Symposium sheds light on evolution of Shelburne Museum

Electra Havemayer Webb was a hunter in more than the field of art.
Electra Havemayer Webb was a hunter in more than the field of art.

By Sadie Williams
The Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at the Shelburne Museum was packed on Saturday, Sept. 20, as roughly 45 people turned out for a full day symposium on American painting. It was the third event of its kind, and an important part of the museum’s push to create a dialogue around cutting edge ideas within the field of art history.
Tom Denenberg, Director of the Shelburne Museum, opened the day with a brief discussion of the appreciation of early to modern American works that blossomed in the 1950s. The museum itself became home to 450 American paintings, courtesy of the funds and eye of founder Electra Havemayer Webb, in the latter part of that decade. Denenberg reasoned that as a result of Webb’s interests, their collection “became something of a time capsule of this flowering of interest in American painting.”
The lecture component of the symposium consisted of three art historians who could not have been more different in character, or more alike in enthusiasm for their subject. Carol Troyen, the Kristin and Roger Servison Curator Emerita of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, spoke with compelling humor and intellect on John Singleton Copley, using the timeline of the American Revolution to illustrate his career. Ellery Foutch, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College, discussed Martin Johnson Heade’s obsessive painting of hummingbirds as well as his driving desire to transform the impermanent into the permanent via methods that are, in the end, impermanent. Marc Simpson, independent scholar and former Associate Director of the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art, gave an exuberant account of Winslow Homer’s earlier, more feminine works, and speculated with precision on the identity of a “mystery woman” who appears in many of his paintings.
Denenberg closed the lecture portion of the day with a discourse that was decidedly different from that of his colleagues. While Troyen, Foutch, and Simpson focused on specific American artists, Denenberg turned his gaze to museum founder Electra Havemayer Webb. The museum is widely known for its extensive collections of folk art, as Webb went to great lengths to preserve items that illustrated a distinctly American aesthetic and way of life. As anyone who has visited the museum knows, she even went so far as to collect entire buildings.
In the late 1950s, Webb’s interests turned to Modern American painters. The definition seems to eschew any chronological significance in favor of artists who somehow influenced American painting as we know it. The shift is not unusual when viewed in a national context, as many museums and art galleries were heading in the same direction, but it signified the beginning of major growth for a museum hyper-focused on folk art. Denenberg spoke excitedly about a list found in Webb’s desk entitled “Moderns I Like.” The list was apparently composed at the end of Electra’s life, around the time that she began purchasing American Moderns in earnest. The list included names such as Georgia O’Keefe, Hans Hoffman, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and more, and provides a glimpse into the future that Webb envisioned for her museum.
Although Webb was successful in bringing many Modern American artists to the museum, the evolution of her vision was stymied after her death. In fact, 16 paintings she purchased from art dealer Edith Halpert were immediately returned by her son, Watson Webb Jr., when she died. “I think her son focused on the living history part of the vision, like the blacksmith shop. He really compared the museum to colonial Williamsburg. [Electra] was leaning toward MoMA,” Denenberg mused. That’s not to imply that Webb shunned the museum’s roots in Vermont folk art, but rather that she meant bring Modernism into the fold, creating balance and conversation between what many see as two distinct styles.
Even though much of Denenberg’s commentary focused on the past, it all pointed to the future, indicating that although Webb’s vision may have become dormant after her death, it in no way died with her. The museum remerged in 1996 with the deaccessioning of a portion of its Impressionist collection. This incredibly controversial move, which coincided with Watson Webb Jr.’s departure from the museum, allowed the institution to create an endowment for the care of their remaining collections. The museum began to “professionalize,” Denenberg remarked.
That professionalization continues today. As Denenberg neared the end of his speech, he voiced his desire to “toss together the folk and the canonical works.” Later, he elaborated that he would like to do so both physically, staging exhibits combining both styles, and in a theoretical sense, re-evaluating and refurbishing the canon of American works to encompass pieces formerly considered folk art.
“There are people who think folk art is a category unto itself, but as I keep trying to point out, it’s a Modernist idea. Your success as a painter, if you could earn a living doing so, was because the community understood and appreciated your work. You were serving your community perfectly in that time,” Denenberg theorized.
The period between Webb’s death in 1960 and the 1996 deaccessioning was one of missed opportunities. However, the conversations during Saturday’s symposium made it clear that now more than ever there is an appreciation for Webb’s vision, and that the museum is most certainly in excellent hands moving forward.