If you love art but don’t drive out of your way to find it, you aren’t ever likely to wander into the Shelburne Museum. It’s out in the country in northern Vermont, a few miles south of Burlington, at least a couple of hours from where you might be vacationing in the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, or the White Mountains. It’s also the sort of country where the signs say “Bear Crossing” instead of “Deer Crossing.” We made it our last stop on a weekend driving vacation in New England.
Even though there’s plenty of art to see; the Shelburne Museum isn’t really an art museum; it’s an American cultural history museum, akin to the Genesee Country Museum, near Rochester, or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Its collections are exhibited in thirty buildings on a sprawling campus that also has plenty of well-tended gardens; it was with some difficulty that we persuaded the wife of our bosom, who gardens, to stop picking the flowers and take pictures instead. A day at the Shelburne requires good walking shoes. If you run out of steam, you can find a bench and wait for the wandering shuttle to take you to the next exhibit you want to see, or back to the entrance.
The place is rich with artefacts of everyday life before the 20th century — a collection of old quilts, a covered bridge, a general store, an 1890 stationmaster’s office, a steamboat that used to cruise nearby Lake Champlain, and so on. Not understanding what we were in for, we didn’t allow ourselves nearly enough time. We devoted the couple of hours that we had mostly to the buildings that featured fine art.
Art lovers like us will probably want to make a beeline for the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, which looks like a small version of a Newport mansion and contains a modest but superb collection of 19th-century works by Monet, Courbet, Degas, Manet, Corot, and Remington. These formerly belonged to Louisine and H.O. Havemeyer, a 19th-century robber baron (sugar) who spent much of his fortune assembling a stupendous art collection. Louisine and H.O. gave most of it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but some of the best pieces passed to their daughter Electra Havemeyer Webb, who had a summer home in Shelburne. It is Electra’s varied collections that fill the exhibits at the Shelburne Museum.
The most dramatic of five Monet paintings was a large, glittering The Ice Floes (Les Glacons) (see just above). We were even more pleased with the Corots. There are none of his silver-gray landscapes, but the Shelburne does have several exceptional figure paintings by Corot, including a pre-Freudian Bacchante with a Panther. On the walls of a room that reproduces Electra’s Park Avenue penthouse bedroom are several Degas pastels of dancers.
Our time at the Shelburne was made especially pleasant by the friendly folk who served as security guards. At most museums the people in uniform seem profoundly ignorant — you won’t get anything but a blank stare if you ask somebody at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to direct you to the Matisses. But the senior citizens who watch over the collections at the Shelburne — volunteers? — not only know all about the Havemeyer family, but also a lot about the paintings and other exhibits. We like talking art with people.
One building is given to the works of a minor American regionalist painter, Ogden Pleissner, whom we first encountered a few years ago at the Canajoharie Art Museum (see this post), whose oil paintings and pastels remind you of both Homer and Hopper. In another building, the Stagecoach Inn, we found a smile-provoking collection of American folk art — sculpture, decorated furniture, and fancy rugs, as well as paintings. Many of these works are anonymous, and their creators probably didn’t even think of themselves as artists. But there are familiar names as well, including Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks (one of his versions of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is here), and Erastus Salisbury Field. We were especially delighted with Field’s The Garden of Eden, a deliciously impossible landscape.
We never did figure out where the Shelburne Museum was exhibiting the other works of American art that it is supposed to own, including paintings by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Fitz Henry Lane, Thomas Cole, and Eastman Johnson, because we ran out of time. It was nearly sunset on a gorgeous day when we pulled onto the ferry that is carrying cars, for free, to New York State across Lake Champlain from Chimney Point, Vermont while they’re replacing the bridge.