On the Trail of a Streetscape Mystery

Sometimes historical research looks more like detective work, and naming the artist of an unsigned work of art is the historian’s version of a whodunit. When the mystery of an unsigned streetscape in the school’s collection came across my desk, it took a patchwork quilt-like group of sources to crack the case.

The painting, first published in the Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin in 1959, was attributed to 19th-century artist Osbert Loomis by school historian Lloyd “Lou” Fowles. Lou left no trace of how he arrived at connecting one of The Loomis School’s Founders with the painting. This wasn’t exactly a cold case, but it wasn’t a closed case either. Time to reopen the files.

During my investigation (which lasted for more than a decade), the streetscape was a scene I returned to many times. I recently settled in for an hour of observation — with a magnifying glass in hand — and new clues emerged. The riderless horse appears at the midpoint of the street’s length, possibly the artist’s way of focusing our attention on this figure. Windows on the brick house’s first floor are shuttered closed. Another clue? The yellow house, painted in soft colors, is represented by crude brush strokes so unlike the almost photographic-like precision used to depict the other buildings. And the small male figure wearing a long coat and top hat lurking near the store? I’d seen him before.

A visiting curator saw this and another painting in the school’s collection and remarked on the connection between the visual qualities of the yellow house and the depiction — in the other painting — of the view through a window placed behind an African American woman sitting at a spinning wheel. Same colors, same striking contrast with the rest of the painting. A long-forgotten early daguerreotype in the Archives revealed an image of a woman wearing virtually the same clothing and facial expression as the figure in the portrait. Could all three be connected?

The yellow house, according a 1906 newspaper article, was Col. James and Abigail Loomis’ home, which they shared with their children, the Founders, from 1805 to 1823. The brick house still stands on Windsor’s Broad Street. The Loomis family moved here in 1823, and both parents spent the remainder of their years there.

An online search yielded more clues: early 19th-century newspaper ads for Col. Loomis’ store in Windsor; Osbert Loomis’ 1881 submission to his Yale class of 1835 anniversary book telling of his painting career in Havana, Cuba, and of his being called back to America in 1862 in part because of his father’s death; the 1860 Havana business directory listing O.B. Loomis as a photographer, possibly one of the city’s daguerreotypists.

A letter kept in the school’s Archives, written by Osbert in 1862 to his brother, describes that summer, which Osbert spent in Windsor looking after his nephew, Jimmy. And the man with the coat and hat? He was in the Archives too, sketched in ink alongside a drawing of the obelisk monument that marks the Loomis family plot in Windsor’s Palisado Cemetery. The work of Osbert, I suspected.

The clincher came in the form of a small sepia-toned print of Grace Church and its neighboring parish house on Broad Street, not far from the Loomis’ brick house. It shares a remarkably similar composition with the streetscape. And aHartford Courant article reported that the artist gave the original painting (from which the print was made) to Grace Church’s the Rev. Tuttle in December 1865. The artist: none other than Osbert Loomis.

The evidence put Osbert at the scene — Broad Street in Windsor — with paintbrush in hand around the same time he returned from Cuba and shortly after his father’s death. The riderless horse, a symbol of a fallen soldier, and the shuttered windows, consistent with 19th century mourning rituals, take on new meanings with Osbert positively identified as the artist.

The streetscape may narrate the family’s material successes, and it may memorialize the life of Col. Loomis. It is a family story that Lou Fowles had a hunch about. He was right, and now the trail of evidence is in hand.

Case closed.