This Album is a six year slice of life along the Connecticut River only 50 years after the American Revolution that reflects contact with America's foremost institutions, America's early 19th c. intellectual activists, educators, abolitionists, free thinkers, and artists - including the deaf painter Augustus Fuller, Catherine E. Beecher, Thomas Gallaudet, religious thinkers and relationships in the personal life of Gratia Denny, an extraordinary individual. Gratia Denny, at the age of 28, set out from Leicester, Massachusetts in 1826 and traveled by stage coach and river boat (there were no trains) with her youngest brother, Edwards W. Denny (also known as Edward), deaf and mute (then 13 years old) to Hartford, Connecticut to enroll him in the groundbreaking American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf established in Hartford in 1817 by Rev. Gallaudet as a radically new school that taught sign language and offered deaf and mute children a complete academic curriculum. She settled in New Haven, Connecticut from 1826 until 1829 on Chapel Street, during which time she began a literary and artistic record of her social and other interactions with individuals living in New Haven, including students and staff at Yale. This was a time of New Haven's cultural and institutional unfolding: the Institute Library was founded, New Haven Hospital was founded and Yale had its largest class to date. Gallaudet's school had achieved a national reputation, and state legislatures, including that of Massachusetts, enacted laws to provide tuition for its residents attending the Asylum for Education of the Deaf. Gratia Denny's Album that begins at this time was ultimately a six-year project that she completed in Brimfield, Massachusetts where she moved in 1829, married Ebenezer Williams and settled for the rest of her life.
The Album's most extraordinary feature is a page consisting of an original folk art watercolor, accompanied by a poem signed with initials and dated 1832 with the title at the head of the page "MT. HOLYOKE". The water color painting presents a broad northwesterly view of the Connecticut River Valley and of the Connecticut River, including the iconic Oxbow, as seen from the Mt. Holyoke Range in Hadley, Massachusetts. This folk art painting captures a summertime scene of Mt. Holyoke with the two original huts at the summit that welcomed thousands of hikers prior to the construction of the Summit House hotel that replaced them. This painting is perhaps the earliest recorded view of the summit of Mt. Holyoke. The painting represents the bends and oxbow of the Connecticut River a full four years before Thomas Cole's iconic painting of the same scene. The folk art painting is accompanied by what is likely an original poem.
This 1832 detailed painting expresses the natural beauty of Mt. Holyoke, the switchback trail to its summit, the mountain top view from Mt. Holyoke Range of the Connecticut River valley looking west and northward and takes in houses, a church, planted fields. The painting includes the northern mountain range and the defining twists and Oxbow of the Connecticut River making this painting possibly the earliest known folk art expression of this iconic American scene. The painting required some time to compose and from its level of detail appears most likely to have been done on site rather than from memory. The poem, with its crossouts and spontaneous style likewise appears to be both original and possibly written on site. The artist composed directly in Gratia's Album and signed the page "Your friend". This art work and poetry were not likely student works, as Mt. Holyoke College (1838) or the earlier Seminary had not yet been founded.
The Album is unique and newly discovered. The Album contains approximately 100 pages of entries by Denny's family members, social acquaintances and others whose lives all intersected for reasons that may only be revealed with further research. The contacts that led to the Album entries were not random. In some instances, a poem is "selected" by the person making the entry, who signs the poem as Gratia Denny's friend or associate. In other instances, the poem, artwork or story is original and penned by its author. For example, a poem "composed by Miss Beacher(sic) after the death of Professor Fisher to whom she was engaged" expressing Catherine Beecher's anguish after the 1822 death at sea of Alexander Fisher, her fiance and Professor of Mathematics at Yale, is selected and copied into the Album by Eliza Denny, Gratia's relative. I have not yet found a published record of Beecher's poem therefore the source is yet unknown. Catherine Beecher was in New Haven in 1822 and then from 1823-1831 in Hartford where she founded the Hartford Female Seminary. These years include the time Gratia Denny and Edwards Denny's lived in New Haven and Hartford.
Gratia Denny's Album is signed by the life long folk artist Augustus Fuller (1812-1873), deaf and mute from birth, who with his older brother attended Gallaudet's Hartford Asylum for the Education of the Deaf from 1824-1828. Augustus Fuller was a classmate of Gratia's brother Edward at Gallaudet's Asylum and they remained in touch many years after graduating. Fuller writes a poem in Denny's Album in 1831 and signs his name " 'A Deaf and Dumb Artist' , Brimfield, 1831", having by this time become an established artist. Augustus Fuller painted two sets of portraits of Edward Denny and Elizabeth D. Stone, Edward's wife. Gratia's Album is signed by her own brother as "Edward W. Denny, A deaf and Dumb pupil of Hartford Asylum" and on two pages he tells a boyish story of a clergyman who casts his son out of the house in punishment on Christmas. The son uses stealth to enter the kitchen, where he skillfully removes chicken meat from the cooling Christmas pie, and replaces the chicken with handfuls of grass! The son watches his father serve the Christmas pie to the gathered family only to discover the grass. The narrator then describes the moment that the father discovered a little piece of paper in the pie that said "all flesh is grass". The assembled company broke out "into a loud laughter." Likely the religious moral and happy ending to the story.
The Album is a work of art, a six year exercise in recording a life's journey and Gratia Denny's quiet legacy to family members and to those of us today who may still ascend to the summit of Mt. Holyoke and take in with pleasure and awe from the porch of the publicly maintained Summit House Hotel the Connecticut River Valley unfolding below, farms and fields, new settlements, and a grand landscape still defined by the unique path of the winding and iconic Connecticut River.