The Currier: A Big Museum in a Small New Hampshire Town

January 12, 2016
Eric Anderson, MD

Manchester, NH may be known mostly for the state's first-in-the-nation primary every presidential election cycle. But the city also boasts a formidable museum.

Immigrants who come to the United States soon realize it’s a wealthy country; indeed for many that’s the reason they’ve come. America shows its wealth, and one would have to say its inequalities, in many obvious ways, a classic being how sometimes you find a magnificent museum unexpectedly where you didn’t think you would find one, either because the town was too small to be that significant in appreciating art, or the area too economically depressed to afford a museum. And sometimes some places surprise with a museum because a community somehow created an opportunity for an ambitious entrepreneur to become wealthy and he or she decided (in what is a very American way) to pay it forward and repay the community.

And so if I walk through the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA, for example, or the Kimbell Museum in Dallas, as a tourist I may wonder what brought those jewels to their special places. However, when I return to the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH I don’t wonder. I know the story — and it’s one that is American enough to make anyone proud of what happened here in 1929 when Moody Currier and his wife Hannah formalized their dream to build a museum for what was then a small New England mill town on the Merrimack River.

Top image Kimbell, Dallas; bottom image Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, CA.

Currier’s story is worth telling. He was born in1806, educated at a local academy then graduated from Dartmouth College in 1834. He, himself, became an educator, then a lawyer and an editor. He entered the field of banking and helped co-found the Amoskeag Bank. He was actually active in banking till he retired at the age of 86. He was also an amateur poet but one who entered politics! He became governor of New Hampshire in 1884, 14 years before he died.

His story is indeed worth telling because when he was born it was well known to the persnickety locals that his father had never married his mother. How those flinty Yankees in the first decade of the 19th century must have noised this scandalous fact — and how despite those beginnings he was able overcome them.

He outlived his first two wives, marrying his third wife, Hannah, in 1869. He died in 1898 and Hannah Currier in 1915. She steered the estate through the early plans to create a museum and additionally made provision for it in her own will. The couple had no heirs. “The trustees of the will were given few instructions other than the museum be administered as a public trust with the appointed trustees performing their duties without pay.” There were complicated decisions: a Boston architect was chosen for the project in 1920 but released from the contract in 1922 presumably because the design was looking more like “the domain of a private collector and not a public institution.” A month later another Boston architect was invited to present his concept and in 1924 his design was accepted. It was, however, rejected nine months later. Finally, in 1926 the New York architectural firm of Tilton and Githens was given the project and two trustees were appointed to travel across the United States visiting museums to see what would fit well with Manchester, NH, which in the earlier century was “one of New England’s most prosperous cities.” Accordingly the Currier mansion was demolished to make room for the new museum, a Beaux-Arts interpretation of an Italian Renaissance palazzo.

It’s a typical New England overcast November 2015 morning as visitors walk over to the Currier entrance this morning past Origins, Mark di Suvero’s 36 foot-tall Alexander Calder-like geometric stabile-mobile. Deep within, beyond gorgeous exhibits of glass paperweights, one from the Scottish Strathearn glass foundry in my home town Crieff, Perthshire lies an extensive (now closing) exhibition of the work of Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), a Pennsylvania-born artist who dominated magazine cover high-quality color lithography from the time he illustrated his first Harper’s Bazaar in 1895 to his death in Cornish, NH in 1966. He moved to New Hampshire in1898. His magazine covers were reprinted as art prints sometimes for as little as ten cents. Says biographer Kirstin Swan, his trademark became “Very real-looking characters situated within imagined environments.” Studies of art statistics show that by the mid-1930s Parish was the third most reproduced artist in the world behind Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.”

Inside, the Currier jumps right in with a demonstration of what European public art displays were like in the 1700s and 1800s. The standards were rather stiffly set by Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. Before the Salon was used for those groupings churches, royal palaces, and private residences were utilized.

This winning design for Ladies Home Journal’s 250th issue cover contest in 1904 was won by Maxfield Parrish and was then offered to readers as an art print for 10 cents! Parrish is in good company: the Currier has its share of Constables, Monets, John Singer Sargents, and Edward Hoppers.

