Published: July 17, 2012
For art lovers, there is something magical about seeing world-class artwork in a capacious old mansion. Nothing compares with the experience of strolling through gracious domestic spaces surrounded by high-quality paintings acquired by onetime owners.
The beloved Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., with Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and other Modernist masterpieces assembled by the esteemed Duncan Phillips epitomizes this feeling. People continue to travel from afar to bask in the ambience and art of the old Phillips mansion, even though much of the collection is now displayed in deft additions. Beauport, the Henry Davis Sleeper House in Gloucester, Mass.; Ca d’Zan (Ringling house) in Sarasota, Fla.; Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; and the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., are other collection museums showcasing fine and decorative arts.
Less well known but also occupying this special niche is Hill-Stead Museum, a National Historic Site tucked away on a large estate and housed in a spacious, historic house in Farmington. Originally surrounded by rocky farmland, the Pope family turned the structure into an elegant, comfortable residence filled with outstanding French Impressionist works.
It all began with a remarkable woman, Theodate Pope Riddle (1867‱946), a graduate of nearby Miss Porter’s School and a pioneering female architect. After extensive travels in Europe, in 1898 she designed the house herself, leaving the working drawings and supervision of construction to prestigious architects McKim, Mead and White. The result was a 33,000-square-foot Colonial Revival house on a knoll, shaded by large, replanted trees and sited on 150 rolling acres. Its name came from being a homestead on a hill.
Theodate created an artificial pond, laid out a six-hole golf grounds, dairy farm and orchard, and composed three miles of stone walls through the grounds, transforming the site into a landscaped showplace that reflected the refined tastes of a cultivated, wealthy and well-traveled family. “Hill-Stead,” art historian James F. O’Donovan says, “is as fine a domestic architectural achievement of its period as any residential work by her more lauded male colleagues.” Eventually, Theodate became one of the nation’s first licensed women architects and designed several innovative and admired projects.
Completed in 1901, Hill-Stead served as the country house of Theodate’s parents, Ada and Alfred Pope, and as a showcase for the extensive art collection of Alfred, a Cleveland iron industrialist. Approached up a long driveway, Hill-Stead remains a compelling sight with its gleaming white clapboard exterior, Mount Vernon-inspired portico overlooking a sweeping greensward and 147 original green shutters.
Noted architect Robert A.M. Stern admiringly writes about “Hill-Stead’s lively syncopation of facade elements, especially the colonnade played off against an antiphonal arrangement of bay windows.” Inside, he notes Theodate’s “sophisticated spatial arrangement&⁷ith bold crisscrossing diagonal vistas leading the eye to carefully placed paintings.” Moreover, “Hill-Stead&s both monumental and informal †no trivial accomplishment. It is a mansion and a farmhouse. Most of all, it is quintessentially an American house.”
Today, 19 of 36 residential rooms are intact and open to public tours. Faux-grained woodwork throughout the interior gives it an especially warm, rich ambience. The attached carriage barn and Arts and Crafts theater host varied activities.
Born in Vassalboro, Maine, of Quaker parents, Alfred Pope epitomized the Nineteenth Century self-made man †an astute businessman who became wealthy in Cleveland as president of a malleable iron company. As a man of affluence, he took his family on tours of the Continent and, like many of his peers, assembled a private trove of European artwork.
While Theodate often accompanied her parents on Grand Tours, it was her father who chose works for the collection. After a brief interest in Barbizon art, he made a radical break with traditional tastes of his contemporaries and began to buy the avant-garde paintings of French Impressionists.
He had, says art historian Anne Higonnet, “an extraordinary eye,” buying “Impressionist paintings between about 1888 to 1907, while they were still very new, and to most people, frighteningly audacious.” Passionate, discerning and disciplined, he bought only top works that he could “rise to,” as he put it.
Art historian O’Gorman, who edited the authoritative Hill-Stead: The Country Place of Theodate Pope Riddle, observes that as a businessman himself, Alfred appreciated the businesslike approach of the Impressionists, especially Monet. “He bought boldly, trusting his eye, seeking out real quality,” and buying “cutting-edge Modern art,” albeit with an emphasis on “traditional subjects rather than the urban or industrial scenes” favored by some Impressionists.
They are exhibited today, as they were then, in elegantly decorated rooms, replete with late Victorian furnishings and large windows providing adequate light to appreciate room after room of masterpieces. Visitors can see, says Higonnet, “Impressionist paintings as they were intended to be seen&n the kind of domestic spaces for which Impressionism was originally designed.”
Some works continue to occupy spaces specifically planned for them by Theodate, who designed the house with a collecting museum in mind. In keeping with her interior architectural plans and the family’s furnishings, paintings are closely coordinated in terms of color and form, standing out as main features of important rooms. This grand trove remains in situ, the only surviving, intact Impressionist painting collection assembled by an American patron.
The appealing ensemble of architecture, artifacts and art is apparent on stepping from the front door into the entry hall. The wide passageway incorporates a stairway to the left, its wall lined with framed works on paper by artists ranging from Dürer to Whistler, welcoming and tasteful mahogany furniture, all-around tan wood paneling, and to the right, an open doorway to the drawing room. Straight ahead, above the piano in that large space is Edouard Manet’s statuesque “The Guitar Player”; when Alfred Pope purchased it for $12,000 in the 1880s, it was the highest price paid for a Manet. Complementing the color scheme nearby is Edgar Degas’s “Dancers in Pink,” whose rose tutus pick up similar tones in adjacent upholstery fabric.
