Published: December 5, 2000
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Hillwood Museum and Gardens, the former estate of visionary collector, philanthropist and businesswoman Marjorie Merriweather Post, has recently reopened, following an extensive three-year renovation of the museum. The revitalized estate now provides a superior showcase for Hillwood’s world-class collections, including an improved museum-quality environment, renewed plantings and restored sculpture in the surrounding gardens and enhanced public facilities.
One of the premier house museums in this country, Hillwood is the legacy of Postum Cereal Company heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973) and features her renowned personal collection of fine and decorative arts. The museum includes the most comprehensive collection of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Russian imperial art outside of Russia, as well as one of the world’s most important collection of Eighteenth Century French decorative arts.
The newly renovated museum also features several important new acquisitions, including a Vienna, Du Paquier Period cup and saucer set (1730-1735) from the “Tsar’s Service,” which served as a model for the designers at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in the following decades and was one of the earliest truly European styles of decorating porcelain. Also acquired were three elaborately embroidered miters (Nineteenth and Twentieth Century) worn by bishops when performing the holy liturgy; a 1930s inkstand from Natalia Dan’ko’s Discussion of the Draft Stalin Constitution in Uzbekistan desk set, which is among the most significant and monumental of the artist’s desk sets and was designed and produced in the years Post lived in Russia; and a major collection of 300 rare Russian books devoted to the history of decorative arts in the context of Russian imperial culture; in particular icon painting, which demonstrates the scope of art historical scholarship in pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Post was a pioneering collector who assembled Russian imperial works of art long before they were widely recognized or appreciated in the West, and she acquired the nucleus of her superb collection while living in Russia in the late 1930s. The care and passion with which she selected each piece demonstrate her insight as well as her great love and enthusiasm for Russian, as well as French culture. She was especially interested in the decorative and applied arts, including porcelain, glass, jeweled objects, textiles and furniture selected for their beauty, superb craftsmanship, historical importance and overall contribution to the context of the collection.
“Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of America’s great collectors of fine and decorative arts who chose to create a museum out of her home, like Isabella Stewart Gardener, Henry C. Frick or Henry du Pont,” said Frederick J. Fisher, director of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens. “Mrs Post, who was schooled early in her collecting career by leading art dealers including Sir Joseph Duveen, was a knowledgeable and passionate collector and philanthropist who devoted her life to sharing her treasures and good fortune with others.”
Highlights of the Russian collection at Hillwood include an 1884 diamond crown worn by Empress Alexandra at her marriage to Nicholas II; a comprehensive collection of approximately 80 works by Carl Faberge, including two imperial Easter eggs; a gold chalice with diamonds and carved stones by I.W. Buch; delicate imperial porcelain and ormolu vases depicting painted scenes in a contemporary Western style; and a selection of ornate Russian Orthodox icons and religious objects.
The museum also features an extensive collection of French furnishings, tapestries and porcelain, primarily from the Eighteenth Century, including furniture by such masters as Jean-Henri Riesener and David Roetgen; numerous pieces of famed Sevres porcelain spanning the early years of manufacture at Vincennes to the time of the French Revolution; objets d’art by Louis Cartier; and spectacular Beauvais tapestries designed by Francois Boucher that later inspired works by Faberge and Sevres.
Among the most notable paintings at Hillwood are “The Duchess of Parma and Her Daughter Isabelle” (1750) by French portrait painter Jean-Marc Nattier; the monumental “Portrait of Catherine II” (circa 1788) attributed to Dmitrii Grigor’evich Levitskii; “Portrait of Empress Eugenie” (1857) by the German royal court painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter; “La Nuit” (1883) by the renowned Parisian academic artist William Adolphe Bougeureau and Konstantin Makovskii’s “A Boyar Wedding Feast” (1883), which depicts the wedding of two families of the politically powerful boyar class.
The renovation of Hillwood and improvements to the facilities will serve to further enhance, emphasize and protect the world-class collections carefully assembled by Post and will enable Hillwood to meet the requirements of a modern-day museum.
Removal of the works from the house has enabled conservators and curators to examine the interior finishes in detail to study their history, and the majority of the surfaces have been restored rather than replaced to respect the integrity of the mansion. In addition, Hillwood’s 12-acres of landscaped gardens also have been improved, including new walkways that are fully accessible to visitors with disabilities.