Four artists: clockwise top left Constable 1820. Deadham Lock & Mill. Edward Hopper 1925 The Bootleggers. Monet. 1869. The Seine at Bougival. Thomas Hart Benton 1835. Mormons.

It would not be a surprise to find a New England art museum featuring furniture: a painted chest from 1729 by Robert Crossman contrasting with a modern bench True Love Blue 2000 by Jon Brooks

The cupboard was made for the Chester Inn in 1761 but the building was later destroyed by fire in 1947. The four Roswell Gleason communion chalices date to 1850. The bottom shelf plates and dishes range from Edward Danforth deep dish 1790 to William Calder chalices 1840-50.

John Rogers 1878-79 The Photograph Bronze. Rogers was a machinist in the local mills before studying sculpture in Europe and New York City. His portrayals of family life in 1800s America were popular and he sold more than 80,000 plaster copies. Bronze was rare.

The contemporary writing desk and chair 2003 is one of my favorite exhibits in the Currier: it is so clean cut and crisp. Terry Moore was born in Wales in 1952 and now lives in New Hampshire. He is a founding member of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association and is actively involved in training inmates in woodworking at the State Prison. The oil painting above the desk is a self-portrait by Nashua artist James Aponovich of 1887-88.

It’s not seldom clear to visitors how a museum’s collection comes about but when a museum reflects the interests of the community it’s very satisfying. So I smile when I discover a powder horn from 1759 and some gorgeous 20- year-old silver; a Stephen Hardy 1800 sugar bowl and a pair of Joseph Foster Covered Standing Cups about 1790 and a tankard of the same era by the same silversmith.

Henri Matisse’s bronze Seated Nude 1922-25 is the largest and probably the most important of all the artist’s sculptures. The oil painting in the background, The Wounded Clown (1939) by Georges Rouault shows how he used clowns as a metaphor for humanity’s suffering that we are all like circus clowns, each wearing a public mask that hides our true nature. I hope he got that wrong! Matisse was a fellow artist in his group so maybe Rouault will feel better being close at hand. Andrew Wyeth’s Spindrift (1950) was done in tempera, not oil, so the colors are subdued and Wyeth’s neighbor’s boat looks its age. It also looks to some viewers as if, though stationary, it is actually moving.

It would appear the artist Gilbert Stuart is better known than the good family doctor of Warwick; I could not find much about Dr. Landor. Stuart was “Federal period America’s most famous portrait painter.” He was born in Rhode Island but traveled to England to “polish his style” and studied painting in London in 1775 under Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy. He painted George Washington many times one of which was used on the American dollar bill. He came back to America from Britain, famous, having painted almost one thousand portraits in England including the doctor of Warwick village, Dr. Walter Landor.

The American artist John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy in 1856 and died in London in 1925. He painted Grace Elvina, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston, the last work he completed before he died. “The portrait,” says a placard at the museum “shows Sargent’s confident, dashing brushstrokes detailing fabrics and his uncanny ability to capture the aloof elegance of his aristocratic sitter…” However, as a former Brit, I am sure Sargent would have plenty of practice in dealing with aloof and superior expressions of his sitters! It’s easier to recognize Pablo Picasso’s Woman Seated in a Chair (1941) beside the Singer Sargent because the chair can be recognized. Marisol Escobar was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents in 1930 and now lives and works in New York City. Her tongue in cheek “focus on contemporary culture connects her to other pop artists who sought to capture the materialism of postwar America.” Here, The Family, (1963) was selected by Time for the cover of its Dec. 28, 1970 issue and the lead article on the crisis in the American family.

If there was indeed a crisis in the American family that really would bother this little community of austere New Englanders whose state motto is “Live Free or Die.” They are bothered by frivolity and bad manners. They found it hard to believe the newspaper headlines when, over the years, the governors of Virginia, Rhode Island, Louisiana, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Illinois (twice) were all sent to prison. The people of New Hampshire didn’t know how to react. “Our governor?” they said. “He gave us a museum!”

Photography by the author .

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.