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Reading 3: Home Is the Starting Place
J. Alden Weir was comfortable and confident with his art by the year 1900. As the new century began, Weir enjoyed his greatest success. He exhibited widely during the winters, won numerous awards, and sold paintings to the country’s leading museums. Throughout the next two decades, his summer home at the Branchville farm remained his center, his home, the source of his inspiration. "Home is the starting place and love the guide to your actions,"¹ he told the son of his good friend John Henry Twachtman, a prominent painter.
Weir took great pride in his farm. He employed a tenant farmer to live on the site year round and grow crops of grains such as rye, buckwheat, and barley on the rocky fields. While the contrast of golden tall grasses against the stone walls and orchards provided a pleasing image, Weir was not content to leave the setting alone. Instead, he made the landscape of Weir Farm a work of art. Weir manipulated and reworked his property to create an environment that would continue to stimulate and soothe his creative spirit. He cleared some of the land to open up dramatic views, and he introduced new features to the property. One of Weir’s students wrote:
Few artists of character I have known have escaped the diverting effect of the purchase and development of run down property. [Weir] was no exception. He had much property. It was lovely. It charmed him. He gave much thought, time and energy to its improvement. How he enjoyed clearing vistas, trimming trees well up from the ground revealing beautiful notes and things unseen before.²
The best example of Weir’s improvement and rearrangement of nature was the pond he built at the farm. In 1896, Weir had won first prize ($2,500) at the Boston Art Club. Using that money, he dammed a small brook to create a four-acre pond beyond the fields of crops at the farm. Not only did the small lake and surrounding woodland make great subject matter for an Impressionist, it also provided a place on the farm for fishing. Weir was an avid fisherman, and it was said of him that he always had in his hand either a paintbrush or a fishing pole. The pond was large enough for boating, so Weir soon added a boathouse. He built a summer gazebo and a rustic bridge so Victorian ladies in their long white dresses could cross the marshy expanse.
At the farm, Weir’s intention was to enhance nature, not to change or spoil the character of it. Any boulder that was moved, every tree that was relocated, was done with the eye of an artist. Weir wanted his family and his guests to enjoy leisure activities on the land and to always be able to experience and enjoy the landscape that was so dear to him. Weir often painted his family and guests enjoying these surroundings.
Weir’s commitment to nature was clear in an interview he once gave in connection with a large exhibit at the National Academy of Design. He was asked what interested him about painting. He answered after a moment with one word, "Character," which he meant was to catch the essence of his subject. Weir went on to explain that he had once met a young painter who asked him for a few words of wisdom about his work. Weir replied:
I told him to throw away his brushes, go out in the country and paint with a stick--look at nature and get the paint on anyhow. [The young painter] was disgusted--thought that was fool talk. But the next I heard of him, he had done it--actually gone out and tried to get the character of the scene and daub it on the canvas, and he got the real thing.³
Questions for Reading 3
1. In what ways did Weir manipulate the landscape?
2. What types of activities did Weir and his family enjoy at the farm?
3. Why did Weir tell the young student to go "paint with a stick"? Do you think that was good advice?
Reading 3 was compiled from David F. Ransom, "Weir Farm Historic District" (Fairfield County, Connecticut) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984; "Weir Farm National Historic Site Bulletin;" and Dorothy Weir Young, The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).
¹Letter from J. Alden Weir to Alden Twachtman dated January 3, 1892. Young, 177-8.