When Thomas Guidone was offered the commission to paint a mural for the St. Bernadette School in East Haven, he knew he had built-in models for the children in the scene. After all, his 10 children were often used as models in his work.
His daughter, Mary Guidone Cacace, who appears in all three of his murals, can still remember her time as the model for the young Bernadette who is shown kneeling before the Virgin Mother in a French field.
“He needed to sketch me leaning toward the central figure," she said recently. "He finally found me something to lean on, but I still remember how hot it was as I knelt on the floor in that pose. My knees were numb and all I wanted was to go outside with my friends. He also had me stand on a stool and pose for the Virgin Mary so he could get the placement of the hands just right. I kept complaining about everyone else being outside so he finally said ‘go, go’ and I went.”
Cacace is justifiably proud of her talented father who was a well-known Connecticut artist as well as professor emeritus of art history at both Sacred Heart University in Fairfield and the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.
He had started life with dual citizenship since his naturalized mother had trekked back to Italy to be near her mother for his birth. While he experienced a good deal of prejudice in his younger years because of the Italian heritage, it would play an important part in his artistic life. He would use an ancient form of Italian mural painting in his American works.
Cacace recalls stories from her parents about their early courtship. Thomas Guidone was a young widower with three children when he hired Winnifred Lillian Herrmann to give them piano lessons. This was to fulfill a promise made to his young wife before she died.
Herrmann was the daughter of German/Irish parents who had lavished an expensive college education on their musically gifted daughter. She was an extremely popular pianist who gave afternoon tea recitals in private homes; taught students; and hosted a radio show in Hartford that provided her with a wide fan base.
She was ten years younger than the handsome young artist and her parents were not pleased when the music lessons turned into a romance with Guidone.
However, love won out, although Winnifred was nearly 30 years old when they finally married. In the next 10 years, they added seven more children to the family and all moved into a spacious home on what is now Stoddard Road near East Haven’s Shell Beach.
In the early years, Guidone continued to work for the Winchester Arms Company designing tools for weapons. However, his art kept calling. He spent time working with Bancel and Thomas LaFarge on two WPA mural projects: one for the New Haven Public Library and one for the New London Post Office.
Today, they are highly prized art works in both locations. Although the New London Post Office is currently for sale, the art works – six large murals depicting a day on a whaling ship – will continue to belong to the US Post Office.
By the time these were completed, his dissatisfaction with Winchester had grown to the point that Winnifred agreed to become the main breadwinner for the family so that he could finished his formal training at Yale’s School of Art.
Guidone’s Yale thesis dealt with the ancient art of egg tempera formulation that had been used by Italian painters – such as Da Vinci in ‘The Last Supper’ – but had onle been handed down orally. He committed the formula, which was needed to keep murals on walls from decaying as they aged, to paper.
He found work teaching at area colleges; taught private pupils in his home; and developed his own clientele for his portraits and still lifes. Winnifred also used the house to give private music lessons. She performed as the organist at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven until she was in her 60’s.
In the 1950’s, Guidone’s reputation grew through his painting and his work restoring statues for various churches. This led to commissions for murals for St. Vincent de Paul School in East Haven, St. Bernadette’s School on Townsend Avenue, and Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yalesville.
These murals all featured children and called for hours of modeling by his children. In the St. Vincent de Paul mural, all the children had roles. For them, being painted by their father was just a part of life. The other part was the camaraderie of numerous siblings and friends in the big house with an ocean in the front yard.
“Dad made enough to support us, with Mother’s help, but we were never wealthy even though we lived in this big house,” Mary Cacace said. “But, we all had a lot of fun. There were no other houses around us at that time, and just a few places were scattered around the beach. We were all close in age so we always had playmates.”
Mary Guidone Cacace left the beachside white house to attend business school in New Haven, and eventually decided on a career in banking. She went to work for a bank that merged into the Bank of America. For more than 30 years, she worked her way up from teller to assistant vice president of the East Haven branch.
“After I retired, I was asked if I’d like to have the job as president of the East Haven Chamber of Commerce since I knew so many people,” Cacace said. “It has worked out really well.”
Many of her siblings still live in the area; four of her brothers reside in Wallingford. All of the children own several of Guidone’s paintings. They vary widely in style.
“Dad was a gifted artist but a bad businessman,” Cacace said. “He gave away so many of his paintings. We know there are a lot of them floating around in public hands. We know of one small painting that was appraised at $2,000, but we have no idea how much the bulk of his work is worth.”
Sadly, many of Guidone’s paintings were destroyed when the much-loved family home on Stoddard Road burned 20 years ago this month.
But, in addition to their paintings, the siblings realize that their father gave them all a lasting legacy as the children in the murals. The next time you venture into St. Bernadette’s or St. Vincent’s school or look behind the altar at Our Lady of Fatima, you’ll know those fresh young faces weren’t just the artist’s imagination. They were his dearly loved children.
The big white house on Stoddard Road was featured earlier in a story on Louis and Rebecca Darlington Stoddard (see Stoddard home).