When Bridgeport Was Beautiful

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For most Americans who pass that way today, Bridgeport, Connecticut, is a place to get through as soon as possible. Belching smokestacks, bumpy pavement, grimy houses, dingy stores, an apparently bombed-out railroad station—except for a few acres of “urban renewal” that’s the traveller’s impression; and one is puzzled by the motto still cherished by Bridgeport’s denizens: The Park City. But the prideful epithet must once have been deserved, bespeaking a pleasant suburban community on Long Island Sound, with lush green trees, elegant homes, delightful vistas. In recent years some palpable evidence of Bridgeport’s golden past has been gathered through the rediscovery of the paintings of J. F. Huge, who lived and worked there for nearly a half century. The still life opposite, for instance, painted by Huge in 1856, was animated by a pencil-sketch background depicting Bridgeport’s lively, smogless harbor, its lawned, arboreous shore, and some of its prosperously dressed citizens. Jurgan Frederick Huge was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1809, so that his surname must have been pronounced “Hooga”; after his youthful immigration to America it appears that his family preferred a kind of Frenchified version, spelled Huge and pronounced “Hewgay.” He himself, however, habitually signed his paintings J. F. Huge, and that honest version would seem to be the one he should be known by. At any rate, by 1830 the young man was married to a Bridgeport girl and had settled down as the proprietor of a well-known grocery. Drawing and painting were at first only a hobby, and his skill as an artist was self-taught; yet by 1838 he was well enough regarded to have one of his pictures printed and distributed as a color lithograph. Most of his earlier works were “portraits” of boats and ships, done to suit the demands of fond owners and captains—and this partly accounts for the meticulous attention to detail that characterizes all of Huge’s known paintings. He was in fact more of a draftsman than a painter—most of his pictures are actually colored drawings—and he had distinct limitations. His perspective sometimes went askew; the anatomy of the horse eluded him; his personae are often stiff—more like attractive dolls than human beings. But he also had a sharp eye and a strong sense of color and composition. The pictures of this primitive precisionist are almost always gracefully balanced and appealing, as well as so full of interesting detail that they repay study with a magnifying glass.

 
 

As the years went by, Huge began to portray some of Bridgeport’s splendid houses with the same scrupulous attention that he invariably gave to ships. Showing almost the exactitude of an architect’s renderings, these paintings of the homes of the wealthy are eloquent testimony to a certain grandeur that was, once upon a time, Bridgeport.

A solid businessman with a family—a son (who died young) and three daughters—Huge was listed in the Bridgeport business directory from 1862 to 1869 as “J. F. Huge, grocer.” By that time, it would seem, his local fame as an artist had caught up with his reputation for good coffee, sugar, and potatoes, for the 1869-70 directory describes him as “Grocer and artist”; and from 1872 on he is listed as “Teacher in drawing and painting, landscape and marine artist.” He died in 1878, and despite the considerable recognition of his work during his lifetime, he was soon forgctten. No likeness of him, either painting or photograph, is known to survive.

Huge’s own paintings, too, have had a tendency to disappear, although there is reason to think that many still exist unrecognized. Jean Lipman, now editor of publications for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was greatly impressed with a Huge water color of a steamboat about thirty years ago and began to collect what information she could find about the artist’s career and his other works. Her efforts culminated in 1973 with the publication by the Archives of American Art of her illustrated booklet on Huge, discussing his life, his works, and his rediscovery, and cataloguing the forty-seven paintings then known to be his. This was followed by a Huge exhibition at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art. One result of the new exposure of Huge’s talents has been the locating of several more of his paintings, and it is to be hoped that the rediscovery of J. F. Huge will continue.

AMERICAN HERITAGE is grateful to Mrs. Lipman for proposing the present Huge portfolio and for her help in its preparation. Our sketch of Huge’s career, above, and the captions that follow, are based largely on her booklet Rediscovery: Jurgan Frederick Huge .