Published: February 26, 2007
A passion for aesthetic beauty was all-encompassing during the life of Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969), and nowhere is that better witnessed than within the meticulous gardens that he lavished his attentions upon at the family estate known as Winterthur, or among the exquisite collections of American antiques that he amassed and housed there. And while one must travel to Delaware’s scenic Brandywine Valley to view his gardens, an impressive assortment of more than 300 iconic antiques from du Pont’s Winterthur collection are now part of a traveling exhibition.
A continuation of Winterthur’s 50th anniversary celebration begun in 2002, “An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum” is currently on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through May 6. The exhibition marks the first time that many of these items have been outside the confines of Winterthur.
Not only is “American Vision” a celebration of Winterthur’s golden anniversary, it is also a celebration of America as seen through the aesthetic eye of one of the country’s greatest collectors. The exhibition reveals multifaceted cultures in colonial America with formative examples of furniture that range from the pinnacle of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century high style to simple, utilitarian forms elaborately decorated by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Born in 1880, an only son born to Henry Algernon and Pauline du Pont, Henry Francis du Pont became the sixth generation to reside on the sprawling 983-acre estate.
Du Pont returned home to Winterthur after receiving his education at Harvard, and the responsibility of tending the gardens was passed to him when his father became a member of the US Senate in 1906. One of the first areas of transformation under du Pont’s watch was the March Bank, now the oldest surviving garden at Winterthur. March Bank was begun in 1902 after du Pont studied The Wild Garden by British horticulturists William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. It began with du Pont “naturalizing” daffodils on the bank, followed over the years with the addition of thousands of snowdrops, snowflakes, crocuses and squills. He also developed and improved the formal garden areas east of the house.
Du Pont married in 1916, and soon after he developed an interest in antiques. Between 1928 and 1932, du Pont doubled the size of the existing house at Winterthur and converted it into a virtual showplace for his varied collections. Concluding that the arts of the early days of the nation could best be appreciated in the context of the early American home, he acquired whole rooms from old houses and fragmented architectural elements that could be installed to serve as settings for the display of his Americana collection.
Du Pont and his family lived their daily lives in a museum-in-progress, his two daughters growing up amid a constant state of construction that eventually grew to encompass 175 furnished period rooms. The rooms, carefully organized to emphasize design and quality, reflect du Pont’s genius for making the spaces look as if their occupants had just stepped out of them. Dazzling in this display and nearly numbing in their number, these are widely considered the finest period rooms in America.
Having transformed Winterthur, both inside and out, into a work of art, in 1951, du Pont turned his house over to the Winterthur Corporation, a nonprofit educational institution, and formed the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, one of the foremost museums in America.
At the official opening of Winterthur, du Pont called it “an occasion to stimulate interest in America’s arts.”
“It all started with one man on a mission,” wrote Antiques and The Arts Weekly correspondent Stephen May in his 2002 coverage of the exhibition when it originally opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
A descendant of Delaware’s fabulously wealthy du Ponts, a French émigré family that built a manufacturing empire starting with gunpowder, Henry Francis du Pont thought of himself as a country gentleman living a traditional existence on a family estate. While operating a farm and developing his gardens, he parlayed his wealth, passion for America’s past and appreciation for its aesthetic genius into a pioneering collection of early Americana.
Shy, taciturn and courteous, du Pont was an energetic collector with a keen understanding of quality. “An insatiable collector with an unerring eye,” is how Leslie Greene Bowman, director of Winterthur Museum, characterized him. Du Pont made up his mind quickly and could buy what he wanted. He began acquiring early American decorative works and furniture in the late 1920s, when few others were interested in such objects.
Du Pont acknowledged that his collecting was largely driven by personal interests, but he recognized the importance of building a representative collection. The works in the traveling exhibition, a mere 300 from the more than 85,000 in Winterthur’s collection, reflect the founder’s preferences — and its greatest strengths.
The exhibition is divided into five components and is organized in both chronological and thematic groupings. Several themes run through each section, including documented works signed or labeled by their makers; English, European and Asian sources of inspiration; and the uniquely American aspects of the works on view.
Early Settlement and Sophistication explores the decorative arts of the earliest settlers of the American colonies. Highlighting the furniture displayed is an impressive carved court cupboard made in Essex County, Mass., circa 1680. Silver, pewter and ceramic objects of the period are displayed with it. When on display at Winterthur, it is given architectural context by being displayed in a room from a house in Ipswich, Mass., built around 1670.
Among the handsome silver pieces, a standout is an elaborate sugar box dating to 1702, made by Boston silversmith Edward Winslow for the Belcher family in honor of the birth of their son. Close examination reveals complex imagery representing courtly love, chivalry, marriage and fecundity — all appropriate subjects for the occasion. Curators report that only nine such American boxes survive today.
Grouped under the heading A Passion for Rococo are works by artists and craftspeople working in the Chippendale style in Boston, Philadelphia or Charleston in the middle to late Eighteenth Century. Fascinated by its sturdiness, practicality and many variations in decorations, du Pont avidly collected within this period, assembling a number of these objects in Winterthur’s Stamper-Blackwell Parlor, originally built into a 1760s house in Philadelphia.
Notable in the display is a high chest, 1760–70, owned by Michael and Miriam Gratz of Philadelphia, which curator Cooper calls “the boldest and most monumental high chest at Winterthur.” The elaborately carved cartouche, tympanum, skirt and cabriole legs and extensive brass work testify to the skills of its maker — and his grasp of high style design.
