A Gift of American Art

An appreciation for colonial American artifacts and antiques perhaps started around 1876 with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Later while the likes of Andrew Mellon, JP Morgan and William K. Vanderbilt were collecting the masters of Europe which would be the foundation stones for the Met and the National Gallery, three others would begin to build a permanent treasure of American paintings and art.

No less known, those three were Henry Ford, Henry Francis Dupont and John D. Rockefeller. Their collections would result in Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur and the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. While European collections may have included a room here and there, entire buildings were included in some American collections.

One amusing anecdote is revealed by Harold Sack in the book American Treasure Hunt. Henry Ford had just purchased the Wayside Inn of Sudbury, Massachusetts, immortalized in Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. Ford had approached Israel Sack, Harold’s father and a prominent American furniture dealer. Sack was given the task of furnishing the inn. Ford had eyed a highboy at auction, but lost it to another bidder, a Mr. Dillon. Ford approached Dillon, provided his name and added that he had recently purchased the Wayside Inn. Ford asked Dillon if he agreed the highboy belongs in the Wayside Inn. Dillon agreed and suggested Ford instead sell the Inn to him.

Today all three of these institutions offer opportunities to learn about these collectors and their collections, and perhaps more importantly about the early country, its people and its craftsmen. Both Winterthur and Colonial Williamsburg offer educational opportunities to learn about American decorative arts.

One item I found particularly rewarding was a cd I picked up at Winterthur, “Music from An American Country Estate.” I can’t find it on Alibris, Amazon or the Winterthur online store now, however they may have it if you call. It consists of recordings from private performances in the mansion and you can even hear the enunciator ring!

Rockefeller, DuPont, Ford and others pioneered the collection of many artifacts that not only help us to know our own story as a nation, but have allowed us to appreciate the culture that emerged in what was to become the United States and know the quality of craft that was being produced here. While some sense of this can be appreciated at large museums like the Met, a visit to Williamsburg, Winterthur and the Henry Ford Museum can make the picture of the collector as well as the collected more complete.

Finally, before you go, click on this link to see a short video of the Rockefeller’s enjoying tea at Williamsburg. click here

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