Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best Of The Shelburne Museum

Photo: Leslie Wright

Daniel Muller carved the wood tiger sometime before 1903 for the Gustav A. Dentzel Company, Philadelphia. Shelburne Museum.

 SHELBURNE, VT. — A blaze of color, pattern, whimsy and scale trumpets the transformation of the Shelburne Museum from a seasonal institution to a year-round operation: “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of the Shelburne Museum” is the inaugural exhibit of the new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education.

The exhibition title reflects the four pillars that informed the aesthetic of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb and are the hallmark of her collections and of her museum. Although she died in 1960, Webb is very much present in the Shelburne. Some 100 objects drawn from the permanent collection epitomize Webb’s affinity for color, pattern, whimsy and scale, an intuitive, yet idiosyncratic sensibility that governed her collecting from an early age.

It was she, after all, who as a young woman of 18 or 19 made her first acquisition: the cigar store figure she brought home to her parents, Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer, at their Fifth Avenue house that was filled with Asian art and Impressionist paintings with decorations by Louis Comfort Tiffany. She named her purchase Mary O’Connor, after her nanny. The Mary figure was dispatched shortly to the Havemeyers’ Long Island residence.

Years later it was also Webb who brought home — to her Shelburne Museum — the 220-foot, 892-ton side paddle-wheeler lake boat Ticonderoga, decommissioned after providing ferry service on Lake Champlain for nearly 50 years. Moving the steamer two miles inland was no mean engineering feat. Although the vessel is not part of the exhibition, it exemplifies Webb’s embrace of the visually playful, the aesthetically and historically important in her unique blend of color, pattern, whimsy and scale. It also addresses her capacity for organization and her determination.

“Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale” is the collaborative effort of four curators: Senior Curator Jean Burks, color; Curator of Design Kory Rogers, pattern; Curatorial Fellow Sara Woodbury, whimsy; and Director Thomas Denenberg, scale. The task was enormous, given the diversity of the collections and Webb’s far-ranging interests.

While the nearly 100 objects on view represent each arena, there is much overlap as each is part of the others. The exhibition celebrates Webb’s collecting philosophy; the new Center for Art and Education further exemplifies her founding principles: to create a place where learning is a pleasure and not a burden. The new center boasts space for classes, symposia, performances, lectures and other events and changing exhibits throughout the year.

Like Electra Havemeyer Webb, who gathered by instinct, both aesthetic and emotional, “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale” presents disparate objects mixed and matched in the same way she gathered. The result is at once playful and informative.

Explosive color and striking pattern fills all corners of the exhibition, ranging from the early — a delft charger from 1698 in a brilliant cobalt tin glaze — to the improbable — a 1940 chartreuse evening gown of silk satin with metal, glass, sequins and metallic thread by New York couturier Hattie Carnegie for Webb. What lies between is equally compelling.

A Federal-style pine lift top chest made in Shaftsbury, Vt., around 1820 typifies rural furniture in that it borrows much from the high style. While it is made of local wood, albeit with French feet, a Shaftsbury artisan provided the dry brush decoration that simulates figured wood and endows the piece with vivid red banding.

The selection of blown and solid glass American and European canes represents every color of the rainbow and then some. Made of end-of-the-day materials, each is one of a kind. The Shelburne’s is the largest collection of free blown glass canes in the United States.

Forty Gustav A. Dentzel carousel figures are confined to the Circus Building of the Shelburne. One, a circa 1900 tiger, has been allowed to escape to “Color, Pattern, Whimsy and Scale.” The animal is impressive — anatomically correct, brilliant orange with well-defined stripes, a bright red tongue and red tack.

Cheek by jowl with Webb’s folky delights is an armchair, part of a large set of furniture commissioned by her parents from Louis Comfort Tiffany and Samuel Colman for their Fifth Avenue home. The chair, of gilded ash, is carved with intertwined flowers and foliage, the legs are reeded and tapered, ending in glass balls held in brass paws. It was finished with gold leaf, which was then rubbed partially away to create the effect of age.

Another piece with Tiffany origins is a three-handled, three-sided silver cup presented to William Seward Webb, Webb’s father-in-law, on his 1899 retirement as president of the Wagner Palace Car Company. The large, capacity 25 pints, cup is decorated on one side with a portrait of the honoree, the interior of a Wagner sleeping car on another and the parlor lounge from Webb’s private car on the third. A train pulled by an engine circles the base.

