Wandering the fascinating Colt show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the observer is moved to wonder, "What was all the fuss about?"
"Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention," which opened to the public Wednesday, shows off the brilliance of the local industrialist who personified Yankee ingenuity to the rest of the world.
Yet the exhibit, three years in the making, had to be rescued this spring by a generous gift from West Hartford couple Melinda and Paul Sullivan because others objected to underwriting a gun show.
Never underestimate the draw of Samuel Colt. Museum director Willard Holmes says grateful art lovers are telling him, "At last I will be able to get my husband to come with me to the Atheneum."
This is no mere gun show, because Colt was no mere gun-maker.
He was a stunning and much-pirated designer, a visionary entrepreneur, an engineering and public relations genius who pioneered the celebrity endorsement. Hartford was fortunate to be his home.
Tuesday night, some 350 Atheneum trustees and benefactors overflowed the museum's Aetna Theater to hear the show's curator, Herbert G. Houze, talk about the driven creator who made Connecticut the "arsenal of democracy."
Colt clad his many-angled pistols with glittering metals to catch the eye of buyers. "Every miner going to California wanted one," Mr. Houze said.
Colt hired the great but broke artist George Caitlin to paint scenes promoting his rifles. The commission saved the artist's career, and Caitlin's painting of a rider shooting into a buffalo herd became a Western icon.
Colt bought South Meadows land for his new factory and then built a dike around it, ignoring skeptics who predicted it would never hold. It did.
He plied world leaders with gifts of his guns, and they responded with fabulous gifts of their own, including gems and commissions that made him one of the richest men in America.
Hartford is fortunate to have so much of Samuel Colt's personal collection at the Atheneum and the underappreciated Museum of Connecticut History. The city has long felt ambivalence about its famous resident, although others embrace his creations - including museums in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma and Washington state that had no hesitation about displaying the Colt exhibit.
The National Park Service is considering whether to designate Sam Colt's other great creation, his industrial village Coltsville, a National Historic Landmark. The remarkable Atheneum show should lay to rest any doubt about the historic treasure Hartford possesses in its 19th-century Silicon Valley, created by the man who was the Steve Jobs and Jack Welch, combined, of his time.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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