Monet, Corot, and American folk art in Shelburne, Vermont

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.

The entrance to the Shelburne Museum doesn't really suggest what's beyond.

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.

The Vermont shore as seen from the ferry

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.

P. G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers

When Monet painted Nymphéas in 1915, he wasn

It’s not pretty when a great talent hangs on too long.  Have you seen film of Willie Mays falling down trying to catch a fly ball for the Mets? Have you seen the appalling canvasses Monet painted in his dotage, when cataracts distorted his sense of color?

So what happens when great writers get old? We haven’t often seen it. Jane Austen (age 41), Jack London (age 40), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (age 44) all died before they got old. E. M. Forster gave up writing novels when he was 44 (after A Passage to India), Thomas Hardy when he was 55 (after Jude the Obscure). Dickens was still at the top of his game when he died at 58.  Who knows what they might have had left in the tank if they’d reached their 90s?

But we do know about P. G. Wodehouse, because the man who was first published in 1903 at the age of 21 kept writing till the end. In fact, he was still writing a new novel (Sunset at Blandings, published after his death, unfinished) when he died in 1975 at the age of 93.

We recently made our way one last time through Wodehouse’s last complete novel, The Cat-Nappers (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen).  Just as we remembered, there was little to enjoy in the work of the 92-year-old Wodehouse.

Now ordinarily there’s nothing like a Wodehouse story for what ails you. A few hours with Ukridge (1923), Very Good, Jeeves (1930), Blandings Castle (1935), Joy in the Morning (1947), or Pigs Have Wings (1952), will cure practically anything.

In 1930 Wodehouse was 49 years old

But The Cat-Nappers is a sobering book, enough to make a man of a certain age reevaluate euthanasia. Why couldn’t Wodehouse have quit while he was ahead? At 64, he could still deliver a hilarious masterpiece like The Mating Season (1949).  At 75, when he wrote How Right You Are, Jeeves (1960), he’d slipped very little.  But at 92, Wodehouse was running on fumes.  In The Cat-Nappers a man can see all too well just what old age has in store for him, like . . .

1. Repeating yourself. Part of Wodehouse’s genius, of course, was to present old wheezes in fresh new ways. Take Bertie Wooster’s habit, when in a certain buoyant mood, of judiciously abbreviating a word or two in a phrase. Wodehouse used the gag to help set the tone of How Right You Are, Jeeves in the novel’s opening sentence:

Jeeves placed the sizzling eggs and b. on the breakfast table, and Reginald (Kipper) Herring and I, licking the lips, squared our elbows and got down to it.

Or from Joy in the Morning:

“She expressed a hope that you might shortly see your way to visiting Steeple Bumpleigh.”
I shook the head.
“Out of the q., Jeeves.”

This sight gag was a unique invention.  (It’s entirely for the benefit of the silent reader, lost if you’re reading out loud.) But like any trick it loses its comic effect if overused. In the Wooster-and-Jeeves novels of his prime, Wodehouse rarely used it more than once per book.

Not so in The Cat-Nappers.  The gag first pops up on page 16:

I drove on, and he said “Phew” and removed a bead of persp. from the brow.

So far, so good — but then Wodehouse uses it again, more awkwardly, two pages later:

“You know her?” Orlo said. I saw that I would do well to watch my step, for it was evident that what I have heard Jeeves call the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on was beginning to feel the rush of life beneath its keel. You never know what may happen when the g.-e. m. takes over.

Corot knew just how much of his trademark red (in the girl’s hair ribbon) was needed for a color accent in his picture. Wodehouse, in younger days, knew just when and how often to use his trademark gags for maximum effect.

And then, on page 30, one finds abbreviated words twice on the same page. And more on pages 36, 46, 47 (the same word as on page 46), 56, 68, and 99!  At 93 years of age, Wodehouse couldn’t tell when enough was enough. By the end of the book, the abbreviations long cease to amuse; they’re just an annoying writer’s tic.

2. Repeating yourself (part 2). Wodehouse fans relish Bertie Wooster’s hilarious habit of attributing lines of poetry to the wrong poet (often Shakespeare). In his prime, Wodehouse had the judicious use of this gag down cold.

But in The Cat-Nappers he had lost his feel. At page 83, Bertie is puzzled as to the origin of “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” which comes up in a conversation with Jeeves:

“Your own?” I said.
“No, sir. A quotation.”
“Well, carry on,” I said, thinking what a lot of good things Shakespeare had said in his time.

Wodehouse forgot that he’d already used the gag 50 pages earlier:

One of the first poems I ever learned — I don’t know who wrote it, probably Shakespeare — ran

I love little pussy; her coat is so warm;
And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm

If Wodehouse thought it would be funny to posit Shakespeare as the author of “I love little pussy,” one can only conclude that he was, as Jacques put it in As You Like It, entering “second childishness.”

