West Rock Rocks

Collection of the New Haven MuseumNew Haven has an equivalent of Niagara Falls and the Eiffel Tower, a spot where dinosaurs trod and earth meets an intimation of paradise, and where the first defiant political “shot” of the American Revolution was fired.

Don’t snicker. It’s West Rock.

Allan Appel PhotoHow that love song to the city’s iconic West Rock emerged in pictures and New Haveners’ imagination was the subject of standing-room-only lecture at the New Haven Museum as part of the institution’s 150th birthday celebration Thursday night.

Appropriately enough about 150 people crammed the second-floor auditorium to hear Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, deliver a lecture that in effect time-traveled them back to how 19th-Century New Haveners would have experienced West Rock.

That would be a lot different from today.

Collection of the New Haven MuseumIn an era when fossil-hunting was all the rage, Hyland said, West Rock would have been appreciated as “by far the most significant geological formation in Connecticut,” rising from the earth’s surface in the early Jurassic period, and cooling enough to make a nice habitat for dinosaurs.

“It looks a bit like Gibraltar,” Hyland said.

The first ever historical compendium with engravings produced in the United States, published in 1836, included a composition (pictured) by John Warner Barber, with the subtitle “a natural icon.”

Hyland said that it was significant the publisher was known for producing religious works.

How The Revolution Began
Using these and other images Hyland showed how West Rock changed over the years in artists’ pictorial imagination, gathering neat little factories, surrounded by bucolic fields, inhabited by sturdy farmers and even an occasional peaceful Indian, yet always remaining a potent symbol.

The culmination comes in the image of West Rock created by Frederick Edwin Church. His detailed renderings of leaves and clouds were done in an era when science and art served each other.

And there was something else Church profoundly needed to convey, said Hyland: a deep religious or spiritual feeling.

That included a civic component. He referenced the famous story about Judges’ Cave at the top of the rock. Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport and local Puritans sheltered the regicides William Goffe, Edward Whalley, and John Dixwell, feeding them and protecting them from both animals and the agents of a restored Charles II.

Hyland said that the community-wide gesture by New Haven Puritans to harbor the regicides would have been understood by the contemporaries of John Barber, G. H. Durrie, and Church as the first step in opposition to the king in the long march that culminated in the American Revolution.

He said his research indicated that at some point the words “Opposition to tyrants is obedience to God” had been inscribed on Judges’ Cave.

Hyland bemoaned that the significance or even the simple knowledge about the meaning of Judges’ Cave is not carrying on through the generations.

“What was known to school children in 1849—this little step towards freedom, what West Rock ‘says’—is known to few today, even New Haveners,” he said.

Yet he said it all comes together in the elegiac images through which West Rock is imagined. “My thesis [that the paintings capture]: the yearning to create a place where God and man would create paradise.”

Hyland’s lecture was part of the ongoing 150th anniversary program of the museum that began in November with a big party and the unveiling of the Schierholz painting. The museum had been longing for that painting, according to Michael Sulzbach, a board member and the chairman of the 150th anniversary committee.

Primary Sources And A Fixed Driveway
“It’s all about “showing [the museum] off to people who had forgotten us,” he said.

That’s changing. Tockashrewsky reported membership rising. Education Director Michelle Cheng said that more and more kids from the Greater New Haven Area are coming in with their classes to utilize the museum’s extensive archival materials to fulfill requirements of the new national common core standards that emphasize dealing with primary source material.

The museum has plenty of that. Cheng said visiting kids can read, for example, a newspaper article about the Amistad trial and from it understand how local New Haveners understood that event, not from only the perspective of 2013.

The newly energized museum is featuring an exhibition on the evolution of the Green. It runs through the spring, to be followed by a show about the history and development of Wooster Square.

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posted by: anonymous on March 5, 2013  12:47pm

New Haven is still a pretty place, but it used to be far more picturesque.

Events like these make you realize how unfortunate it is that the DeStefano administration recently widened Whalley Avenue, over the objections of hundreds of residents, into a death trap of speeding vehicles with limited pedestrian access. 

Their decision makes it significantly less likely that future generations will be able to enjoy this geological feature.

The only way to correct these mistakes is to find smart city leadership that will take action on fixing our environment, not just pay lip service to it.

posted by: Wildwest on March 5, 2013  3:52pm

I dont think those pictures are extremely picturesque besides the small town feel of them. You may notice in these pics that almost all the trees are gone in the whole city, I guess that would make the views better…

posted by: Rep. Pat Dillon on March 5, 2013  10:35pm

Thanks for the coverage! Great images.
The George Henry Durrie at the top is interesting because it’s not typical of his work, which later tended more to genre and his signature use of snow. Here, he was still working on his drawing.
The majestic Frederick Church alone is worth the trip to New Britain.
Inspired to use images of West Rock. It is so easy to take our local beauty for granted.