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Art Notes: Shelburne Museum’s Exhibit Frames the Narrative of a Nation Coming of Age

This 1840s portrait by William Matthew Prior is of Nancy Lawson, a minister's wife.  Courtesy of Shelburne Museum

This 1840s portrait by William Matthew Prior is of Nancy Lawson, a minister's wife. Courtesy of Shelburne Museum

T hanks to its founder Electra Havemeyer Webb, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., seven miles south of Burlington on the shores of Lake Champlain, is one of this country’s great repositories of Americana, a catch-all category that includes folk art and curios, historic buildings, furniture and textiles and genre paintings of rural scenes. A staggering 150,000 objects in all are on exhibit, which doesn’t even speak to the museum’s entire holdings. It’s a kind of Noah’s ark of American art.

Webb, who was born in 1888 and died in 1960, had eclectic taste and a keen instinct for what and when to collect. Sometimes a collector is prescient, spotting talent or categories of objects when others don’t, and sometimes a collector is so far behind the curve that she ends up being ahead of it. Webb was both. In a post-World War II period of surging Abstract Expressionism, with its adamant rejection of narrative, she looked fondly to the past, perhaps in memory of her own childhood and adolescence.

From her parents Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer, who made his fortune in the sugar trade, Webb inherited a portion of their large collection of Impressionist art. The bulk of it was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but some of it was retained by the family and is on view at the Shelburne. With that financial and artistic inheritance you might think Webb would have concentrated on European art, but she stayed on these shores.

Some collectors focus on one or two artists, a certain artistic period or style, or specific objects, but Webb went further, buying up folk and decorative arts, paintings, clothing, toys, agricultural implements, old New England buildings, a lighthouse, a carousel and, famously, the early 20th century Ticonderoga steamship, which sailed on Lake Champlain.

The Shelburne doesn’t particularly reflect the taste or influence of the academy or critics; the works in its galleries are the stuff, and the amusements, of everyday life. But it’s not parochial either. Webb’s collection tells the story of the United States.

A show of some of the museum’s holdings in American art is currently on view through Oct. 31, and it’s well worth a visit. “Painting A Nation: American Art at the Shelburne Museum” also happens to be a deeply satisfying example of what a well-curated show should look like.

There are genre scenes, landscapes, portraits, still lives and paintings intended for commercial purposes, which frame a narrative of a bumptious nation coming of age. Here we see the growth of industry, the clearing of land, the migration West and the struggles to adapt to the wilderness. Hovering over all are the great issues of slavery, and confiscation of lands from the hundreds of tribes that were here before the arrival of the Europeans.

Such leading painters as Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, Albert Bierstadt and Winslow Homer are exhibited next to such lesser known genre painters as Benjamin Severance, Arthur Burdett Frost and Enoch Wood Perry, with their scenes of families at home, stage coaches, tradesmen, hunters and trappers.

You see not just the nation evolving before your eyes, but its art. One of the galleries includes portraits by the so-called “primitives,” itinerant, largely self-taught painters who traveled through rural New England doing portraits of and for the middle class. There’s an evocative, austere P ortrait of a Quaker , done between 1835 and 1845 by Ammi Phillips, one of the leading traveling painters, that shows an older woman in a white bonnet, with a bony face and stern gaze.

The painting lacks the satin sheen, the depth of perception and sheer technical skill that a painter like John Singleton Copley, who is represented here with a portrait of an 18th century Bostonian, John Scollay, can bring to the canvas.

Phillips’ Quaker woman sits against a dark backdrop, with no props, save the Bible she holds, or landscape scenes to animate the background, but that flatness and limited color palette of grays, blacks and browns serve the subject well. Her devotion and piety, personified in her steady stare, are what animate her. This was a servant of God, who’d pared her life down to the fundamentals.

The paintings in this gallery include a portrait of Red Jacket, chief of the Seneca, a group of whom still live in upstate New York, in full ceremonial garb reclining on the ground as a noble hero might. There is a lovely 1840s portrait by William Matthew Prior of Nancy Lawson, a minister’s wife, that’s notable because it is a dignified depiction of an African-American woman during a period in which many illustrations of African-Americans were crude racial caricatures or sentimentalized, sanitized paintings of contented slaves, that are also on view.