Wodehouse in 1975, a few days before his death

3. Childishness. And painful as it is to write, there’s reason to think that the nonegenarian Wodehouse had, indeed, entered into his second childhood when he sat down at his typewriter to write The Cat-Nappers.  In its opening paragraphs, Bertie is explaining to Jeeves that he has spots on his chest, and he cites Ogden Nash for the proposition that he should scratch them:

“Well, here’s what the poet Nash wrote. ‘I’m greatly attached to Barbara Frietchie. I’ll bet she scratched when she was itchy.'”

In 75 years of writing, Wodehouse had never stooped to such a thing as borrowing someone else’s joke. His special genius was literary allusions in new and unexpected contexts — not re-using someone else’s comic material.  And the comic rhyme Bertie was quoting was kindergarten humor, at best.

4. Forgetfulness. Another tool in Wodehouse’s bag of tricks for his Wooster-and-Jeeves novels — again, a gag he had always used with discretion — was to have Bertie, supposedly a mental lightweight, struggle to come up with a five-dollar word. He does it at page 79 of The Cat-Nappers:

I was still much perplexed by that utterance of Angelica Briscoe’s. The more I brooded on it, the more cryptic, if that’s the word, it became.

But why would Bertie have ever doubted whether “cryptic” was the word he wanted?  In the preceding two pages alone, Bertie had used the words “nihilist,” “personable,” and “desultory” effectively and appropriately.  Why would “cryptic” have been a puzzler?  And why did Wodehouse think it would be funny for Bertie to question whether he’d used it correctly?

And once again, Wodehouse had lost his knack of sensing when a gag wouldn’t be funny anymore.  Two pages later, Bertie fumbles for a word again:

“I wouldn’t have thought Porter would have shown such what-is-it.”

Jeeves helps him out:

“Would pusillaniminity be the word for which you are groping, sir?”

“Quite possibly. I know it begins with pu.”  A few chapters later, Bertie gropes for another word, then brings it to mind.  The word turns out to be “dumfounded.”

The elderly Wodehosue

This pattern’s especially telling. Wodehouse has Bertie struggling for the right word so often in The Cat-Nappers as to suggest that the elderly author himself was struggling to come up with words when he wanted them.

6. Rambling. If Wodehouse’s prose has a fault, especially in his later books, it was that he sometimes dwelt too long on a point and looked at it from too many different angles. Sometimes, one feels, Wodehouse couldn’t choose between figures of speech that he liked and decided simply to use them all.

In The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse rambles and dithers like never before.  When, at page 34, Bertie sees a man he had no reason to expect in the vicinity, Wodehouse wastes a page and a half of tiresome prose having Bertie speculate that the man has died and that his ghost is haunting the neighborhood.  Five pages later, Wodehouse has Bertie spend another full page describing how he met a cat and scratched it behind its ears.

7. Indiscretion. Throughout his life, unlike so many other 20th-century writers, Wodehouse claimed to be apolitical.  Except for a bit of mild mockery of British fascists in some of his stories from the 1920s and 1930s (see this Emsworth post), he rarely showed his political colors.

But in The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse let the mask fall, revealing himself (to Emsworth’s morbid satisfaction) as a staunch conservative.  When an old school acquaintance, Orlo Porter, whom Bertie encounters leading a protest march, discloses that he is a communist, Bertie looks at him askance:

I hadn’t realized that was what he was, and it rather shocked me, because I’m not any too keen on Communists.

When Orlo complains that his fiance’s father has gotten rich by “grinding the faces of the widow and the orphan, Bertie gives his readers a pithy defense of free-market capitalism:

I could have corrected him here, pointing out that you don’t grind people’s faces by selling them pressed beef and potato chips at a lower price than they would be charged elsewhere . . . .

Nor is Bertie under illusions about the murderous thugs in Moscow:

Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.

Wodehouse surely held these bluntly expressed views well before he reached his nineties.  But nothing like them appears in his earlier stories.  For decades Wodehouse had carefully posed as a man of the arts who was comfortably and blissfully above the fray.  In The Cat-Nappers, Bertie Wooster compares himself to Orlo Porter:

I was told he made fiery far-to-the-left speeches, while I was more the sort that is content to just exist beautifully.

No doubt in 1974 Wodehouse still wanted his readership to think of him as “existing beautifully” — the same image that had been cultivated by the aesthete Oscar Wilde, who so greatly influenced Wodehouse (see this Emsworth post). But political sentiments spill forth in The Cat-Nappers anyway, because the irritability of old age had robbed Wodehouse of the discretion that had for so long kept them in check.

