One day, while hunting on her in-laws’ estate in Shelburne, Vermont, Electra Havemeyer Webb saw an abandoned house and “suggested it would be fun to make it into a museum.”* That’s the kind of fun you can have when your father is the founder and CEO of the American Sugar Refining Company (aka Domino Sugar) and your mother-in-law is a Vanderbilt. Her comment makes her museum efforts sound impetuous and frivolous. But it turned out that Electra had an eye, a will, and a mission to develop a museum that would be the cultural center of Vermont. The result was the Shelburne Museum, which became not only a cultural boon to Vermont, but that houses one of the most important collections of Americana in the world.
Shelburne is made up of 39 exhibit buildings, most of them vernacular structures rustic, quaint and charming enough to house Shelburne’s impressive folk art collection (a previous post covered the museum in general). But in the middle of all that rustic charm and quaintness — standing like Glinda the Good among the munchkins — is the large, white, columned Greek revival Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. As incongruous as it looks, the exterior of the Memorial Building was based on an 1843 Vermont house, that Electra is said to have admired.
Electra was born (in 1888) to a family of European and Asian art collectors. So when she expressed an interest in American folk art by purchasing a cigar store Indian, her mother was appalled. “American trash,” her mother would come to call Electra’s collection. That clearly didn’t deter Electra, since her 60,000 object collection forms the core of the museum.
The Memorial is the one building at the museum that doesn’t feature Electra’s Americana, although there are some Remington and Remington-style western bronzes in the basement. It contains mostly high-style objects and furniture, and impressionist art, much of which belonged to her parents. And they’re displayed in rooms that are recreations of Electra’s Park Avenue apartment in the 1930s. The purpose of the exhibit, says the museum’s website, is to show the influences Electra had while growing up.
Electra’s mother was a FOMC (Friend of Mary Cassatt) and the first thing that we saw when we went into the building was a portrait of Electra and her mother, painted by Cassatt when Electra was eight. There are five other works by Cassatt at Shelburne, along with four Monets, five Manets and seven Degas. Most (I’m just not sure if it’s all) are displayed in the memorial building. Monet’s The Drawbridge, Amsterdam, bought by Electra’s parents and in a place of honor over the fireplace in the parlor, was the first Monet ever to be part of an American collection.
Downstairs is a parlor, a sitting room and a diningroom. The painting at the end of the dining room is Monet’s Grainstacks, Snow Effect.
Upstairs are two bedrooms and a music room. In the Green Bedroom is another Cassatt: Young woman nursing her child.
I don’t seem to have done a very good job of spreading the wealth — nothing to show for Manet or Degas. Also, the music room had Louis Comfort Tiffany furniture. I had no idea Tiffany — the glass designer son of the jewelry guy — also made wood furniture. No photos of that either. My excuse is that there were a lot of people in the way (and the paintings, but not the rooms, are on the museum’s website). The museum itself was practically empty, but those who were there all seemed to have converged on the memorial building at the same time. It was the only place at the museum where we ever in the same room with other people. “We used to get 2000 people a day during the height of the season,” said one guide, sadly. “Those days are gone.”
*The quotes are from To Collect in Earnest: the Life and Work of Electra Havemeyer Webb by Lauren Hewes and Celia Oliver, published by the museum (1997).