Marjorie Merriweather Post, Collector
Pioneer collector Marjorie Merriweather Post was the only child of cereal magnate C.W. Post. She inherited the Postum Company in 1814 and began collecting art – primarily Sevres porcelain and French furniture and tapestries – in the 1920s after her marriage to financier Edward F. Hutton. In furnishing her 54-room Manhattan apartment, she adopted her taste for French Neo-classicism that was then fashionable in New York society.
Post became interested in Russian art when husband Joseph E. Davies served as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. During these years, the Soviet government was selling many of the treasures it had appropriated from the church, the imperial family and the aristocracy in an effort to finance the new government’s industrialization plan. She acquired the nucleus of her holding at this time, but she continued to collect French and Russian art for the rest of her life, eventually amassing the most comprehensive Russian imperial collection in the West.
Post bought Hillwood in 1955 and immediately decided her home would be a museum that would educate and inspire the public. Originally designed by John Diebert in 1926, the mansion was extensively enlarged and redesigned in the mid 1950s by New York architect Alexander McIlvaine and the New York design firms of McMillen, Inc. and French and Company. Post lived at Hillwood, named after a Long Island residence she owned for many years, until she died in 1973.
The Hillwood Rooms
As Post intended, Hillwood’s collections are exhibited and enjoyed within the environment of historic Georgian-style estate, while 25-acres of landscaped gardens and natural woodlands provide an outdoor setting that complement the European manner of the interior of the house. Throughout the 36 rooms of Hillwood, Russian, French and other European objects are elegantly and naturally displayed together.
The entry hall, for example, reflects the two great collecting passions of Post. A large French chandelier or rock crystal is surrounded by several portraits of Russian tsars and tsarinas, including the stately portrait of Catherine the Great, attributed to Levitzskii, as well as paintings by German artist Franz Kruger. Two French wood marquetry, bronze and marble commodes attributed to Riesener (circa 1775) are adorned with Russian porcelain, including a pair of Nineteenth Century Imperial Porcelain Factory vases decorated with brightly colored pigeons.
The adjacent Russian porcelain room is equipped with lighted wall cabinets that feature pullout labels, underscoring Post’s interest in designing Hillwood as a future museum. On display are special services commissioned for three of the Russian imperial orders, porcelain dating back to 1744, an important Russian gilt bronze chandelier, selections from the Imperial Glass Factory and an inlaid marquetry floor made of 45 different varieties of colors of wood.
The French drawing room, in the Louis XVI style, reflects Post’s first collecting passion. Prominently featured are three Beauvais tapestries designed by Boucher, including the large “Italian Festivals,” along with two major portrait paintings – Nattier’s “The Duchess of Parma and Her Daughter of Parma and Her Daughter Isabelle” and Winterhalter’s “Portrait of Empress Eugenie.” Also on view are a fine selection of Sevres porcelain, vitrine filled with ornate boxes and brooches by leading West European goldsmiths, and an intricate roll-top desk by the German master cabinetmaker David Roentgen, which includes secret drawers and extending candle holders.
Bejeweled treasures of gold and silver are exhibited in the hexagonal Icon Room, which is certainly Post’s collector’s cabinet and the very heart of her collection. In the center of the room, in a specially designed Faberge case, is the magnificent diamond wedding crown worn by Alexandra Fedorovna, Empress of Russia. Also displayed are Post’s extensive collection of works by Faberge, renowned jeweler to the last court of Russia, including the large Catherine the Great enamel Easter egg in gold, diamonds and pearls, which depicts allegorical scenes of the arts and sciences based on paintings by Boucher, and an Easter egg in gold and blue enamel with twelve diamond-studded monograms that Nicholas II presented to his mother. The Icon Room also features religious icons dating back to the Sixteenth Century and an ebonized wood chest from St. Petersburg featuring lavishly decorated gilt bronze panels inlaid with lapis lazuli.
The Pavilion, where Post once screened movies and held lively square dancing parties for her guests, houses two important Russian paintings – Makovskii’s “A Boyar Wedding Feast” and Karl Briullov’s “Countess Samoilova and her Foster Daughter” (1832) – that together depict two divergent streams of artistic production and Russia’s struggle for identity in the Nineteenth Century.
The former painting reflects Russia’s nostalgia for traditions favored before Peter the Great’s westernization of the country while the latter represents the major French influence on Russian artistic style, which expressed Russia’s desire to be a part of the European mainstream.