The Cat-Nappers is perhaps the only work of P. G. Wodehouse that Emsworth cannot recommend.  It’s not entirely without merit; there’s an amusing passage on page 88 in which a fiance of Bertie’s lectures him on improvements to his character that she will bring about once they’re married.  But there’s not much more.  The Cat-Nappers reminds us that if we live long enough, we too can look forward to a day when we keep saying the same things over and over, lose our art, wax indiscreet, become childish, and babble till our dazed offspring zone us out altogether.

American Art at the National Academy Museum

Abraham Leon Kroll - The Conversation (Natl Academy NYC 1920)

Abraham Leon Kroll's 1920 painting "The Conversation" reminded us of portraits George Bellows was painting about the same time and restaurant scenes Edward Hopper would be painting in another 10-20 years

In a post last year, we were righteously indignant about the failure of the National Academy Museum to exhibit its large fine permanent collection of American art. But in 2009 the National Academy has been mending its ways. Twice already this year the National Academy has filled its modest galleries with nothing but art from its own collection. We happened to catch both shows.

This facade of the National Academy Museum looks just like another narrow Fifth Avenue townhouse (it’s half a block up from the Guggenheim).  You have to go through the gift shop to get to the ticketseller (clearly a volunteer), who doesn’t have much to do because the National Academy Museum unfortunately doesn’t get much traffic.

Last winter the National Academy was offering an exhibition of landscape paintings called “American Waters.” This exhibition was not, frankly, very focused, since 200 years of art were represented and the subject of “waters” Garber - By Addingham (Natl Acad NYC 1911)takes in a lot. But we were still delighted to see so much first-rate American art (about 50 paintings out of a collection of over 5,000 works of art) come out of storage. The one that pleased us most was a painting by Daniel Garber, one of our favorite American impressionists (see this post), titled By Addington (just above), a gentle scene of farm life along a Pennsylvania river.

Kensett - The Bash-Bish (Natl Acad NYC 1855)We saw a number of Hudson River school paintings, including what is surely one of John Frederick Kensett’s finest, The Bish-Bash, which portrays a dramatic waterfall in western Massachusetts. We’ve added the Bish-Bash Falls to our list of places we want to see when we visit New England.

Currently the National Academy has another exhibit of pieces from its collection whose common feature is the portrayal Junius Brutus Stearns - The Millennium (Am Acad NYC 1849)of the human face and figure; it runs till November 2009. Once again, the theme of the show seems to be fairly loose, but no matter, because they’ve uncarted plenty of gems: some very recent pieces as well as 200-year-old paintings like Junius Brutus Stearns’s old-fashioned utopian scene,The Millennium, based on the passage from Isaiah: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; Thomas Waterman Wood - The Rag Picker (Natl Acad NYC 1859)(and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6 (NIV). We are always drawn to 19th-century American genre paintings; here we saw for the first time Thomas Waterman Wood’s cheerful portrait of a Parisian urchin, The Rag Picker.

The overall quality of these pieces is astonishingly high, given the relative obscurity of the National Academy Museum. Even after seeing only a modest sampling of its permanent collection, we feel sure that its holdings are superior to the American art collections in all but perhaps a half dozen museums in the United States.

Eakins -- Self-Portrait (Natl Acad NYC 1902)

Thomas Eakins, by Thomas Eakins

One of the unique features of a visit to the National Academy is that museum volunteers are likely to come up to you and strike up a conversation about a work you’re looking at. It’s happened to us several times now; during our recent visit we had a very pleasant exchange with a highly knowledgeable elderly lady about a self-portrait by Andrew Wyeth and the Wyeth family generally. And, indeed, two of the best works on display were the Wyeth self-portrait and a very rare self-portrait by Thomas Eakins.

Sargent -- Portrait of Monet (National Academy NYC)

Claude Monet, by John Singer Sargent

It is our sense that the National Academy Museum is especially rich in portraits because, when artists have been nominated (over the last 150 years) to membership in the National Academy, they are expected to contribute an example of their work to the museum, and not infrequently they give paintings of themselves. Omitted from this exhibit is a portrait by John Singer Sargent of the French impressionist Claude Monet; we know it’s somewhere in the National Academy’s vaults.

The twentieth-century is well-represented in this exhibit. We were pleased to see a 1930s-era painting by one of our favorite American artists, the regionalist Marsh Reginald -- Barrel of FunReginald Marsh, that was new to us, entitled Barrel of Fun. It shows people in a large tube in an amusement park in which people fall all over each other as the “barrel” slowly turns. We haven’t seen such a thing lately; the likelihood of a fellow’s being kicked in the teeth by accident, or a lady’s being groped Alphaeus Philemon Cole - The Blank Canvason purpose, would seem to be fairly high, and no doubt the liability insurance carriers have balked. We were also struck by a self-portrait of a painter at his craft of figure painting, Alphaeus Philemon Cole’s, The Blank Canvas, which reminded us of a painting on a similar theme by John Koch right here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery. We noted the Koch painting in an earlier post.

