The Shelburne Museum highlights the best of our past. By Sara Evans
The Shelburne Museum, set on the edge of Lake Champlain, lies some five miles south of Burlington, Vermont. It is arguably one of the loveliest and most fascinating museums in the country. The lovechild of Electra Havemeyer Webb, (1888-1960), the Shelburne is a farm, art and open-air museum in the tradition of Scandinavian creations of the 19th century. It holds one of the finest repositories of American folk art in the country.
Mrs. Webb, as she is still referred to in Vermont, was the daughter of Louisine and Henry Havemeyer He was an enormously rich sugar baron, with an estimated net worth of $25,000,000. Louisine was a lady with deep pockets and eclectic tastes. Their Manhattan townhouse was decorated throughout by Louis Comfort Tiffany. They were tireless travelers, and described by Electra as “ perhaps the greatest collectors of all time.”
Louisine’s great friend and art advisor was none other than Mary Cassatt. Together, they combed the studios and gallery exhibits of the up-and-coming group of Impressionists in Paris, and, with Cassatt’s insider advice, Mrs. Havemeyer bought and bought. She gleaned Monets and Manets, Degas and Renoirs, Pissaros and Morisots, as well as many Cassatts. In the 1870’s, these works could be picked up for a song. Under Mary Cassatt’s tutelage, Louisine Havemeyer assembled a collection which to this day remains the heart and soul of the Impressionist paintings in the Metropolitan Museum.
It is fair to say that Electra, their third child, inherited not only a large share of the huge Havemeyr fortune, but also her parents’ all-consuming passion for collecting.
In 1903, at the age of 18, Electra visited Shelburne, Vermont. She fell in love not only with the gorgeous countryside, but also with the Webb family, her hosts and their son, James Watson Webb. Mrs. Webb was Lila Vanderbilt Webb, the granddaughter of the Commodore, the founder of the Vanderbilt fortune. “The beauty of Shelburne Farms, Vermont, and Lake Champlain took my breath away….I felt I was in dreamland.” She traveled to Shelburne in the Vanderbilt’s private railcar, and was met at the station by their coach and four. Some seven years after first visiting Shelburne, she married James Watson Webb, the oldest son of the family.
Her first purchase was a Goya, bought while traveling with her mother in Europe. But it is her next one that is the very stuff of folklore among scholars and lovers of American folk art. While driving through Connecticut, she spotted a cigar-store Indian, and, to her mother’s horror, bought it.
This purchase led her to a lifetime of collecting folk art. The field was brand new, so that early adapters like Electra Havemeyer actually established the parameters and definitions of the discipline and helped to establish it as a legitimate field of study and collecting. Weathervanes, hand tools, decoys, spinning wheels, scrimshaw, whirligigs, quilts, witch balls and naive paintings, trade signs and more and more cigar store Indians were among her passions. She insisted, “I wanted to collect something that nobody else was collecting.”
Electra Havemeyer Webb loved things that had been used, that had a purpose and life of their own. She loved intricate patterns and bright, folk art colors. The charming old Brick House in Shelburne was the Webbs’ favorite home, given to them by their in-laws, along with 1000 acres of gorgeous countryside. It was only one of several homes they owned. She and Watson raised their five children there in summers and during holidays. In it she mixed and matched with gay and careless abandon, ignoring the staid rules of interior decoration that were then common among the careful rich. She mixed fine English porcelains with primitive paintings, early American furniture with family memorabilia. The couple traveled the world, rode to hounds in Vermont, and had what seems to have been a life filled with collecting and adventures
The result of this passion is the Shelburne Museum, an idiosyncratic and superb collection of folk and fine art, of buildings and objects that reflect the growth of the nation. The collection is the manifestation of a great eye, very deep pockets and a field that was ripe for harvesting. Shelburne’s acres provided ample space for Electra Webb’s endless acquisitions.
After World War II, Mrs. Webb’s notion of starting a museum took hold. It started with the idea of displaying her father-in-law’s collection of horse-drawn carriages and sleighs to the local public. From there, like Topsy, Shelburne grew and grew.
She envisioned an open-air museum where history would come alive. She consulted with experts in the field, but relied on her own expertise and judgment. She began scouring Vermont and nearby states for old buildings, many of them derelict and in danger of being torn down. She bought them, took them apart and moved them to Shelburne. Old farms and barns and churches, schools and workshops, mills, blacksmith shops, stores and a jail were all bought and rebuilt at Shelburne. There are covered bridges and houses from all periods of American life. Electra bought a carousel and created a miniature circus and found animals to roam among the buildings and inhabit a model farm. She installed a Lake Champlain lighthouse, and moved the Ticonderoga, the last paddleboat from the lake, to the property. In exhibition rooms, she installed her eclectic collection of American and European paintings, along with fine sculptures and ships figureheads. There is a room of hatboxes and another filled with carved American eagles. The rich mix of art and objects displayed in a range of historic buildings makes visiting Shelburne a truly unique experience.
Mrs. Webb’s goal of preserving ways of life that were rapidly disappearing has been fully realized at the Shelburne Museum. Its beautiful buildings, spread out over acres of rolling fields, give visitors a rare chance to experience the ways Americans lived. Her unerring taste and vision have created a place that resonates with the best of our past, a place of great peace, beauty and context. If Mrs. Webb were around today, she would no doubt be delighted to see how her vision has evolved.
(This summer, the Shelburne Museum will host “Wyeth Vertigo,” a special exhibit of the paintings of N. C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, as well as an exhibition, “Larger than Life,” of work by the brilliant California quilt maker, Velda Newman. There is also a special exhibition of paintings by landscape painter Ogden Pleissner, and “The Alphabet of Sheep,” an exhibit of hooked rugs by Patty Yoder. In August, a new visitors’ center will open, and for the first time, the Shelburne Museum will welcome visitors year-round. To learn more and plan your visit, check out www.shelburnemuseum.org).