Pietro Annigoni at Wethersfield
- Barbara Pierce
The following remarks have been adapted from a speech given by Barbara Pierce at a 2019 luncheon at Wethersfield, to which representatives of the Italian government were invited to see the frescoes painted by Pietro Annigoni. Barbara Pierce, a longtime area resident, is a trustee of Friends of Wethersfield.
The Annigoni frescoes at Wethersfield are the only Annigoni frescoes in the United States. It’s little wonder that these have long been something of a hidden treasure. One Italian biography of Annigoni states that these frescoes are located at the Headquarters of the Stillman Foundation, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, USA – not at Wethersfield Estate in Amenia, New York!
Annigoni was a classicist, a man painting in the high Renaissance tradition -- in a century that brought us Picasso, Jackson Pollack, and Andy Warhol. He was almost an exact contemporary of Chauncey Stillman (1907-1989). He was born in Milan 1910 and moved to Florence when he was 18 to go to art school. He died there 60 years later, in the city that he loved. His students called him maestro, and many of his critics thought it pompous, but it was probably just a nickname given to him by the barista down the street. (Baristi do that in Italy.)
In 1947, along with 7 other painters, he signed a manifesto against modernism. In 1955 he painted a famous portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth, which rocketed him to popularity, especially among the British royals. In the 1960s, Time magazine commissioned him to do several “Man of the Year” portraits, among them JFK and Pope John XXIII. He was a master of portraiture, and if you go to the Annigoni Museum in Florence, you’ll see that his work is repeatedly compared to Rembrandt, Holbein, Dürer, Ghirlandaio, Brueghel, Velasquez, Leonardo -- the best of the greats. His self-portraits, like Rembrandt’s, are especially haunting, and so, by the way, are some drawings that he did of his parents when he was young, and also one of the dying Bernard Berenson.
Annigoni's Portrait of Queen Elizabeth
Annigoni, a nonconformist, often felt that he was swimming upstream, dismissed by many of his contemporaries as out of step with his times. He was especially critical of art critics and dealers, who he felt had never picked up a paintbrush.
Here is a quote from his memoir that sums up his sense of loneliness:
“I saw my creative life as a long, wearying battle of one against too many. Year after year I had worked terribly hard, with sincerity, faith, and, no doubt, some illusions, only to find myself confronted always by a formidably organized opposition united by a common preference for fashionably safe mediocrity. It is a battle that I have not won. But nor, I think, have I lost it, and with that I must be content.….Ave Maria, Gratia Plaena.”
Chauncey Stillman had long wanted Annigoni to paint his teenage daughters, but Annigoni had resisted. Only when he walked into Chauncey’s 5th Ave. apartment and saw the great Pontormo of the Halberdier did he realize that he had met a kindred soul. He felt immediately at home in the apartment because it reminded him of Florence. The Pontormo had been lent to an exhibition in Florence, and it had been on the poster, plastered all over the city. The Pontormo convinced him to paint Elizabeth and Theo, and a portrait of Chauncey followed. And so did a lifelong friendship between the two men.
Pontormo's Portrait of a Halberdier
When Annigoni was here painting the frescoes in the Gloriette in the early 1970s, Charlie and I were asked to have dinner with him. We lived right behind Wethersfield, in what could only be described, generously, as a starter house, and Chauncey had come down the hill, on horseback, followed by his groom, and hand-delivered an invitation. We were 24 and 28 at the time, and didn’t have a clue about what we were about to witness.
The ceiling frescoes celebrate man in nature, and depict classic and mythological scenes, with many Hudson Valley vignettes. By and large, they have been known better locally than they have been to the greater world.
We remember the apprentices on the scaffolding, with the radio blaring, drinking a bottle of Chauncey’s fine wine. Charlie remembers Annigoni’s wife, Rossella, who wore a dress with a plunging neckline, set off with a giant diamond safety pin. He also remembers, uncharacteristically, the menu, which included delicious pureed peas. It was an amazing evening, and we were a witness to history.
When the frescoes were finished, Annigoni writes in his memoir: “What next? Stillman had paid me well for the profane frescoes in his gloriette; now I could concentrate on a sacred fresco, a huge Last Supper that I was going to paint for love alone in the church of a village called Ponte Buggianese.” And so he did. And then he went on to paint the ceiling frescoes in the newly restored Abbey at Monte Cassino.
In 1975, Annigoni was made a Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, and in 2010 a stamp was issued to commemorate the centennial of his birth.
Let me close with one vivid and moving vignette of Annigoni, painting his portrait of Chauncey. (A copy of it hangs in the Library.) Theo tells me that it was painted outside on the loggia. It was October, and the winds were howling. Chauncey was Commodore of the NY Yacht Club, and he wanted to be painted in his full Yacht Club regalia, holding a telescope, but it was freezing cold, so they both wore thickly padded winter clothes, and Chauncey kept his hands in his pockets. Annigoni remarks that the wind was like the tramontana, and that the servants must have thought they were ridiculous. He thought that the two of them looked like creatures out of the theater of the absurd, and he was convinced of it when, on the sixth day, he put his paintbrush into a bowl of water, and it had turned to ice. He describes Chauncey as turning green and transparent, with a pained grin like Voltaire. (Theo says that her father referred to the portrait as “The Dying Commodore.”)
But then, a few days later, the sun came out, and what was left of the foliage was resplendent. Annigoni rejoiced in his diary with a lovely remark that I think summarizes Wethersfield:
“Wethersfield: The first day without wind. What remains of the golden foliage is finally at rest. The temperature is ideal. The light and the clarity of the air are triumphant, and everything seems to say that there is nothing other than beauty in this world, and that there will NEVER be anything other than beauty.”
Chauncey Stillman created this beautiful place with a lot of inspiration from Italy. Annigoni responded to it with all the passion of an artist. Now it is our job to preserve it.
Evviva L’Italia! Evviva Wethersfield!