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WCMA Blog

Art of the Month Club: Steve Satullo

The Williams College Museum of Art is excited to introduce a new regular feature to our blog, the Art of the Month Club. Each month we invite someone special to write about a work from our collection. We look forward to engaging with a variety of people through this new feature. Find your own favorite WCMA artwork by searching our collection database. You never know, we may invite you to be the next Art of the Month Club member. Today, please welcome, Steve Satullo (Williams ’69) buys books and programs films at the Clark and elsewhere, as well as writing and editing for various clients.  He writes two blogs of his own, Cinema Salon and Eph’s Libraries.

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Among the many things that art can do, one of the most persistent is to provide a portal through time.  Thus an art museum is a time machine, or a collection of them, and within the confines of WCMA, the most transporting art object for me is a piece of architecture, the original Lawrence Hall rotunda.

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Before one experiences the vaulted room as a door through time, one feels it as a large empty space, almost a fulfillment of contemporary conceptualism – a presence that is absence, a void that is full.  Only after feeling the weight of elevated space, does one begin to apprehend the antique detail, the classical aspiration of the design, the attempt to revive Greece in the Berkshire hills, to bring culture to the far reaches of the young Republic in which the building was erected.

There is the functionless function it serves today, and then there is the function for which it was built.  What amazes is how the form achieves both, how it elegantly describes an impressive empty space, and yet was intended to be stuffed to the brim with books.

For a history of libraries at Williams, I had occasion to look into the history of Lawrence Hall, so it’s a treat for me, as a former librarian and longtime bookseller, to stand under the dome of the rotunda, circling around and populating the entire space with imaginary books.  I visualize the bookshelves that radiate from the center, from pillar to corner of the octagon; the intended gallery level in which books would rise up the walls to the heaven of the dome, everything in sight of the all-seeing Librarian.  A panopticon, indeed.

Before I get too far gone in Borgesian reverie, let the designer (Charles C. Jewett, who would go on to become Librarian of Congress) describe his own library:  “It is lighted from the sides and the top; is cheerful, airy, and elegant.  In the center is a circular colonnade of eight Ionic pillars, from which springs a dome, surmounted by a lantern.  The cases for the books are to be placed against the wall, and radiating from the columns to the corners of the octagon, thus dividing the room into eight alcoves and a circular area in the center.  One of the alcoves contains a circular staircase.”

To fit in the alcove, the staircase assumed a more ovoid shape, and still provides a lovely gracenote to the room, though no longer in use.  Once it led directly to the main entrance, and I can imagine the effect on 19th-century students, of coming round those curves and emerging into the book-lined vault that leapt over their heads.  I see it as an eminently aspirational space, the first real architecture on the Williams campus.  As graceful and distinguished as West College and Griffin Hall may be, they came straight out of a pattern book.

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To whom did Williams College owe this major step on the road to distinction?  Walk into a nearby gallery and you can see a portrait of Amos Lawrence, for whom the building is named.  Ignore the Grand Manner affectations of the portrait, and look directly at the face of the subject, and you will get a sense of the pious, earnest man who, having made his millions in manufacturing (the city of Lawrence is named for his family), devoted himself to widespread philanthropy.

Chester Harding, (American, 1792-1866), Portrait of Amos Lawrence, Benefactor, 1846, oil on canvas, Commissioned by the Trustees of Williams College, 1846.1._x450

Chester Harding, (American, 1792-1866), Portrait of Amos Lawrence, Benefactor, 1846, oil on canvas, Commissioned by the Trustees of Williams College,

Having heard Williams President Mark Hopkins lecture in his conservative, orthodox Christian manner in the convulsive 1840s (Emerson way too radical to be welcome on this campus), Lawrence expressed his appreciation by making a series of benefactions to the college he never visited till late in life.  So it is to piety, and an active sense of the stewardship of wealth, that the College owes the elegant and still inspirational space of the Lawrence Hall rotunda, which ties the classical past to the College’s bucolic history and dynamic present.  Enter the time machine and see for yourself.

 

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