Written by Kathlene on 15 Nov, 2002
Walking through the buildings of the Shelburne Museum, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the magnetite of the collection. Its artistic merit aside, there is a tremendous amount of stuff here, particularly when you keep in mind that most of it was bought…Read More
Walking through the buildings of the Shelburne Museum, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the magnetite of the collection. Its artistic merit aside, there is a tremendous amount of stuff here, particularly when you keep in mind that most of it was bought by one individual. What kind of person? Well, a very wealthy person, for starters.
Electra Havemeyer Webb was born in 1888 in Babylon, Long Island, New York, the youngest daughter of Henry Osborne Havemeyer and Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer. Henry was the founder and president of American Sugar Refining Company. He had made a fortune; at his death in 1907, the company controlled half the sugar production in the country. Electra was raised in an atmosphere of immense wealth, attending Miss Spence's elite school, enjoying the New York social scene, traveling the world with her parents.
One can only imagine the look on Louisine Havemeyer's face on that day in 1908 when her 18-year old daughter came in one day to announce: "I've bought a work of art!" -- and showed her a cigar-store Indian she had just purchased for $25.
Electra knew what art was. She had grown up surrounded by the works of European masters, purchased by her parents with the guidance of Louisine's close friend, Mary Cassatt. Her father had amassed a tremendously valuable collection of Japanese porcelain and Chinese textiles. Electra's first art purchase had been a Goya. Coming from that environment, to call a life-sized wood carving of an Indian -- something made to stand outside a tobacconist shop on the gritty, common streets of New York -- was an act of artistic blasphemy.
But the more she saw, the more she bought, the more she became convinced that the things that most of her peers though of as junk were actually art: a uniquely American form of art.
In 1910, she married James Watson Webb, a New York insurance executive who was a great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Over the next 20 years, Mrs. J. Watson Webb lived the life of a wealthy society matron, bearing 5 children and overseeing households in New York City, Long Island, and Shelburne, Vermont, as well as a 50,000-acre Adirondack summer "camp." She was active in public affairs, especially during the World Wars, becoming assistant director of the Red Cross Motor Corps during WWI and assistant director of the Red Cross Blood Bank in New York during WWII.
Meanwhile, her collections only grew. "The rooms were over-filled," she later wrote. "Then the closets and the attics were filled. I just couldn't let good pieces go by -- china, porcelain, pottery, pewter, glass, dolls, quilts, cigar-store Indians, eagles, folk art. They all seemed to appeal to me."
After the end of WWII, she and her husband retired to their Vermont estate, and Electra began to focus on a plan to make her vast collections available to the public. In this goal, she was not unique. Her mother had donated her father's Asian collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at her death in 1929. Her distant relative, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had created the Whitney Museum of American Art out of her collection of the works of new American artists...a collection even more controversial than Electra's among the collectors and critics of the time.
The Shelburne Museum was founded on a parcel of land not far from their home on Lake Champlain in 1947, and opened to the public in 1952. By its opening, the project had taken on grander proportions. Electra now began to collect entire buildings, purchasing whole structures that she felt represented unique American architecture. These structures were then dismantled, and painstakingly reassembled on her museum property, all laid out in the form of a stylized New England village. Each building then became a unique gallery space for her collections.
Among the buildings she saved from destruction were an one-room brick schoolhouse, a jail, a lighthouse, and an apothecary. She also salvaged a rare two-lane covered bridge, and, in the mid-1950s, the last paddle-wheel steamer to ply the waters of Lake Champlain. She had to install a temporary railroad track to get the S.S. Ticonderoga the two miles from the lake to her property.
Before her death in November 1960, Electra Webb had overseen the installation of the vast majority of her 53 years worth of collecting, spanning Impressionist artwork to duck decoys, carriages to figurines. But not her $25 cigar store Indian. That item she bequeathed not to her museum, but to her children.