One of the most intriguing works in the gallery is The Death Struggle by Charles Deas (1818-67), who specialized in paintings of the Western frontier. This painting, dated between 1840 and 1845, shows a white, bearded hunter on a horse plunging over a cliff; going over the cliff with him is a warrior, perhaps Pawnee, also on horseback, who has his arms around the hunter. Watching from the top of the cliff, lurking behind shrubs, is another warrior. Vultures circle over the canyon.

I don’t think any critic would call this painting a masterpiece or even a great painting; it’s lurid and melodramatic and the faces of the men are grimacing masks. But as a document of American history, painted during the peak of expansion westward, when clashes between settlers and native tribes were frequent, it’s invaluable.

Is The Death Struggle between hunter and warrior only, or does it allude to the government’s attempts to stamp out resistance by native tribes? The larger implication is that if one side goes down, so goes the other, both locked in a death grip for perpetuity. Or does it refer also to Deas’ own mental illness, which is alluded to in the wall label next to the painting?

As you arrive at Winslow Homer’s smaller 1875 canvas M ilking , which is the last painting on the wall before you exit the gallery, you’re seeing, in a sense, the culmination of 19th century landscape painting. It’s why this show is so intelligently designed, leading the viewer from the simpler, technically primitive landscapes to the flourishing of American talent in someone such as Homer.

The girl’s cow fills the frame, and the girl’s back is to us. It looks like a sweet rural moment: a girl milking a cow in the foreground while a boy milks in the background. But there’s an unresolved tension there, as there is in all of Homer’s work; a critical moment has just passed or is imminent. The girl and boy stare at each other. Is it antagonism or attraction, or simply a question going from one milker to the other? That the cows are horned only adds to the fraught atmosphere.

The last room upstairs in the Webb Gallery belongs to Andrew Wyeth’s large 1950 painting S oaring , which shows three vultures, one of which takes up nearly the entire frame with its wingspan, circling over what appears to be a farmhouse, or perhaps a church, far below. The farmhouse is isolated, and hills stretch out in every direction. You can see the tilt of the earth on the horizon. Wyeth uses his characteristic, bleached grays, browns and blacks. Are the vultures menacing the building, are they arriving at the scene after some calamity, or are they merely indifferent observers of the landscape?

Inherent in Wyeth’s painting is the idea, rarely seen in 19th and 20th century European painting, of Nature as friend and foe, an indomitable force that determines life and death. Soaring is a fitting closing to a show that celebrates the rural side of American art and life, which was often overlooked in the stampede toward the urban landscape, and urban painters.

For information on “Painting A Nation: American Art at the Shelburne Museum,” and for hours, fees and directions, go to shelburnemuseum.org or call 802-985-3346.

Openings and Receptions

Long River Studios in Lyme continues to feature the work of artist Jane Quimby in a show of Japanese shibori panels, monoprints and buttons that goes on view on Saturday and runs through Sept. 15.

Of Note

The AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon will host a panel discussion by the winners of last year’s juried art exhibition on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Michael Heffernan, Toby Bartles, Leah Berry and Joseph Saginor will be on hand to talk about their work. The event is free and open to the public.


Aidron Duckworth Art Museum , Meriden. Duckworth’s former home and studio on Bean Road in Meriden hosts a memorial exhibition devoted to the works of the late Aya Itagaki through Sept. 14. Self-portraits by Duckworth are on view through Nov. 2. The sculptures of Bob Shannahan and Fitzhugh Karol are on exhibit through Nov. 2.

Arabella , Windsor. The jewelry of Dianne Jacques, Kim Paquette and Kitty Stoykovich is on view, as well as works by local artists in a variety of media including oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles, among others.

Artistree , Woodstock. “Unbound: Vol. IV,” a juried exhibition of books as art and sculpture is on view through Saturday.

AVA Gallery and Art Center , Lebanon. The results of last year’s juried exhibition are on view through Wednesday with works by Joseph Saginor, Michael Heffernan, Toby Bartles and photographs by Leah Berry. Also on view through Wednesday is “Horses and Hounds,” an exhibit of works by Derek Bell and Christine Orcutt Henderson.

