HARTFORD, Conn. — The Wadsworth Atheneum‘s fixed-up and rehung Morgan Great Hall, a soaring gallery filled with paintings and sculptures spanning 300 BCE to 1891 CE, reopens to the public Saturday after being closed for six years. The dramatic, salon-style hall is the focal point of the Wadsworth’s two-story Morgan Memorial Building, which first opened in 1910 and houses the museum’s collection of European paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects.
“This was a museum that was essentially crumbling,” the Wadsworth’s director of seven years, Susan L. Talbott, said during a preview of the renovated space on September 11. “In the end we had to shut this entire Morgan Memorial Building space.” Moments later the sound of a drill filled the double-height hall. With another eight days before the public opening, the Wadsworth’s staff were still in the midst of installing works, adding information plaques, and touching up walls. A two-story tower of scaffolding stood in a far corner.
The top-to-bottom, $33-million overhaul of the Morgan Memorial Building follows a similarly extensive refurbishing of the museum’s contemporary art galleries, which reopened in January. It has allowed the museum’s curators of European art and European decorative arts — Oliver Tostmann and Linda Roth, respectively — to completely reorganize its galleries and play to the strengths of the institution’s holdings. The small antiquities galleries adjacent to Morgan Great Hall, for instance, have been organized thematically rather than chronologically, with rooms devoted to artifacts used in everyday activities like coins, flasks and jugs; representations of nature in devotional objects from Egyptian cat deities to a gypsum relief of a winged guardian figure from Nimrud; and early Christian and Byzantine art including medieval panels and pilgrimage accessories. In the building’s Renaissance gallery and on its upper floor, Tostmann and Roth have juxtaposed paintings and sculptures with contemporaneous decorative objects to offer a more holistic portrait of each period.
“This project helped me to understand this collection in a new way,” Tostmann, who began working on the Morgan Memorial Building rehang shortly after joining the Wadsworth in 2013, said last week. “You will not find the Raphael, Reubens, or Botticelli you might expect to find, but you will find many unexpected paintings.”
One particularly inspired use of such unexpected paintings is a second-floor gallery devoted exclusively to objects created in response to the French Revolution. A portrait of an influential French courtesan by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is paired with much larger British and American paintings emphasizing the savagery of the Revolution. Tostmann conceded: “This is a very biased view of the French Revolution, a rather critical view.”
For all its unexpected gems, the Wadsworth’s collection still boasts plenty of stars, and they are out in full force in the refurbished Morgan Memorial Building. On one of the blood-red walls of the early Baroque gallery, for instance, you’ll find works by Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, Artemisia Gentileschi — the recently acquired “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” (ca 1615–18), on view for the first time — and her father Orazio Gentileschi. In the gallery devoted to late 19th-century works, a startling Vincent van Gogh self-portrait from around 1887 hangs between a Paul Cézanne landscape painting and a small, strange portrait of the artist Meyer de Haan by Paul Gauguin, with works by Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec nearby. Just outside that gallery, quietly installed opposite William Holman Hunt’s hypnotic “The Lady of Shalott” (ca.1890–1905), hangs a surprising early Gustav Klimt, “Two Girls with Oleander” (ca. 1890–92). Such figuratively and actually enormous works abound in even the smallest rooms of the Morgan Memorial Building.
For many, however, the renovation’s greatest treat may well turn out to be a big room on the second floor full of tiny objects. The Cabinet of Art and Curiosities gallery has been conceived by Roth and Tostmann as a Wunderkammer for showcasing the Wadsworth’s exceptional holdings of enigmatic artifacts, scientific relics, ornate decorative objects, and artworks about collecting such things — many of them originally from the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan.
Arranged on the walls, in glass display cabinets, atop pedestals, and in drawers, the objects range from a sea turtle shell and exotic coral to fragments of Roman and Egyptian statues and a 17th-century clock topped with a pacing mechanical lion. Four touchscreen displays at the center of the room let visitors amass virtual collections culled from the objects on view, arrange them in a Wunderkammer of their choosing, and then give them a period-appropriate character profile based on their collection.
Ultimately, the renovation’s overarching tone is one of reverence. The curators have played to their collections’ strengths, placing their star artworks and objects alongside unfamiliar — or, to use Tostmann’s word of choice, “quirky” — pieces by familiar artists. At the same time, they have taken risks with inventive decisions like mixing decorative objects with painting and sculpture, the French Revolution room, and the playful Wunderkammer installation. All their risks have paid off. New Yorkers, Bostonians, and art lovers from even further afield: it’s time to make a pilgrimage to the Wadsworth.
The Morgan Memorial Building at the Wadsworth Atheneum (600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut) reopens to the public on Saturday, September 19.