A sizable selection of works from the Shelburne Museum's American art collection returned to public display last week after an absence of many years. A portion of the 540 paintings acquired by museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb had long been housed in a gallery on the museum's grounds that opened in 1960, the year of her death.
More than a decade ago, the paintings were removed from the Webb Gallery so that it could serve as a venue for special exhibits. But with the year-old Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education now hosting temporary shows, the museum has been able to put highlights from Webb's collection back on permanent display in her namesake gallery.
The sampling of 70-plus paintings chosen by museum director Tom Denenberg may strike viewers as both varied and uniform: Nearly all the pieces were created in the 19th century. And to a 21st-century eye, many of them may appear kitschy.
There's no shortage of genre scenes featuring cute children outfitted in flouncy finery, or colorful old-timers gathered in rustic interiors. Smiling African Americans in rural settings are shown in a pair of paintings, which seem to suggest that they were poor but knew how to have fun. Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses) and other untrained artists are generously represented. The show also includes several landscapes of the peaceably pastoral sort.
Webb's taste reflected her affirmation of an earlier era's belief in "American exceptionalism," Denenberg explained in an interview shortly after the installation's opening. What contemporary viewers may see as schmaltz was much admired 150 years ago as expression of "the organizing myth of the country," he noted. "The 19th century had a sentimental culture," Denenberg added.
But while Webb apparently viewed the United States as a blessed land abounding in goodness and destined for greatness, her aesthetic wasn't limited to the art of national self-satisfaction. And she knew high-quality work when she saw it on the auction block.
Paintings by two artists — Charles Deas and Carl Rungius — can be seen as forming a bridge in Webb's collection between its sappy genre scenes and its half dozen or so powerhouse pieces.
Deas (1818-1867) was admired in his day for frontier scenes of Native Americans and fur trappers. The Shelburne owns his masterpiece "The Death Struggle," a work that is at once outlandishly melodramatic in its subject matter and amazingly complex in its composition. A white hunter and a Native American warrior, both on horseback, are shown sailing off a cliff in the apparent aftermath of a knife fight over a half-dead beaver caught in a trap. The animal is gnawing on the arm of the Native American who, in turn, wields a dagger while clinging fearfully and furiously to his bearded, red-shirted antagonist. Deas' foreshortening is so effective that viewers become enthralled by this improbable showdown. They might even overlook the racist contrast between a grimacing savage and the handsome, though bug-eyed, figure who commands center stage.
Rungius (1869-1959) specialized in romantic renderings of wildlife. One of his paintings in the Webb Gallery's downstairs rooms combines the theatricality of Deas with the palette of a Whistler nocturne. A caribou is being mauled to death by wolves on a diagonally sloping, snow-covered hillside beneath a gray sky. The painting manages to be simultaneously operatic and minimalist.
Visitors may be even more impressed, however, by Martin Johnson Heade's close-ups of Brazilian hummingbirds and Albert Bierstadt's "The Burning Ship," which juxtaposes a fire at sea with the light of a full moon. "Milking," by Winslow Homer, is modest in scale but clever and enigmatic in its arrangement of two cows and a man and a woman. What's the relationship between these two milkers? Brother and sister? Husband and wife? Flirtatious lovers? It's hard to tell, because the woman in the foreground is turned away from us. And the artist doesn't provide any hints.
Off by itself, in a veritable chapel equipped with pews, hangs Andrew Wyeth's "Soaring," the most famous painting in the Webb collection. This 1950 work is also the last and most modern of her purchases.
At that point, Webb, the heiress to a sugar baron's fortune, was preparing to plunge into the modernist market, Denenberg said. She intended to present a show in her gallery of about a dozen mid-20th-century works that New York dealers had sent to Shelburne for her final perusal prior to anticipated purchases. But Webb postponed the exhibit of works by such nontraditional artists as Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler and William Zorach to show a set of paintings by her friend, Grandma Moses.
Webb died soon afterward, and the Shelburne never did get to add modernist works to its American art collection. But what's on display now is well worth a visit to a museum that holds many other treasures — folk art, furniture, quilts, blacksmithing implements and, of course, the Ticonderoga steam boat — bequeathed by Webb, who may rank as Vermont's most extraordinary benefactor.