Crocker's Norwich: Art and Industry in the 19th Century

The concept of the “Long 19th Century,” as defined by British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, refers to the period between the years 1789 and 1914 beginning with the French Revolution and ending with the outbreak of World War I. This was a time marked by periods of blind innocence, industrialization, imperialism, and large-scale social change. For Norwich, the city grew into an industrial powerhouse by the end of the 19th century but still retained much of its natural, untampered landscape. Before the arrival of English settlers, the greater-Norwich area was home to several indigenous tribes whose trading was aided by the confluence of three rivers.

The same natural features made it appealing to European settlers who had come predominantly from Massachusetts and became successful farmers, craftsmen and industrialists. By the time John Denison Crocker was born in 1822 the city was prominent and burgeoning. Its industries, including ship building, arms and hardware manufacturing, paper production and textile processing, gave it the second-largest tax base in the state, after New Haven. Early homes in the architecture typical of New England colonials had been built around the Norwichtown Green and along radiating streets; in the Long Nineteenth Century, massive Victorian mansions were built along Washington Street and Broadway, around Chelsea Parade and Little Plains Green.

The stately homes of industrialists and commercial infrastructure in the city’s center and along the harbor, coupled with the remaining agrarian surrounding lands, provided endless subject matter for artists. Wealth brought by industry created opportunities for artists in sign painting, illustration, portraiture and landscape painting. Artists were deeply integrated into the business climate, maintaining studios outside their homes, mostly along Shetucket Street near the harbor, an area known as Chelsea.

This exhibition is intended to open a window into the artists’ work and lives in the Long Nineteenth Century in Norwich and to reflect the integration of art into daily life. John Denison Crocker leads the charge as portrait and landscape painter, mechanical engineer and pharmacist.

Gallery Highlights

A man fishes in a body of water. Beyond the water lies an idyllic town filled with 19th century buildings

 John Denison Crocker, (1822 – 1907)
 Oil on canvas, ca. 1873
 Gift of Laura Subert

This piece is one of the most ambitious and iconic works by John Denison Crocker within the collection of Slater Memorial Museum. The irony though is that Crocker’s title “View of Norwich Harbor” does not accurately describe the vantage point from which the viewer sees the piece. Whereas the Norwich, or Chelsea Harbor, is located just beyond the group of buildings in the background, this view is taken roughly from the Shetucket River side of Norwich looking southwest, approximately near the Laurel Hill Bridge connecting both sides of the river. The lone fisherman in the foreground provides scale and warmth to the scene, a time where Norwich grew rapidly into an industrialized city.

A vast green landscape populated by a small town. A painter sits in the foreground, two young girls speak with him.

 John Denison Crocker, (1822 – 1907)
 Oil on canvas, n.d.

Located on the Northern edge of Norwich is the village of Yantic. The site of the iconic mill depicted in the scene has been the setting of many buildings and industries including a sawmill, gristmill, carding machine, and cotton factory. In 1824, former sea captain Erastus Williams purchased the property from a Scottish businessman and began producing woolen goods; his son E. Winslow Williams took control of the mill in 1865. That year a fire destroyed the existing mill structure and it was rebuilt as the Yantic Woolen Company. The mill remained in the Williams family until 1918 when it was sold to a New York firm.

“The…mill of the Yantic Woolen Company is 170 feet by 54 feet, five stories high…About 175 horsepower is furnished by a fall of 12 feet in the Yantic River…The dam is about half a mile above the mill, and the water is led to the wheels through a natural cleft in the ledge, of great picturesqueness…Ten sets of cards and 88 broad looms are used in making about 2,250,000 yards of flannel and dressgoods annually. The goods are sold…through Boston and New York houses. The mills give employment to some 150 hands…”

(Genealogical and Biographical Record of New London County, Connecticut, J.H. Beers & Co., 1905)

Portrait of an older middle aged man in 19th century dress. He does not meet the gaze of the viewer and the work appears red.

Alexander Hamilton Emmons, (1814 – 1884)
 Oil on canvas, 1875

Born in 1816 in East Haddam, Alexander Hamilton Emmons lived in Norwich for the majority of his life earning a reputation as Norwich’s premier portrait painter. He painted Mayors, doctors, and industrialists (and their families) at a time when Norwich had reached the zenith of its manufacturing prowess. Artistic in school, Emmons had found employment as a house painter and in 1843 he drafted an image of another house painter of which he turned into miniature portraits. Emmons is considered Norwich’s first “official” portrait painter in Norwich, joined later by John Denison Crocker.

Norwich banker Charles Johnson invited Emmons to the city to paint the portraits of many notable citizens and work within a dedicated studio space built in the Norwich Savings Bank overlooking the Chelsea Harbor. Johnson commissioned Emmons to paint these portraits for the grand opening of Norwich’s Otis Library in 1850. Historian Frances Caulkins notes in her book History of Norwich the opening of the library:

“The spare walls of the library are covered with about 30 portraits of citizens who were contemporary with Mr. Otis. These were painted by Alexander H. Emmons for Charles Johnson, Esq., President of the Norwich Bank, who, in ordering the work, had two motives in view, one to preserve the likeness of men honored and respected in the community, and the other to furnish subjects for an artist whom he wished to encourage. Mr. Emmons is a self-taught portrait-painter, who has exercised his profession for more than forty years in Norwich, and has found constant employment.”

These portraits were later donated to the Slater Memorial Museum where they are preserved today along with many more that have been donated by descendants of the sitters. He spent a brief period in Europe and painted regularly in the Hudson River School aesthetic.

two young boys are seated together near outdoor column. Behind them are green trees and in the distance are town buildings.

