Published: September 6, 2011
The Speed Art Museum has received one of the most important gifts in the history of the museum and the largest donation of Kentucky art ever received by the Speed. Given by Norma and Robert Noe, this extensive collection includes 119 examples of early Kentucky furniture, paintings, silhouettes, textiles, ceramics and silver. Artworks from the Noe Collection are currently on view in the exhibition “Kentucky Antiques from the Noe Collection: A Gift to the Commonwealth.”
Exhibited through the years at the Speed and other museums, the Noe Collection is widely recognized as one of the finest private collections of Nineteenth Century Kentucky decorative arts in the country. This donation represents a landmark in the 86-year history of the museum. In 2007, the Noes promised to give their collection to the Speed over several years. With the museum’s long-anticipated expansion underway, the Noes decided to fulfill their promise ahead of schedule so that the public could begin to enjoy the collection. Following the completion of the Speed’s expansion project in 2016, additional space will be available for exhibiting early Kentucky art.
Kentucky natives Norma and Robert Noe did not intentionally set out to become collectors. As newlyweds in 1955, they needed to furnish an apartment and thrift led them to old furniture. Later, living for decades in the Washington, D.C, area enabled the couple to visit museums and make purchases from antiques dealers and auctions. They came back to Kentucky in 1979 as experienced collectors, and their love for the state and its history soon made them Kentucky collectors.
Over the next 30 years, the Noes built their collection of Nineteenth Century Kentucky furniture, paintings, silhouettes, textiles, ceramics and silver. Eventually, they decided they wanted to share with others the joy of discovery and appreciation they had experienced, leading them to promise their collection to the Speed.
Early Kentucky furniture forms the core of the Noe Collection, adding more than 40 examples to the Speed’s collection. Many can be documented to particular families, locations and cabinetmaking traditions, helping visitors, scholars and collectors better understand the patterns of migration, trade and taste that shaped early Kentucky furniture. Several pieces, visibly characterized by their distinctive, spidery legs, come from a related group of furniture associated with the northeastern part of the state. The most ambitious example from the Noe Collection, a chest of drawers made between 1795 and 1810, is exuberantly inlaid with leafy vines as well as segmented fans executed in contrasting light and dark woods.
The Noes’ gift also includes five sugar chests and two sugar desks. These distinctive regional forms were designed to store and protect sugar, a costly commodity in early Nineteenth Century Kentucky. Placed in the dining room or parlor for all to see, sugar chests and desks kept the sugar close at hand for sweetening social lubricants like tea, coffee and alcoholic drinks. The Noes acquired many richly inlaid examples, including one that descended in the Madison County area, one of the state’s more prosperous counties during the early Nineteenth Century.
Along with a number of painted portraits, the Noes’ gift includes cut paper silhouettes of many important Nineteenth Century Kentuckians. Among them: Cassius Clay (1810‱903), cousin of Senator Henry Clay. A vehement opponent of slavery, Cassius Clay published an abolitionist newspaper. His views led to a duel and one attempt on his life. Clay’s elegant silhouette was created in Lexington, Ky., in 1845 by the prominent American silhouette artist William Henry Brown (1808‱883).
The exhibition will remain on view through February 5.
The Speed Art Museum is at 2035 South Third Street. For information, 502-634-2700 or www.speedmuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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