By Therese Mageau
Did you know that Montpelier is the cradle of art in Vermont?
In 1895, Montpelier native Thomas Waterman Wood, one of 19th century America’s most celebrated artists, bequeathed his significant collection of American art to the city of Montpelier, establishing the T.W. Wood Gallery as the first art museum in the state.
This fall, working within COVID-19 restrictions, the Wood Gallery will celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding with exhibitions at the gallery and around the city. The repository of art at the T.W. Wood, says Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson, “represents a significant part of our cultural history.” The celebration with civic organizations across Montpelier, she notes, “carries on the legacy of Thomas Waterman Wood’s value of art for everyone.”
The heart of the celebration will be focused on Wood’s own work, most of which will be on display at the Wood Gallery. Wood was an internationally renowned portrait artist and one of the country’s most beloved genre artists. Paintings such as “Quack Doctor,” which demonstrate his extraordinary attention to detail and his sympathetic humor, were painted with actual Montpelier residents and in specific Montpelier locations. Wood’s preparatory sketches for these genre paintings will be on exhibit at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
Wood also left to the city an impressive collection of 19th landscapes, including some from Hudson River School contemporaries. The gallery has never been able to exhibit the entire landscape collection. Displaying all these works together at the Wood’s Nuquist Gallery is, according to curator Phillip Robertson, “a huge triumph for 19th century American landscape painting.”
Thomas Waterman Wood holds a unique place in 19th century American art for his empathic images of African-Americans. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wood always portrayed his subjects with dignity rather than caricature. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, the exhibit of Wood’s remarkable paintings of African-Americans at the Vermont State House has been postponed.
Wood was also a master printmaker whose work was regularly published in Harper’s Weekly. Montpelier City Hall showcases will feature many of the etchings in the gallery’s collection.
In the 20th century, the collection of the T.W. Wood expanded significantly with the appointment of the gallery as the northern New England repository of artwork from the Works Progress Administration, which supported artists during the Great Depression. On permanent loan to the Wood Gallery are over 90 works of art, many of which will be on display for the celebration.
The Vermont History Museum will exhibit all the gallery’s Works Progress Administration prints — the first time all of the print collection will be shown at the same time. Print show co-curator Paul Zaloom, of “Beakman’s World,” believes that the gallery’s collection is “a treasure that deserves way more attention from the wider community in central Vermont and beyond.”
In 1895, addressing the people of Montpelier at the opening of the T.W. Wood Gallery, the artist said, “This is my native place, and while I am in one sense a transient person here, still I have resided more years among you than the majority of your year-round inhabitants, and when I have been absent in body, my heart has been dwelling in this lovely valley…. This is one of the serious moments of my life…. I have come to the undertaking which every good citizen of the republican community aspires to accomplish, viz: the establishment of an institution for the culture and the welfare of his fellow men.”
One hundred and twenty-five years later, Thomas Waterman Wood’s vision lives on.
Therese Mageau is a member of the T.W. Wood Board of Trustees.