- Historic Sites
Electra Webb And Her American Past
How a brave and gifted woman defied her parents and her background to create the splendid collection that is Shelburne
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The highly cultivated Mrs. Havemeyer undoubtedly bought hats, but it would never have occurred to her to collect the boxes they came in. Mrs. Lpuisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer was the wife of Henry O. Havemeyer, president of the American Sugar Refining Company, a monopoly that did more to inspire antitrust sentiment in the 1890's than any other company, with the possible exception of Standard Oil. The Havemeyers, however, were not the average robber baron and baroness, which is to say, a workhorse harnessed to “the market” paired with a clotheshorse galloping into the Four Hundred. The Havemeyers did not hold gaudy balls; they held genteel Sunday musicales. They numbered artists among their friends, most notably Mary Cassatt, the pioneer American impressionist painter. The sugar king invariably played the violin each morning before setting off to work. He and Louisine took countless arduous trips to Europe in a passionate search for great art to collect. By the time Electra was a well-traveled teen-ager, her parents had acquired one of America’s finest private collections of European paintings (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). They also had acquired—judging from Mrs. Havemeyer’s privately printed memoirs—a contempt for ordinary Americans, who simply refused to understand, as Mrs. Havemeyer complained, that a private monopoly was a good thing and persisted in thinking it very bad indeed. Louisine’s hatred of Teddy Roosevelt was venomous.
In any case, Electra inherited the family passion for collecting but most assuredly not the family contempt for the commonality, as she demonstrated on that crucial day in 1907. “I was driving through the little town of Stamford, Connecticut, and what should I see but a cigar-store Indian,” Mrs. Webb was to recall some fifty years later to an audience at Colonial Williamsburg. “It represented a life-size squaw clutching a bunch of cigars in her hand. I just had to have her.” The shopkeeper was happy to sell it for fifteen dollars. Electra carried it home in her car and duly showed it to her recently widowed mother. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could have seen my mother’s face. She said, ‘What have you done?’ ” Now Electra might have replied that she thought her wooden squaw was quaint or amusing. Had she thought so, it is safe to say there would never have been a Shelburne Museum. Instead Electra bravely tackled Mother, Mary Cassatt, and high art head on: “I bought a work of art,” she explained. “This is perfectly dreadful,” replied her mother. When Louisine Havemeyer realized that the dreadful deed was only the first step, that her daughter would go on to fill two large houses with carved eagles, hand-painted wallpaper, and rude country furniture, she was aghast, mortified, and most of all, bewildered. “How can you , Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”
Now there is something to be said for Mrs. Havemeyer’s view. When you own Tanagra figurines (these, too, can be seen at Shelburne), it is not easy to see art in a cigar-store squaw hastily carved by some anonymous itinerant whittler. When her daughter began collecting such things, it was even harder to do so, for in 1907 Electra Havemeyer was a genuine pioneer, twenty years ahead of her time. She was collecting “folk art” before almost anyone knew that Americans produced it and was piling up “Americana” before the term was coined. Moreover, she collected such things not because they were sweetly nostalgic or historically valuable but because she liked the beauty she found in them. No wonder Mrs. Havemeyer threw up her hands in despair and complained that it was “hard for a mother” to bring up a daughter on Old Masters only to “see what taste she’s fallen to now.”
What Mrs. Havemeyer couldn not grasp was that her disIf turbing daughter did not real.M. .M. Iy care about “taste” as such. She cared about something deeper than taste and prior to art itself. What she loved—and the Shelburne Museum is the proof of this—was the evidence of a truth easily forgotten in the endless solemn talk about art: that while people may have horrendous taste, the love of beauty is well-nigh universal. That is why crusty Vermont farmers wanted graceful-looking weather vanes, why hard-bitten merchants put up handsome-looking trade signs, why tough old sea captains wanted carved figures on the prows of their ships, why farm girls decorated quilts with beautiful patterns of patchwork, and why the future founder of the Shelburne Museum avidly collected the weather vanes, the signs, the figureheads, and the quilts. She once explained to a visitor: “I try to find the art in folk art.” Mrs. Webb’s endeavor can be stated more broadly. She was delighted to see love of beauty shining forth in workaday things and in lives otherwise cramped, harsh, and laborious. That is another reason why Mrs. Webb’s museum turned out to be so amiable a place. It displays its founder’s deep affection for the virtues of ordinary people. “She was simplicity herself,” her elderly secretary, Elsie Schoonover, told me. “You never had the feeling you were with a woman of great wealth.”