sense of the word, and Mancini an innovator, regarded by American artist John Singer Sargent as the greatest living painter of the time.

Left: “Richard Norton” by Antonio Mancini, Rome, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s daughter. Right: “Sara Norton” by Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1884. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s niece.

The simple fact that these two now hang side-by-side in contrast to each other displays the power of patronage—allowing the artists to fully express their vision of the subject, rather than attempting to impose their own aesthetics onto their likeness. This is further driven home by their accompanying painting on the wall, “St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit. Best remembered as the patron who commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint his four daughters (housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Boit was also an accomplished painter in his own right.

“St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit, Dinard, Brittany, France, 1882. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman.

Throughout the exhibition, there are multimedia opportunities to learn more about the various artists and subjects. For those residing outside of New England, the website offers one of the most complete possible viewing experiences online. “Artful Stories” is both a truthful retelling of the Northeast’s history and an important chapter in cultural preservation, which Historic New England continues to champion. The exhibit has been extended until October 17th, 2021.


Why Wildlife Is Returning to Eastern Kentucky

The past 20-plus years of mass media reporting on the environment has been dominated by predictions of cataclysmic catastrophe and mayhem, although during my life, I’ve seen a very different story.

Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, deer were few, with no bear, coyotes, turkeys, mountain lions, bald eagles, and certainly no elk. Today, all of these species are present again. Positive things are happening. Wildlife is naturally returning and many species are rebounding with streams cleaner than they’ve been in decades.

Elk enjoying a reclaimed surface coal mine in Martin County, Ky., on Aug. 20, 2015. (Chris Musgrave)

How can this be? For years, doomsayers have warned about the end of nature if we didn’t turn the American way of life on its head; they may find it ironic that capitalism funds the successful environmental protections that we do have.

Recently, I took my family to the Salato Wildlife Center in Frankfort, Kentucky. Throughout that gem, you can find the answers of how this can be.

Blight and Restoration

How did the dearth of nature come to be in the first place?

At the turn of the century, the chestnut blight in the eastern part of the country—where strong, rot-resistant chestnut trees that grew since time immemorial fell in mere decades—along with irresponsible clear-cut logging led to ancient forest floors in the mountains to be washed out. The ecology, flora and fauna, and economies tied to chestnuts were devastated. The old-growth forests are now lost except for small pockets such as in Blanton Forest in Harlan County.

(Daniel Ulrich)
(Daniel Ulrich)

At the same time, many wildlife populations crashed due to overhunting and habitat loss. The Great Depression caused remaining species such as deer, rabbits, and squirrels to be hunted for food, with no regard for conservation as people struggled to survive and feed their families. As the Depression ended and most places prospered, much of Appalachia remained impoverished.

Hunting and fishing licenses are the backbone of conservation and restoration efforts. Hunters funded the successful reestablishment of elk, to the point that we now have regular seasons for hunting.

An active coal temple in Pike County, Ky., on Aug. 10, 2011. (Chris Musgrave)
The reclaimed mine of Bell County, Ky., an Appalachian Wildlife Foundation location, on July 22, 2014. (Chris Musgrave)

Bad actors of the past made the Surface Mine Reclamation Act necessary. If you’re unfamiliar with the industry, you may be surprised to learn that reclaiming is part of the regular process, and typically leaves the land better than before it was mined. Why? Because that original land would have washed out about 100 years ago when the chestnut blight ravaged the forest (the restoration of the American chestnut is a subject for another story).

Elk enjoying a reclaimed surface coal mine in Martin County, Ky., on Aug. 20, 2015. It’s this grassland that they like. (Chris Musgrave)
(Daniel Ulrich)
(Daniel Ulrich)

Now, drainage controls are engineered, preventing washout. Native grasses are planted along with nut-bearing trees to promote wildlife. Within a few years, what started out like a scene from “Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome” is a lush paradise that supports diverse wildlife.

No better example can be found than that of the privately held Appalachian Wildlife Foundation. It’s in the final stages of building a public educational research station, located in Bell County, Kentucky, where the first mountaintop removal mining site in the United States is. People unfamiliar with the reclamation process have no idea it was mined, and the elk couldn’t care less.