Another standout is a Philadelphia side chair, 1770, attributed to the shop of Thomas Affleck. Part of the expansive Chippendale furnishings of the Philadelphia townhouse of the Cadwalader family, this ribboned back piece with a saddle seat, upholstered half over the rails and fully carved, hairy paw feet, was probably inspired by a design in Chippendale’s widely disseminated book, The Gentlemen and Cabinetmaker’s Director. According to Cooper, “Cadwalader’s side chairs are among the most coveted prizes for American collectors of Eighteenth Century Philadelphia furniture.”
East Meets West documents the influence of American trade with the Orient in the Eighteenth Century. The exotic and luxurious products of the East have long fascinated Westerners. American colonists were no exception, nor was du Pont.
Chinese Export porcelains and ceramics made in Europe but imitating Eastern wares are displayed, along with luxurious textiles hand painted or printed in India for export to Europe, England and, eventually, the colonies.
Borrowed from the Readbourne Parlor at Winterthur (based on a 1773 house on Maryland’s eastern shore) is a japanned high chest made by Boston cabinetmaker John Pimm around 1750.
Hand painted and printed cottons from India, often simply referred to as India chintz, competed with manufacturers in England and France. Because they were banned in those countries in the Eighteenth Century, they found an important market in America.
A popular design, known as a “tree-of-life” pattern because of its large central trunk with branches featuring bright blossoms, buds and foliage, apparently inspired a young Philadelphia craftsperson, Mary King. Her needlework picture, made of silk and metallic yarns and glass beads embroidered on silk, combines Indian and British influences with a central tree, its branches festooned with colorful blossoms and foliage, set against a strong yellow background. The leopard, lion, rabbit and strawberries in the foreground owe much to English needlework sources.
When du Pont launched his collecting crusade in the 1920s, he devoted a lot of attention to distinctive objects associated with craftsmen of the Winterthur area. The Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans showcases boldly decorated works created by German and Swiss settlers in the eastern part of the state. Reflecting aesthetic and craft traditions brought from the old country, these objects include ornately painted furniture, pottery, woven coverlets and quilts and fraktur.
More often than not, these craftsmen sought to enliven items used in their everyday lives with colorful ornamentation, often marking important events, such as betrothals, marriages, births and baptisms. Chests, an essential piece of household furniture, were often decorated with a variety of painted images of tulips and unicorns adorning central panels, such as the ones seen on the facade of a dower chest, 1765–1810, Berks County, Penn.
Nonutilitarian wares produced by potters frequently reflected a more whimsical aesthetic, as exemplified by a squat, toothy lion, 1840–65, probably made by John Bell, Waynesboro, Penn. Also on view are numerous examples of sgrafitto, earthenware with elaborately incised decorative motifs.
Du Pont was fascinated by the work of Pennsylvania Dutch woodcarvers, including Wilhelm Schimmel, who created birds and other objects in Cumberland County. Schimmel’s “Eagle,” 1865–90, modeled after a Germanic version rather than an American example, is among the many carved objects acquired in the 1920s and 1930s.
The great collector was also drawn to fraktur — documents commemorating important family events and featuring such decorative motifs as birds, hearts and tulips. These paper records were often affixed inside the lids of chests, such as in the Berks County example, although today most have been removed for better viewing.
The concluding section, American Classicism, explores how craftsmen, toward the middle and end of the Eighteenth Century, modeled their styles on recently discovered Greek and Roman artifacts. Treasures unearthed at archeological sites, including Pompeii, in the 1740s sparked a revival of classical designs and ideals in the decorative arts in Europe and Britain that came to the colonies before independence.
During the early years of the American republic, classical motifs that became known as the Federal style served as models for such national emblems as the eagle in the great seal of the United States, and early national heroes, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were portrayed draped in classical garb. Cooper says du Pont’s “intense interest in the Federal style was … integrally tied to an intense sense of nationalism and reverence for Revolutionary heroes and leaders of America’s early republic.”
Washington, as Father of the Country, was immortalized in paintings and decorative objects of all manner. A brass, steel and glass mantel clock, 1804–17, crafted in France by Jean-Baptiste Dubuc, reflects efforts by French manufacturers to respond to American demand for pieces honoring our nation’s hero.
The symbol-laden timepiece pays tribute to Washington with everything from an American eagle to the great man’s early surveying instruments to the figure of the general himself bearing his sword in one hand and his resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the other. The drapery beneath the clock bears the famous quotation from Major General Henry Lee’s funeral oration: “Washington: First in War, First in Peace and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”
Also underscoring du Pont’s astute eye and veneration for American artisans, heroes and patriots is an assemblage of six silver tankards by celebrated patriot/silversmith Paul Revere, displayed on a magnificent New York sideboard, 1795–1805, usually part of the grand du Pont dining room at Winterthur.
As rewarding as this excellent exhibition is, it can only hint at the treasures contained in the Winterthur collection. A 216-page exhibition catalog, written largely by Cooper, was published by the National Gallery and Winterthur, in association with Lund Humphries. It is available from the MIA Museum store for $35 (softcover).
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is at 2400 Third Avenue South. For information, 612-870-3131 or www.artsmia.org.
Winterthur is on Route 52, six miles northeast of Wilmington, Del., off I-95. For information, 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org
Editor’s Note: This article was prepared by David S. Smith, with excerpts from Stephen May’s coverage of the opening of “An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum” at The National Gallery that was published in Antiques and The Arts Weekly in 2002.
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