Alexander Hamilton Emmons, (1816 – 1884)
 Oil on canvas, n.d.
 Gift of Mrs. Henry Bill Selden

Captain Ephraim Bill and his wife Lydia Huntington were well-known in Norwich during the eighteenth century. Lydia’s family owned large sections of present-day downtown Norwich known as Chelsea Harbor, then referred to as “The Landing.” In order to prevent a possible British invasion of Norwich during the American Revolution, Ephraim Bill constructed a battery within the harbor and also built Hayden's Ship Yard on the Connecticut River in 1776. These young boys, Henry and John Bill are Ephraim Bill’s great-grandchildren. Their father Henry helped construct Norwich’s Laurel Hill Bridge. The background of these portraits shows Norwich’s downtown, an appropriate setting given the family’s history. Trinity Episcopal Church and Broadway Congregational Church are seen along with the Court House, now the location of City Hall.
View of a man rowing a boat in a mill pond surrounded by green trees.

 John Denison Crocker, (1822 – 1907)
 Oil on canvas, n.d.
 Friends of Slater Museum Purchase

One of the recurring themes we see in the works of John Denison Crocker is the transition of Norwich from an agrarian to an industrialized society. It is quite possible that during this time, Crocker would have seen works from fellow New England painter, Winslow Homer, who also repeated these themes throughout his paintings. It isn’t known for sure, but it’s possible that Crocker had seen the works of his fellow New Englander, Winslow Homer. Artists such as Homer and Crocker juxtaposed these industrial symbols such as mils and dams surrounded by the natural landscape representing the mindsets of the past, and the impending growth of industry after the Civil War.

Fall landscape depicting a river, trees, and 19th century homes

John Denison Crocker, (1822 – 1907)
 Oil on canvas, 1853
 Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Philip A. Johnson

This scene places the viewer in the vicinity of Asylum Hill looking east across the Yantic River towards Norwich’s Washington Street. At the center of the landscape is the Pinehurst mansion (154 Washington Street). The scale of the landscape is further exemplified with the family and children, idyllically placed in the foreground surrounded by the bright red and yellow colors of the tree leaves signaling the seasonal changes of autumn.

Portrait of a woman with a blue dress and gold jewelry

 John Denison Crocker, (1822 – 1907)
 Oil on canvas, circa 1876
 Estate of (Mrs. Hubert L.) Celeste Beckwith Williams

Though his landscapes are some of his most iconic pieces, John Denison Crocker devoted a considerable amount of time perfecting his portraiture. The examples within the collection of Slater Memorial Museum show Crocker’s acute attention to detail in which he captures near-photorealistic features as he documents members of his own family, to founders and leaders of Norwich Free Academy. It is likely that Crocker used photographs used photographs as an aid to refresh his memory of a person’s likeness and to present an accurate representation of clothing and accessories. His portrait of Celeste Lydia Kenyon Beckwith (c.1876) depicts brooches, lace, earrings, rings, a buckled watch strap, and a gold watch-tie with photographic accuracy.

Four girls of varying ages pose together in an indoor setting.

 Alexander Hamilton Emmons   (1816 – 1884)
 Oil on canvas, circa 1850

Pictured here are four siblings, the daughters of one of NFA’s original corporators, Henry B. Norton. The painting tells us much about the girls and the family; they are clearly beneficiaries of wealth, comfort, love, and privilege. They confidently look straight into the eyes of the viewer, surrounded by subtle visual cues including their attire and accessories. The frame and sheer size of the canvas show us that their parents placed an enormous amount of value on having a good portrait done of the girls. The girls are on the precipice of adulthood, but still retain the innocence of childhood.

Marble bust of an older middle aged man

Henry Dexter (1806 – 1878)
 Marble, 1860
 Gift of the Buckingham Memorial

William Buckingham is known as Connecticut’s “Civil War Governor” having served in the position for the duration of the conflict. Born in 1804 in Lebanon, Connecticut, Buckingham previously was Mayor of Norwich during the 1850s before being elected Governor of Connecticut, serving eight terms until 1866; in 1869 he was elected to the United States Senate. Buckingham was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most ardent allies during the Civil War. He strongly advocated for the Union and was among the first governors to raise volunteer regiments to fight once the war began. He also provided invaluable amounts of provisions to supply the Union Army. His home still stands on Main Street in Norwich’s downtown, now the headquarters of the United War Veterans Grand Army of the Republic.

Sculptor Henry Dexter completed this bust in addition to over thirty others representing America’s governors during the years 1859 and 1860. Dexter traveled over 10,000 miles across America spending approximately one week sculpting each likeness.

Marble bust of a middle aged man with a mustache

 Chauncey Bradley Ives, (1810-1894)
 Gift of Virginia Adams Filardi

Sculptor Chauncey Bradley Ives captured the likenesses of many Americans who traveled on worldwide Grand Tours. He received numerous commissions during the late 1860s, the first of which came from Washington College, now present-day Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut for a statue of its first President, bishop Thomas Church Brownell. A few years later, The State of Connecticut commissioned Ives to sculpt a statue of Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784; the statue currently resides in Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol building.

Ives’ neoclassical bust depicts businessman John Hunt Adams who owned a cork cutting factory in the Falls Mills complex built by Norwich’s Charles Converse. Incidentally, John Denison Crocker’s two brothers received a patent for the first cork-cutting machine that was later revised and improved upon by Crocker himself.