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Lionel Feinenger: A Sharon Childhood

By Chris Robinson  |  Fall/Winter 2023

One of the greatest living artists, Jasper Johns, calls the town of Sharon home. It is not widely known, however, that another major artist spent considera-ble time here – Lyonel Feininger, who was the sub-ject of a major retrospective in 2010 in the Whitney Museum of American Art. Born in New York City in 1871, to a father from Germany and an American mother, Feininger spent long periods in Sharon from babyhood until 1887. At the age of 16, he left for Germany, and over the next five decades developed into the foremost exponent there of abstract expres-sionism and the Bauhaus. He and his sister Helen, who was born in 1873, lived on a farm in Sharon, while their parents, professional musicians, traveled through Europe and South America on concert tours. Lyonel later recalled the long summer days he spent exploring the Sharon countryside and winter evenings sleighing in the snow or gathered around the fire. And it was a landscape that drew him back as an adult when he and his wife and their own children fled Europe and spent their summers between 1938 and 1944 in Falls Village.
Mudge Pond by Lyonel Feininger

On March 7, 1939, Feininger wrote to his friend Albert Bloch.

“The utter lonesomeness of a return ‘home’ after 49 years absence! Connecticut, where I lived as a youngster, in Sharon, has still the old dear feeling of being connected with my existence. Falls Village is about seven miles from Sharon. The little old house where I lived is still there, by some mystery newer and in far better repair than in 1876-90. But no longer is the ‘horse-block’ standing at the roadside, and the little dusty road, with its ‘Thank-you-ma’ams”, raspberry bushes to the right and left, for all to gather, has become a broad, macadamized speedway. A shiny purple gash, relentlessly straight, through the still unchanged landscape. (Yet HOW changed!). But it is unrevellous [sic] how little the tiny town has changed.”

Feininger went on to describe stopping at the house where he had spent so much of his youth.

“When my old friend who lives in Falls Village and whom I had not seen for close to fifty years(!), took me past in his car, I could scarce credit my eyes to see the little house still standing. We stopped, and with a feeling akin to fear and awe, I got out of the car and walked over to the house. Sitting in a rocking chair on the familiar old verandah was an ancient man, bewhiskered and toothless, who casta [sic] baleful look at my intrusion. He was stone deaf. I heard steps in the kitchen, went in, and asked for the lady of the house. At my back there she stood a matron some 40 years. I told her that I had lived there 60 years ago, and that my sister was born in the house. ‘What was your sister’s name?’ the lady asked. ‘Helen Bartram Feininger”, I said. ‘I am Helen Bartram’, she replied. She was a descendant of the original Godmother of my sister.”

Evidently his sister’s godmother, was none other than the extraordinary Helen Bartram, wife of Sharon’s most active industrialist and town worthy, Isaac Newton Bartram, and herself later proprietor of the Bartram Inn on Sharon Green.

The world into which Feininger’s parents deposited their children was a network of interconnected families of farmers, stonemasons, miners, and laborers centered on Calkinstown Road and Gay Street and united in their Methodist faith. The children lived with the Clapp family. Asahel Pomeroy Clapp, a stonemason from Sharon, had married Adaline (or Adeline) Bartram in October 1850, and set up house initially on a small plot on Calkinstown Road with the support of her father Isaac Hamilton Bartram and her cousin Ezra Harris Bartram. One of her brothers, Isaac Newton Bartram, also arrived in the area in 1856 and started building his business interests.

In 1867, the Clapps expanded their operation and bought a 9.5 acre plot on the north side of Gay Street as it climbs out of Sharon village toward Lakeville, which they farmed while Asahel continued to work as a stonemason. This evidently was the site of the little house on what was then a dirt road but later, by 1940, was the “shiny purple gash, relentlessly straight” described by Feininger.

Adaline’s family was close to other the members of the Bartram clan in Sharon, many of them her neighbors, among them Helen Bartram (nee Winans) who had married Adaline’s brother, Isaac Newton, in 1861.

We don’t know how Feininger’s parents found the Clapp or Bartram families, or why they chose Sharon. In any event, baby Lyonel was entrusted to the Clapp family, and in 1873 Lyonel’s sister Helen was born in Sharon and named Helen Bartram Feininger after her godmother. The choice was both practical and poignant. Although sixteen years younger than Adaline, Helen and her successful husband took on a leadership role in the extended family, and Isaac Newton likely employed Asahel Clapp in his major building projects such as the Sharon Town Hall, Trinity Church in nearby Lime Rock, and furnaces for the area’s iron industry. The Clapp’s and the Bartram’s no doubt shared care of the Feininger children. Moreover, in February 1872 Helen, who already had a daughter Phebe, gave birth to twins who both died only fourteen days later. Naming the Feininger’s daughter, the following year was a touching tribute to the grieving mother.

Decades later, between 1938 and 1944, Lyonel Feininger returned to the area with his wife and children, renting for the summers in Falls Village. He sketched in the surrounding area in charcoal and in pen, ink, and watercolor, including around Sharon. Although the location of most of his sketches of hills, fields and barns are not recorded, one drawing from 1941 is inscribed “Mudge Pond.” In these works, he uses rapid strokes to capture the moody light effects in the landscape and the farms, barns, and covered bridges he loved.

It is not known who the “Helen Bartram” he met that day in 1939 was. There does not appear to be a likely candidate and perhaps Feininger misheard. Helen Bartram herself died in 1924. When Asahel died in 1891, Adaline moved with one of her daughters to New Jersey, and was in Bethel, Connecticut when she passed away at the grand age of 103 in December 1930. The 1940 census shows a 63-year-old widow, Grace W. Clapp, originally from Rhode Island, running the family farm on Gay Street. None of her children were named Helen and in the census she was accompanied only by her hired farm laborers.

Thanks to Achim Moeller and The Lionel Feininger Project for their assistance.

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