American Impressionists in Old Lyme, Connecticut

Willard Metcalf's "May Night"

What art lover can get enough of the impressionists? Not Emsworth, certainly, despite his vow to partake of more solid fare, and so last weekend found us in Old Lyme, Connecticut treating ourselves to a second generous helping of American impressionists this summer. (The first was here in Rochester, with pictures from the Phillips Collection. See my earlier post.)

Old Lyme is home to the Florence Griswold Museum, the only museum I know of devoted solely to American impressionism. For a decade or two, beginning around 1900, a number of painters, including Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, came each summer to stay at Florence Griswold’s boarding house and to paint in the congenial and picturesque surroundings of Old Lyme. Metcalf depicted its classy facade in one of his best-known paintings, May Night, seen above. (The place is not nearly as mansion-like as Metcalf’s picture suggests!)

The boarding house is no longer the home of an art colony, but instead a small, unpretentious museum. The gardens have been nicely restored, a new gallery building (sadly devoid of architectural interest) was erected several years ago, and a good (though narrowly focused) art collection has been assembled.

Theodore Robinson's "The Wedding March"

The show that now fills the new gallery spaces (through July 27, 2008) consists of American impressionist paintings from the Terra Foundation. These were painted by Americans working from about 1885 and into the 1920s in Giverny, of all places, the French town where Claude Monet lived and tended his celebrated garden with its Japanese footbridge and lily pond.

These young Americans must have been quite a nuisance to Monet and his family. One of them, Theodore Butler, succeeded in marrying Monet’s step-daughter, Suzanne Hoschede, an event memorialized in Theodore Robinson’s painting The Wedding March, which is part of this show. Several of Butler’s own paintings, which did not especially appeal to us, were also on display. Willard Metcalf, who collected birds’ eggs (shown as part of this exhibit!), managed to get himself hired by Monet to teach botany to his son and stepson.

Still another American, John Leslie Breck, apparently tried and failed to marry another stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschede. Breck surely did his best to curry favor with the girl’s stepfather; he joined Monet in painting those tiresome haystacks. (The Breck picture shown to the left is titled Morning Fog and Sun.) One wall of the galleries was wasted on a dozen small haystack studies by Breck.

Breck's "Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon)"

But we did enjoy a large and impressive pastoral landscape by Breck entitled Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon), which shows the influence of Barbizon painters Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Breton — although everyone in our party agreed that Breck had devoted too much of the canvas to the foreground.

Ernest Lawson's "Harlem Valley, Winter"

The show in Old Lyme has a satisfying set of works by Theodore Robinson, some of which brought to mind paintings by Ernest Lawson we had recently seen in the exhibit from the Phillips Collection in Rochester. (For Emsworth’s reflections on that exhibit, see this post.) For example, Lawson had a habit of putting bare tree limbs in the foreground of a landscape (see above) as a sort of screen for the rest of the painting. Robinson’s earlier painting, Winter Landscape, done in 1889, used the same device.

Lawson’s work is characterized overall by the use of thickly applied, jewel-tone paints. But Theodore Robinson apparently used this technique first, as evidenced by my favorite of the Robinson pictures in this show, Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge.

Theodore Robinson's "Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge"

The highlight of the show for me was a wall of several paintings by my favorite American impressionist, the bold colorist Carl Frieseke, who produced his best work in the second and third decades of the twentieth century while Matisse and Picasso were taking modern art in quite different directions. In Frieseke’s Lady in a Garden, the stripes on the lady’s dress become indistinguishable from the reeds through in which she is standing; she becomes one with cultivated nature.

Carl Frieseke's "Lady in a Garden"

From Rochester, the Florence Griswold Museum is not exactly a day trip, but it’s easy to find once you’re in New England anyway. Old Lyme is just off Interstate 95, about thirty miles east of New Haven.

For an art museum junkie who cares about American art, and Emsworth stands at the front of that line, the Florence Griswold Museum is worthy of regular visits for its excellent permanent collection. Most of that collection is, unfortunately, in storage when the museum has a traveling exhibition like the present one from the Terra Foundation occupying its new exhibition space.

But highlights of the collection, including this quintessentially impressionistic work by Childe Hassam, can be seen in the first- and second-floor rooms of the old boarding house. A particularly pleasing painting by William Chadwick shows the veranda of the boarding house as it was when Chadwick, Hassam, and the others were working there a hundred years ago. Amusingly, the panels of the kitchen cupboards were all painted by the denizens of the art colony back in the day.
(July 15, 2008)

See Emsworth’s post on another small but fine art museum whose collection focuses on the American Impressionists: The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. It’s at this post.

And check out some of the American impressionists, including Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. See my recent post.