Modern-day surface mining is like making sausage: The process is not pretty but the end result is great. The location of the wildlife foundation several decades ago more resembled the surface of Mars or the moon as the top of the mountain was removed of the overburden in order to reach the valuable coal seams below. When coal is too close to the surface, the ground is not stable and it’s not safe to mine underground. To access this coal, the ground above must first be removed.

(Daniel Ulrich)

It is only fitting this wildlife sanctuary was once paraded by those opposed to mining as an example of how awful mining is, because active mining is ugly. This short-sighted view ignored the big picture and the responsible and forward-thinking stewardship by the landowners. When mining was first completed and the reclamation process started, the first few years the land was home to only grasses and low brush and briers taking hold. After a few years and seasons, the soil develops as vegetation decays returning to soil. Per the requirements based on extensive research, the soil is only compacted to certain point to prevent run-off, but not so tight as to prevent trees from easily re-establishing, (early reclamation law required soil be very compacted, inadvertently thwarting vegetation, and thus wildlife returning).

Today most people wouldn’t know Boone’s Ridge was a mine, (with limited active mining still occurring). This is true of most surface mining today, as only contour mining is permitted, where the peak must remain and only the outer edge of a coal seam is mined creating a bench. This bench is filled post-mining and the mountain is returned to its original contours. Once these location are covered with significant hardwood trees, they are indistinguishable from other parts of the hillside not mined to the untrained eye.

Education Works

The many creeks and streams in the region were once clogged with decades of trash and sewage from straight pipes.

Today efforts by private volunteer groups such as PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment) remove trash from the streams every April. Over the past decades, septic tanks and new sewage treatment plants have almost ended raw sewage discharge. As a result, fish and aquatic species are flourishing, and even beavers and river otters are returning.

The Salato Wildlife Center in Frankfort, Ky. (Chris Musgrave)

I currently serve on the board of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council, which has played a key part in cultural change for the last several decades by exposing Kentucky students to environmental issues and terms.

Yet another factor changing culture is simply time: The outlaw hardscrabble poacher culture borne of desperate times of the Great Depression has to a large degree died out or become too old and feeble to do much harm. Less fortunate segments of society now have social safety nets and improved infrastructure making it easier to meet basic needs unavailable in the past.

This certainly has helped remove the pressure of necessity to subsist. Most sportsmen today buy licenses and make good faith efforts to follow the seasons, limits, and regulations.

The Salato Wildlife Center in Frankfort, Ky. (Chris Musgrave)

Private corporations can play a role as well, often the ones contributing to funds that make much-needed conservation efforts possible.

The Salato Wildlife Center in Frankfort, Ky. (Chris Musgrave)

Having studied the history of energy and environmental law and being a sportsman myself, I’ve heard much blaming of corporations, industry, and hunters of today for the harms of the past. Education has helped dispel some of these misconceptions. And yes, we do have some real environmental problems in this world; most have root causes traceable to the desperation of poverty, corrupt systems of government, or ignorance of the harm of our actions.

For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed, desperation and anarchy nearly wiped out caviar sturgeon in Russia. Corruption happens, too. Recently, when a mine in Pike County started receiving complaints from surrounding neighbors, it turned out the federal mine inspector was accepting bribes to not enforce the law. Once discovered, it was stopped and the inspector and operator are now in jail. Ignorance of the consequences of actions factors into these environmental problems. Take the example of DDT pesticides; once the harm was discovered, regulations caught up and banned its use.

The wilds are returning to Eastern Kentucky in what could be called a triumphal environmental story. Sportsmen license fees and private funding have been the backbone of conservation and restoration efforts, and even cultural awareness is increasing. (Chris Musgrave)

I saw a wild bald eagle about seven miles from Lexington, Kentucky, just last week. Last summer, a black bear was spotted downtown near a University of Kentucky hospital. These occurrences were unthinkable 30 years ago.

Chris Musgrave is a Kentucky attorney, farmer, and policy professional in energy, environment, agriculture, education, elections, history, and government administration and affairs. He enjoys hunting, fishing, and writing music and articles for fun. He is also a board member of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council and Historic Preservation Review Boards.