Electra Havemeyer Webb's relatives became accustomed to having the family enclave's indoor tennis court guarded by cigar store Indians. And to her turning up with loads of witch balls or trays of sparkling false eyeballs or armfuls of quilts that had proved more than her own tables or beds could accommodate.
But things changed. John Wilmerding, Electra Webb's grandson and deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, remembers when he came back from school one summer in the mid-'40s to find his bedroom almost bare -- the Currier & Ives prints, quilts, wooden figures and other objects lent by Grandmother were gone.
"Grandmother's opening her museum," his mother explained.
Grandmother Webb's Shelburne Museum, a sort of attic-cum-back-yard/indoor-outdoor museum, was established on the east coast of Lake Champlain, on Vermont's Shelburne Peninsula. And about 120 pieces from it -- weather vanes, carrousel animals, quilts and coverlets, rugs, whirligigs, decoys, shop signs and sculpture -- went on display yesterday in "An American Sampler: Folk Art From the Shelburne Museum" in the National Gallery of Art's East Building. The exhibit (through April 14) is a delightful holiday treat, a Christmas gift of toys for adults as well as children. The pieces look like the tiny ornaments on an old-fashioned yule tree, grown full size.
It's the first time the National Gallery has held a major show of the funny, functional and freestyle creations sometimes called American folk art, even though it owns and displays on a small scale the most important study of the genre -- "The Index of American Design," renderings of such objects made during the Depression -- and the important Garbisch collection of nonacademic paintings.
Indian giver Webb didn't stop collecting after she'd gathered up the objects she'd spread like maple butter over the family enclave. Instead, she enlarged her scale.
She was a great friend of Capt. Fisher, skipper of the SSTiconderoga, the last steam side-wheeler on Lake Champlain. After the Ticonderoga made its last port, Grandmother Webb built a railroad track to move it across the grass to her museum -- along with a covered bridge (for which she built a pond), a lighthouse, a school building, a 1782 saltbox house and about 30 other buildings. (Then, for good measure, she made a gallery of the French impressionist paintings she inherited from her parents, the Havemeyers -- the ones they didn't give to the Metropolitan Museum, but that's another story.) Recently, some 25 years after her death, the museum added a round barn -- flown in piece by piece by helicopter.
The National Gallery staff couldn't manage to bring these larger exhibits to Washington, but they brought more than enough to give a good idea of what Shelburne is about. And the catalogue, produced by Frances P. Smyth, the National Gallery's inspired editor in chief, is full of glorious pictures not only of the objects but also of Electra Webb (in one she's riding the carrousel), her family, her dogs and her museum.
J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery's director, thinks of the exhibit as one more step in broadening the definition of art itself.
Wilmerding points out, lest some think "the National Gallery has gone off the deep end," that the show is a part of a "ferment" in the scholarly art world. "It's a good time to look at this art that tells us how we lived and worked. I think in some ways her appreciation of these objects was a part of a populist philosophy, as well as of her whimsical humor."
The sponsor, an investment firm named The New England sees the exhibit as not only a reflection of the company's values, but also "a lot of fun," says Dan Logan, senior vice president.
The country's premier exhibit designers, the National Gallery's Gaillard Ravenel and Mark Leithauser, are both collectors of this informal art themselves, and from the beginning worked with Deborah Chotner, coordinator of this show. Their installation matches the joy in the objects.
Leithauser, faced with an awkward passageway, made a barn-paneled room as a roundhouse for a sheet zinc locomotive weather vane with lightning rod from a Providence, R.I., railroad station. The marvelous luminous ceiling echoes the lightning rod. Its spikes look as though they've already been hit by electricity. In the octagonal room that last held Barnett Newman's "Stations of the Cross," there is now a central oculus, which shines down on the weather vanes. The quilts on the walls are bathed in a gentler light.
Webb's mother, Louisine Havemeyer, an early collector of impressionist art, called what her daughter collected "trash." Museums, for lack of a better term, now call it "folk art," an inelegant and inexact label for art that everyone knows when they see, but finds almost impossible to name, though it's certainly not naive or primitive, as some call it. If we can't name it, we can describe it.
The art most often has a function, works for a living -- or at least pretends to. The objects in the exhibit help define the art's intentions in a plain-spoken way.
Consider the 1870 hammered sheet-iron weather vane of a cow. No tightfisted, no-nonsense Hardwick, Vt., farmer would say he was going to put a sculpture or an ornament on his barn. Nope, that there cow is meant to show which way the wind blows.
And what small-town New Jersey bride would admit that her pierced, applique'd "Mariner's Compass" quilt was an abstract textile painting (if she knew what one was). Nosiree. It's something to keep them warm in the night.
The 1890 rooster barber chair for children makes functional virtue of its funky design. The polychrome woodcarving's molded leather seat provides a way to strap in a child reluctant to have his hair cut, as well as a built-in drawer for the torture tools.
Making scrimshaw obviously amused many a sailor on the long voyage home, and produced artful pie crimpers like the "Woman Riding Wheel" and the "Double Eagle Head and Hand" -- for trimming crusts -- and the "Eagle's Head Knitting Needles."
Perhaps the most charming quality of this art is its sense of poking fun at itself and the world. The artwork is witty, tongue-in-cheek, full of visual puns, back-home jokes, humorous juxtapositions and outrageous suggestions.
The shop signs are especially good at this. You can almost hear the sign craftsman saying, "Wouldn't it be ridiculous if I made myself a heck of a big ...": rocking chair (77 inches high, for the Boston Rocker Co., Morrisville, Vt., made in 1849); tooth (22 3/4 inches, for a dentist in 1850); key (78 inches wide, for a locksmith in 1870); glasses (83 1/2 inches, for an optician in 1880).
Some of the other works are just flat-out serious art -- if art is taken to be an object that is beautiful, carefully handcrafted, imaginatively and individually designed.
I nominate the turn-of-the-century giraffe and horse carved by Daniel Muller of Gustav A. Dentzel Carousel Co. of Philadelphia. The horse's saddle is ornamented with a fine head that looks like a wind spirit. The giraffe's saddle has a sphinx and a pyramid. Muller studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, proving, not surprisingly, that not all so-called folk artists are untrained or amateurs.
Most of the quilts in the show rival paintings more often seen in the East Building: the delicate 1840 "Basket of Flowers"; the nostalgic 1846 "Major Ringold Album"; the 1880 ink-blot "Hawaiian Quilt"; and the 1922 "Amish Sawtooth Diamond," as abstract as a Frank Stella.
These free-form artists were patriotic, though they didn't feel it necessary to be pompous about it. Look for the fish surmounted with a flag (1850 New York State); the "Eagle on Uncle Sam's Hat," an 1870 carving inscribed "Eagle House US," found on a Pittsburgh veterans' boardinghouse; and the 1875 carved eagle that looks as if it has smelled something foul.
Summing it all up is a 1940 hooked rug, "Fourth of July." Children cavort around a picnic spread. Even the little baby in the carriage waves a flag. The puppy dog rears on its hind legs to bark happily. A wagon with driver and dog races ahead of the firecracker. The top is inscribed "The 4 of July." And at the bottom is a line, appropriately worked in all lowercase letters, that defines and describes the whole kit-and-caboodle at the National Gallery show:
"all had a good time."