Webb gathered toys and games, an apothecary shop and stunning whirligigs. While whimsy was a driving force, Webb’s intuition guided her in fitting it all together beautifully; each piece, whether related or not, relates to and reflects off its neighbors. A set of ninepins was purchased from Edith Halpert, whose Downtown Gallery in New York was a frequent resource for Webb. The example on view comprises six smiling figures in medieval garb with oversized boots and, like much in the collection, began with function and metamorphosed into art.

A group of carved whimsies by Gustaf Hertzberg, a Swedish American resident of Brattleboro, is a highlight of the display. Hertzberg acquired pieces of wood burl that he would study at length, seeing faces and shapes that he would then carve.

For much of her life, Webb collected three-dimensional objects. In 1957 and 1959, however, she acquired more than 100 paintings from Maxim Karolik, the Russian opera singer whose marriage at 35 to the wealthy 72-year-old Bostonian Martha Codman made him a major collector of American decorative and fine art. Among those paintings was a group of four oil on canvas paintings by Albertus del Orient Browere illustrating Washington Irving’s 1819 “Rip Van Winkle.” The lovingly depicted 1883 oil on board “Tinkle, a Cat,” is one of Webb’s first acquisitions from the Karolik collection.

Color abounds in William Matthew Prior’s 1843 portrait of Nancy Lawson. The sitter wears a fashionable deep green gown, which contrasts with her sheer white indoor cap that has pinkish strings and she sits before a window draped with a deep red hanging. Webb acquired the picture from Karolik.

For writers in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, travel inkwells were essential. As the form developed, inkwells took on more and more fanciful forms. Webb gathered a group that include such shapes as a globe, a violin case, a mandolin, a cello, a Wiesbaden satchel, a die, a hat, a shoe, the London Directory, a crown and a wine bottle. They may have been made as souvenirs.

Webb had a keen sense of scale and seemed to enjoy juxtaposing the monumental with the miniature. She began collecting dolls as a little girl, gathering some 500 or so over her lifetime, along with dollhouses, doll furniture and doll clothing, which she installed at the museum. She also owned miniature shop dioramas created by New York antiques dealer Helen Bruce. She loved the miniature but was certainly not daunted by immensity — as noted in her rescue of the Ticonderoga. She also installed, over a pond on museum grounds, a 168-foot covered bridge that had been built in 1845 over the Lamoille River. The bridge, with two lanes and a footpath, was built with an arch truss, patented in 1804 by Vermonter Theodore Burr.

The miniature is also represented by the extraordinary circus parade carved by Roy F. Arnold of West Springfield, Mass., between 1925 and 1955 and comprising nearly 4,000 miniature figures that, when installed, extend 525 feet. Webb was so taken by Arnold’s circus that she constructed a semicircular building in which to display it.

Webb was among the earliest collectors to appreciate the art of Nineteenth Century trade signs, particularly those of the oversized variety. A large rocking chair that once sat atop a furniture factory became a photographic prop; a pair of eyeglasses from an optical shop lived comfortably with large teeth. They all appealed to Webb’s sense of design.

Electra Havemeyer Webb did not simply start a museum on a whim. After her mother’s death in 1929, Havemeyer bequests to the Metropolitan Museum of Art caused Webb to consider sharing her own collections. While the consummate collector, she had also gained strong administrative skills. Moreover, her father did not call her “Boss” for nothing. During World War I, she acquired a chauffeur’s license in order to drive an ambulance transporting wounded soldiers returning from France to hospitals in the city. She was named assistant director of the Motor Corps.

In World War II, she was director of the Pershing Square Civil Defense Center, supervising some 200 volunteers who recruited Civil Defense workers to serve as firemen, policemen and nurses.

“Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of the Shelburne Museum” remains on view through December 31. The museum is at 6000 Shelburne Road. Open daily, 10 am to 5 pm through October 31; thereafter the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education and the museum store are open daily 10 am to 5 pm, closed Mondays.

For general information, or 802-985-3346.


 Collecting With A Vision Symposium

The symposium “Collecting with a Vision: Shelburne Museum and The Emergence of the Americana Movement” will explore the legacy of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb, whose unerring eye and collections established the museum. It is scheduled for Saturday, October 5, from 10 am to 4 pm, in the new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education.

Noted historians will discuss Webb’s influence on the history and psychology of collecting and collections. They are Jean Burks, senior curator at the Shelburne; Briann Greenfield, PhD, associate professor of history and coordinator of the Public History Program at Central Connecticut State University; Elizabeth Stillinger, editor The Magazine Antiques and author of A Kind of Archeology, Collecting American Folk Art and The Antiquers; and Catherine Whalen, PhD, Bard Graduate Center, decorative arts, design history, material culture.

For additional information or to register, contact Cathy Walsh at or 802-985-0865.

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