Billings Farm & Museum , Woodstock. The museum’s 28th annual exhibition of quilts is on view through Sept. 20. The quilts have been hand-made by residents of Windsor County. This year’s theme “Memories of Edith” is a tribute to quilter Edith Artz from Rochester, Vt.

Big Town Gallery , Rochester, Vt. “A World of Wonder,” an exhibition of early 20th century wooden games and toys that have been collected by Strafford artist Peter Thomashow, continues through Sunday.

Chandler Gallery , Randolph. “Floral Seductions,” a show including the works of nearly 30 artists, runs through Sunday. An exhibit of portrait and landscape paintings by Andy Newman continues through the same date.

Cider Hill Art Gallery , Windsor. Egg tempera paintings by Gary Milek, co-owner with Sarah Milek of the gardens and gallery, are up through the summer. Large decorative urns by Steven Proctor are also on view.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. An exhibition of works by illustrator Molly Mundy, who grew up in Lyme and graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, is up through Oct. 30.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center , Lebanon. The works of artists Jeanne Amato, Arief Suriawinata, Wendy Tucker, Mark Vernon and the Upper Valley Ship Modelers Guild are on view through September.

Great Hall , Springfield, Vt. Jack Rowell’s exhibition of photographs of The Hale Street Gang can be seen through Oct. 10. Also exhibiting is Randolph designer and artist Phil Godenschwager.

Hall Art Foundation , Reading. The works of painters Georg Baselitz and Neil Jenney, and multimedia artist Olafur Eliasson, are on view through November.

Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. “The Art of Weapons: Selections from the African Collection” runs through Dec. 20; and “Allan Houser: A Centennial Exhibition,” a show of sculpture by the late American artist, in honor of the centennial of his birth, through next May.

Hopkins Center , Dartmouth College, Hanover. A show of drawings by artists Charles Spurrier, Elizabeth Mayor, Christopher Schade, Jane South, Joey Slaughter and Doug Wirls is on view in the Strauss Gallery through Aug. 31. Paintings by Luca Molnar and photographs by Matt Storm, both recipients of the Department of Studio Art’s Perspectives on Design (POD) Award, are up in the Jaffe-Fried Gallery, also through Aug. 31.

Howe Library , Hanover. Paintings and etchings by Marilyn Milham and Owen McDowell continue in the Ledyard Gallery at Howe Library through Wednesday.

Kilton Public Library , West Lebanon. A show of photographs by Brenna Colt, “hmmmm......it made sense at the time ,” are on view in the ga llery at the Kilton Public Library through Sept. 22.

Library Arts Center and Studio , Newport. “ReSeen: How the ordinary can become extraordinary in the eyes of the artist” is up at the Library Arts Center through Sept. 12.

Long River Studios , Lyme. A show of Japanese shibori panels, monoprints and buttons by Jane Quimby runs through Sept. 15.

Main Street Museum of Art , White River Junction. David Fairbanks Ford’s homage to Peter the Great’s ethnographic and anthropological museum the Kunstakamera, with new exhibits and acquisitions, is on view through Jan. 15 .

Pompanoosuc Mills Showroom , East Thetford. “A Celebration of Upper Valley Artists,” which includes works by Elizabeth Mayor, Clifford B. West, Christopher Rollins of Plainfield, Charles Shurcliff of Cornish and Sally Wellborn runs through Sept. 13.

Royalton Memorial Library , South Royalton. Pottery and acrylic landscapes and abstract paintings by Irene Rippon are on view through Sept. 8.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site , Cornish. “The Hairstyle Files: Hirsute Gentlemen and Coiffured Ladies of the Gilded Age,” an exhibit of relief sculptures by Saint-Gaudens continues through Oct. 31. Jane Marsching, who was a 2013 Saint-Gaudens Fellow, exhibits her work in the picture gallery through Aug. 31.

Scavenger Gallery , White River Junction. The works of Ben Peberdy and W. David Powell are on view through August.

Tunbridge Library . ArtSpace at the library features a group show of pastels by 10 White River Valley artists through Oct. 10.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio , White River Junction. “Theme and Variations: Prints by Carol Lippman” is on view through Aug. 31.

Zollikofer Gallery , Coolidge Hotel, White River Junction. “Elemental Designs,” a show of photographs by Norwich photographer Rosamond Orford continues through Sept. 27.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.