Weir Farm: A Picture-Perfect Park

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Among national parks, Weir Farm National Historic Site is a small one, tiny when compared with a Yellowstone or an Acadia. Indeed, it is easily overlooked, though it shouldn't be.

Weir Farm may be little, but for what it is, a one-of-a-kind look at a landscape that inspired scores of paintings, it has many charms.

If Yellowstone is revered for its rugged, massive scale and a sense of wildness reigned by wild animals, Weir Farm is appreciated for its intimacy and a long human compatibility with the land, most notably the impressionist artists who drew inspiration from its pastoral peacefulness.

Don't bring your motor home to Weir Farm, as people by the thousands do at Yellowstone. There is no place to park it here. The parking lot holds but 15 cars.

Still, Weir Farm, which straddles the Wilton-Ridgefield line and is Connecticut's only national park, is spacious in its own New England farmstead way.

The park covers about 60 acres of the old Weir farm, with an adjoining 110 acres of forested, once-agricultural land owned by the Nature Conservancy. Woods, fields, hills, brooks, a pond -- it is classic Connecticut countryside.

It was here that J. Alden Weir, a successful New York portrait artist of the late 19th century, was finally smitten by the impressionist bug, after he had all but dismissed the style during a visit to France.

``It was here that he began to focus on landscape painting quite extensively,'' says Clifford J. Laube, a ranger at the site. ``This is where Weir, who was trained as a very formal portrait painter, sort of gets the impact of the sense of place and really starts to convert to a more open, impressionistic quality of painting.''

Weir Farm is open year-round, but a springtime visit can be special when the trees are flowering and the grass is greening, as they are now. The landscape that inspired some of the great painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is awash in pastels. Bluebirds are abundant; gardens are coming to life; wildflowers bloom.

Spend an afternoon drawing or painting, or walking, or both. Weir produced some of his most famous paintings here, often gathering his paints and brushes and painting en plein air -- out-of-doors. There's a good chance you'll come upon latter-day artists, brush in hand, doing the same. Sometimes a whole class with a teacher will paint together.

On a recent visit, I ran into Catherine Doocy of Windsor, an accomplished artist who has exhibited her work extensively in the Northeast and is artist-in-residence at Weir Farm. Ordinarily, she prefers to paint from memory in the studio, but on this day she was set up in an open field, painting en plein air, from life.

``All these greats stood right out in these same fields and painted years ago,'' she says. ``It kind of gives me goose bumps.''

So many visitors get the itch to draw or paint that the park service keeps sketchbooks and pencils on hand for them to borrow. Just sign for one at the visitor's center.

Weir was well connected in the art world, and other artists like John Twachtman, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Childe Hassam -- highly regarded to this day -- often visited. Ryder painted ``Weir's Orchard,'' here, and Hassam's ``Road to the Land of Nod,'' a bright work that evokes spring in greens and blues (and is owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) was done here. Weir and Twachtman sometimes spent days painting together at Weir Farm.

Weir's paintings now hang in many of the finest museums in the United States, and are strongly represented in collections of Connecticut museums, including the Atheneum, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme and the New Britain Museum of American Art.

``He is one of those artists who puts you at ease with nature,'' says Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain museum. ``It is an intimate experience going on. You wish you were there. It transforms your interest in the landscape, which can be abstract, into a visceral experience. You long to be in that field. You wish you could experience that stream.''

At Weir Farm, you can, and that is the point of the park. Weir Farm is about place, and offers visitors an opportunity to see firsthand a landscape that inspired so much creativity.

Begin at the visitor's center and buy a copy of the Weir Farm Historic Painting Sites brochure for $2. You then can walk the grounds, visiting the vantage points from which Weir and other artists painted a century ago.

Bring binoculars if you care to; the blue of the bluebirds is unforgettable if you haven't seen it, so brilliant it must have stunned the impressionists, who loved the interplay of color and light. One can imagine Weir and friends spending an evening discussing how best to replicate that blue.

Weir loved the outdoors, and often fished. With $2,500 prize money he received from the Boston Art Club as first place for his painting ``The Truants,'' he had a pond dug on the property. It's an easy 1-mile walk to the pond, around it and back. Weir had the pond stocked with bass -- it still has bass -- and you can fish if you want. State regulations apply.

One of the park's distinctions is its long association with art. Weir lived and painted here from 1882 to 1919, when he died. Following Weir, one of his daughters, Dorothy, and her husband, Mahonri Young, lived on the property. Young was a sculptor of distinction, and his studio, built next to Weir's, remains.

In 1957, when Young died, Sperry and Doris Andrews, both artists, bought the property. They still live in the main house, which is not open to the public.

Try to time your visit to coincide with the guided tours Wednesday through Sunday. They include the studios, which are filled with finished and unfinished works, including some by Weir, and countless artifacts that Weir and successors left. The Weir Farm Trust, a private group, also offers many programs at the park, including sponsoring visiting artists.

Make a morning or an afternoon of the visit, and include a hike through the adjoining Nature Conservancy property. There is an old, robust stand of mountain laurel along the white and yellow-white blazed trails off Nod Hill Road, some of the shrubs towering 6 feet over your head. The flowers in June should be spectacular.

• • •

Weir Farm National Historic Site, Ridgefield and Wilton.

Directions: From Route 7 south in Ridgefield, take a right on Route 102, then the second left onto Old Branchville Road. Turn left at first stop sign onto Nod Hill Road. Follow Nod Hill 3/4 mile to the top of the hill. The Visitor Center is at 735 Nod Hill Road.

Ownership: National Park Service. Adjoining land owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Size: 60 acres. Conservancy land is 110 acres.

Ambience: An old farm with farmhouses, fields, a pond and woods. Two studios with artifacts of three generations of artists.

Fees: None

Activities: An opportunity to view the very landscape that has inspired a long series of artists since the late 19th century, including J. Alden Weir, the impressionist painter. Hiking on Weir Farm and adjoining Nature Conservancy land. Nature study. Fishing. Picnicking on the grounds is allowed, but there are no picnic tables.

Facilities: Visitor Center, with books and materials for sale. Restroom facilities limited to portable toilets. Small parking lot for cars, but no room for RVs or buses.

Handicapped access: Minimal, but improvements are incorporated into park projects where possible. Some portable ramps available.

Programs: Special programs are held throughout the year. Guided tour of studios held Wednesday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m., and at 1 and 3 p.m. on Sunday. A stone wall tour is held at 11 a.m. on Sundays.

Miscellaneous: Pets on leash only. No pets on the conservancy property. Bring a sketch pad if you like to draw.

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