Of equal or greater interest to the left over a mantelpiece is Claude Monet’s radiant “Cape d’Antibes,” the first Monet acquired by Alfred, complemented on a wall to the left by the artist’s bright “Grainstacks, White Frost Effect.” “Functionally,” says American decorative arts authority Edward S. Cooke Jr, “the drawing room was furnished to display the paintings aesthetically, house the Steinway grand piano for enjoying musical performances and for other social activities, and to provide an extensive number of forms of comfortable seating.”
The ell sitting room, an extension of the drawing room, is a more intimate space that includes Monet’s “Grain Stacks in Bright Sunlight” and one of many small sculptural pieces by iconic French animalier Antoine-Louis Barye, “Mountain Lion.” A painting by French Symbolist/Classicist Puvis de Chavannes here and a portrait by French artist Eugene Carriere in the prior room recall Alfred Pope’s early collecting tastes.
The early Nineteenth Century-style dining room revolves around a long, rectangular table that can expand to more than 19 feet, with artwork on dark brown walls. The star here is Degas’s classic “Jockeys,” an elongated pastel of riders and horses hung above an ornate fireplace mantel.
On the other side of the entry hall is the first library, with faux oak grained paneling that enhances the reddish brown tones of the room and provides a warm setting for shelves of leather-bound books. Flanking a clock and red Chinese ceramics on the mantel above the fireplace are mezzotints of celebrated Englishmen, ranging from Samuel Johnson and William Shakespeare to Joshua Reynolds and the Duke of Wellington.
The second library beyond, added later, is filled with books, comfortable chairs and sofas, and Whistler’s early seascape “The Blue Wave, Biarritz.” An even more brilliant seascape, Monet’s “Fishing Boats at Sea,” hangs above the mantel in the cozy, adjacent morning room.
A highlight of the collection and a favorite of Hill-Stead’s executive director and chief executive officer Sue Sturtevant, this Monet was painted when he was 28 and not yet an Impressionist. Sturtevant admires the work’s Manet-like foreground of rippling light and dark water and says the boats are “leaping toward Impressionism.”
Monet was clearly one of Alfred Pope’s favorites, both for the quality of his paintings and his personality. Recalling meeting the artist at Giverny, Pope said, “Monet strikes you as sturdy and strong in physique and intellect †a fine soft-brown eye †one that sees everything †a lovely smile †a clever man †you wouldn’t take him for an artist †more like a businessman turned from town to country.”
While Hill-Stead’s first floor retains much of its original appearance, the second floor bedrooms have changed, notably after Theodate married diplomat James Wallace Riddle in 1916 and they took over her parents’ two-bedroom suite. The widowed Ada Pope moved to Theodate’s former two-bedroom quarters. The rooms feature four-poster canopied beds, with artwork ranging from Mary Cassatt’s charming oil “Sara Handing a Toy to the Baby and Antoinette Holding her Child by Both Hands” to a wide selection of Japanese woodblock prints favored by the senior Popes. Theodate’s original suite, with “furnishing&ore decidedly Colonial and Federal America,” in Cooke’s words, is decorated with historical prints of old New England and a Wallace Nutting photograph.
Around 1920, Theodate asked celebrated landscape designer Beatrix Jones Farrand to transform Hill-Stead’s formal sunken garden into a structured but more informal site. The plans were never carried out, but today, thanks to hard work and research, the neglected garden has become the place of poetic beauty Theodate and Farrand envisioned. Flower-lined brick paths, plots of varied blooms and flowering trees offer a vista overflowing with colors reminiscent of the Impressionist paintings in the house. The garden is the site of the annual Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, as well as musical and community events.
Overall, it is fair to say that the original decorating and furnishing of Hill-Stead, reflecting the interests of all three Popes “provided the desired effect of patina, refinement and artistic absorption,” observes Cooke. “Their real&⁛achievement],” he concludes, “was their ability to produce a stunning and comfortable interior, built upon history and color, that showcased their art in an intimate domestic setting.”
Theodate Pope Riddle died in 1946, leaving a will that stipulated that Hill-Stead become a public museum, with its contents remaining intact, never to be moved, lent or sold. Opening in 1947, the museum marks its 65th year with high hopes for the future.
With enlightened leadership, adequate funding and continuing outreach programs, Hill-Stead has the potential to become an internationally recognized cultural resource where art, artifacts and architecture merge with landscape in a must-see American attraction. For art lovers today, all roads should lead to Farmington.
The indispensable book about this landmark is Hill-Stead: The Country Place of Theodate Pope Riddle, edited by O’Gorman with excellent essays by experts and plentiful illustrations. Published in 2010 by Princeton Architectural Press, it sells for $45, hardcover.
Hill-Stead is at 35 Mountain Road. For information, www.hillstead.org or 860-677-4787.
Admirers of Theodate Pope and Hill-Stead would be well served by a ten-minute drive to visit Avon Old Farms School, for which she in 1918 devised the academic curriculum, as well as designing structures inspired by the Cotswolds in England. Touring the campus, constructed of stone and wood quarried and cut onsite and assembled by hand labor using ancient tools, is akin to a trip back to old England. Boasting graduates like singer Pete Seeger (Class of 1936), the architecture of the all-boys school is today admired by architects and everyday visitors alike.
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