You’ve probably heard of Yellowstone and Yosemite, but did you know there’s a national park for art? Most people are familiar with the popular scenic parks, but the National Park Service manages more than 400 national park sites dedicated to commemorating history, people, and events. These preserve archeological sites, architectural structures, landscapes and ideas like art.
Weir National Park in Connecticut is the only national park for art dedicated to American Impressionism. It was once the home of beloved American Impressionist J. Alden Weir, and now it’s open to everyone to enjoy while being inspired by walking in the footsteps of world-class artists.
I visited the park during my two-year road trip as a nomad traveling in my van, hiking, seeing historic areas, and staying in short-term rentals.
The Weir Farm National Historic Site includes 71 landscaped acres filled with the Weir home, other houses, barns, and the art studio. Landscaping is adoringly composed of historic flower beds, stone walls, old-growth trees, Weir Pond and well-preserved historical painting sites. It’s easy to see why Weir called this the “Great Good Place.”
It’s the only national park for art where you can explore art showcases and expect to see artists outside painting en plain air.
If Weir Farm sounds familiar, it should. In 2020, the United States Mint created the Weir Farm National Historic Site Quarter as one of the America the Beautiful Quarters. It pictures a painter at an easel on the historic farm.
WHO WAS J. ALDEN WEIR?
Julian Alden Weir was born in 1852 in New York and grew up to follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers, each successful painters. Throughout his travels in Europe and the United States, Weir’s reputation as a landscape painter and leader of the American Impressionists grew.
Weir acquired most of the land for Weir Farm in a business trade, and though he only planned to use it as a summer retreat, he acquired more adjacent land and lived there for most of his life. While living there, he hosted many famous painters and artists like John Singer Sargent and joined with artists Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and others to form “The Ten,” a like-minded artist group who often met at the farm.
He was so revered that in 1915, he was elected President of the National Academy of Design and granted membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and the Board of Directors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weir was also appointed to the National Commission on Fine Arts as a “Painter Member” in 1916 and received honorary degrees from Princeton and Yale.
WEIR FARM GARDENS AND GROUNDS
Today, the Weir Farm National Historical Park preserves the home and landscape as it was when Weir lived there. The classic New England property is on rural land along a series of winding and wooded roads. It’s filled with old moss-covered stone walls, red barns, farmhouses and secret gardens. Lovely open meadows, woodlands and Weir Lake accompany many hiking trails.
Of the 238 acres once owned by Julian Alden Weir, the National Park Service managed 71 and has restored them to their intended glory. Highlights include a Secret Garden with hand-hewn log fencing and an ornate fountain surrounded by heavenly-smelling white flowering bushes. There is also the Sunken Garden with structured hedges and the Terraced Garden made in steps. Each showcase picturesque flowers and plants as intended when they were first conceived.
Through a wooded trail, past an old cemetery crisscrossed by a stone wall, sits Weir Pond and an additional 110 acres of adjacent fields and woodlands. The Weir Preserve includes several hikes among green ferns, wooden bridges old growth Oak, Ash and Maple trees.
During my two visits, I enjoyed walking around the property and taking in the many sights, feeling like I’d gone back in time.
WHAT TO DO AT A NATIONAL PARK FOR ART
Aside from walking around the lovely gardens and grounds, there are many opportunities to enjoy or participate in art.
In the Burlingham House Visitor Center, curators have designed three rooms of artwork and artifacts with information about the family and artists who worked there. There are several displays throughout the park, and if you follow the painting sites guide, you can go from site to site to walk in the footsteps of these artists.
Original art from Weir and other artists are showcased in the Weir House, Weir Studio, and Young Studio. Alongside these displays are details and information about the people who lived and painted on the property, a tradition that continues today.
PARTICIPATING IN ART AT WEIR FARM
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to paint outside or “en plain air,” you’re in luck. The Weir National Historic Park for Art encourages visitors to bring their paint supplies and let the site inspire them. If you arrive during the summer season, the park service will provide free-to-use art supplies from the visitor center.
Painters have been reimagining the beauty of the farm since 1882, and keeping the tradition alive is a park mission. Aside from inviting visitors to paint, the national park for art also hosts a variety of classes and guided tours.
PAINT EN PLAIN AIR
I was lucky to book a live en plain air painting session with the insanely talented Dmitri Wright. The park offers a free class a few times yearly; about a dozen people can attend each session.
It started with a lecture from Dmitri about Impressionism and his perspective on form. He encouraged us to let the environment draw our senses forth and to use touch and smell to create “impressions” from the environment.
“To be an artist is to be in search of what is good, beautiful, and true in life while consenting to one’s natural ability with joy and gratitude in order to share it with others.”
The park provided sketch paper and watercolor in a bag with brushes and pencils. Since I had already scouted the park, I knew I wanted to paint the Secret Garden.
INSPIRATION ABOUNDS IN THE NATIONAL PARK FOR ART
By mid-day, several people with easels and chairs set up around the park, painting the various gardens, buildings and landscapes. Some are very professional, and others, like me, are more amateur. Regardless, artists walked around admiring the work and helping each other with technique and process.
Dmitri walked around offering advice and said I did a good job with my color and that I was painting in the post-impressionist style. It was very bright and bold, not washed out like traditional watercolor. He was overly kind.
Another painter in Dmitri’s class was nearby me. He used oil and painted trees behind a field and a rock outcropping, but he wasn’t getting the desired effect. Dmitri saw more in the painting. He encouraged him to step back several feet to allow the painting to make a different impression. From that vantage, it was clear he had painted a true impression.
We talked after, and he said it was a breakthrough moment for him to step back from his work and see it differently. Everyone left with a different “impression” of impressionist painting.
“For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations.”
IF YOU VISIT WEIR FARM NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The summer is the best time to visit the park for gardens, but check the website before you go. If you’d like to take the Impressionist Painting Workshop from Dimitri but can’t get to the park, he hosts a free five-part virtual impressionist class online.
If you’re interested in art in other national parks, also check out the National Parks Art Foundation. They regularly host paid artist residencies at select national parks with stunning results.
This national park for art is open daily, sunrise to sunset, year-round. Find it at 735 Nod Hill Road, Wilton, CT 06897.