The Pavilion also includes Italian mosaic tabletops and Russian porcelain. The library, with newly restored carved paneling and an Eighteenth Century Italian marble mantel, features predominately English furniture and paintings, including portraits of Post’s father, C.W. Post, and mother Ella Letitia Merriweather Post, as well as several Nineteenth Century English coaching scenes.
In the French Regency style, the dining room is the showcase for a dining table commissioned by Post for Mar-a-Lago (her former home in Palm Beach) in 1927 from the mosaic works in Florence, Italy. The table has six leaves and a mosaic top of 11 different stones. On the wall are four large canvases depicting hunt scenes by the Dutch master Dirk Langendijk. In the breakfast room, which overlooks the gardens, hangs a chandelier in green glass and gilt bronze, designed by Charles Cameron presumably for the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, where Catherine the Great resided.
Ecclesiastical objects in the newly named Russian Church exhibition room – a former Post staff dining room – include ornate robes of metallic brocade worn by priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, embroidered altar cloths and the recently acquired miters, candlesticks, several large icons, and a gold chalice with diamonds and carved stones from a liturgical set made by Iver Windfeldt Buch in 1791 and commissioned by Catherine the Great.
Upstairs in Post’s bedroom, also decorated in Louis XVI style, is a large unfinished portrait of Post by Douglas Chandor, several objects made of bloodstone (Post’s birthstone) and a roll-top mahogany and gilt-top desk stamped by Conrad Mauter. In the dressing area adjacent to the bedroom, several of Post’s elegant ball gowns, hats, evening bags, and personal jewelry made of diamonds and other precious stones will be displayed.
The second floor also includes the Adam Bedroom featuring Wedgwood jasperware, the Second floor library with a whimsical Chippendale card table and the English bedroom with a grand Chippendale canopied bed.
Additionally, the Hillwood estate includes a Dacha designed like a Russian peasant home, which holds a Russian art collection donated by Madame Augusto Rosso in memory of her husband who was the Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, as well as an Adirondack building with a collection of Native American artifacts, which was bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution by Post and is on long-term loan.
Mansion and Garden Restoration and Renovation
During the renovation and restoration of the Hillwood mansion, many works from the collection toured the United States, allowing more than 250,000 visitors at eight museums across the country to enjoy the collection. The remainder of the collection was carefully stored on the estate to facilitate study and treatment of all the chandeliers and picture frames, and the conservation of select tapestries and furniture.
Extensive research was conducted to faithfully match damaged fabrics with new replacements specially woven for the Pavilion and the Icon Room, namely the wall covering by the renowned designer Scalamandre that was meticulously recreated from the original. The Front Hall’s wall surface was treated to bring back its original brilliant interior, and the Library’s wood paneling was cleaned to reveal the fine detail that had become obscured over the years. A team of specialized craftsmen also restored the mansion’s intricately carved marquetry floors.
In addition, a state-of-the-art lighting system was recessed into the ceilings of several rooms; a new heating, cooling and ventilation system and an enhanced security system were installed; and the mansion’s underground walls were waterproofed to protect the foundation. Future plans also entail converting the former museum shop, originally the residence of the head butler, into an additional exhibition gallery.
Hillwood’s landscaped gardens also have been restored, in particular the elegant French parterre originally designed for Post by the renowned landscape architects Umberto Innocenti and Richard Webel. The parterre showed severe signs of degradation and had to be rebuilt from the foundation up – a process that involved countless hours of research, interview and excavations of the existing garden.
The original Italian glass tile in the pool was replaced and the graceful swan fountain was replicated in a more durable pink marble rendered by noted local sculptor Constantine Seferlis. Also, new limestone features and a drainage system were installed, and the four parterres were replanted with the original hedging boxwood and the same variety of azaleas, arbor vitea, juniper and yew. In addition, various works of sculpture and furniture throughout the gardens were refurbished or recreated, including mahogany furniture custom made for Post that was faithfully rebuilt and replaced. Additional plans are underway to restore the Japanese style garden on the grounds.
Throughout the renovation process, the horticulture staff has carefully maintained and rejuvenated all the trees and plantings, taking great care to protect them from construction, particularly the American elms on the south side of the house. Because many of the specimens were planted more than 40 years ago, the staff has implemented an ongoing preservation plan to renew old plant specimens and restore botanical collections.
Hillwood Museum and Gardens is on 4155 Linnean Avenue. The museum is open in January and from March through December on Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 9 am to 5 pm and on select evenings and Sundays. Admission is by reservation only. For information, call 877/HILLWOOD or 202/686-8500. For reservations, call 202/686-5807.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm