- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

"An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museum," opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art, displays more than 300 masterpieces fine American furniture, textiles, paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics, glass and metalwork.

The exhibit is a long-awaited display of selections from the best collection of decorative arts in the United States and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Winterthur, an estate near Wilmington, Del. This is the first time parts of the collection have traveled. The objects, either made or used between 1640 and 1860, come from the 85,000 amassed at Winterthur.

The event marks the unusual opportunity to "meet" Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), also called "Mr. Harry" and "H.F.," one of the Renaissance men of the last century. He was not only a ravenous collector of decorative arts but a skilled horticulturist and farmer. Mr. du Pont was lucky to have been born with a great "eye," money and the ability to arrange objects. The du Pont family started with the manufacture of gunpowder in amassing its fortune.

Mr. Harry put together 175 period rooms and modern galleries. He believed, as one of the exhibit labels informs the viewer, that "art belongs to the center, not the periphery of life. It is not the pastime of princes, but necessary language of the human spirit."

If the show has a fault, it's in not telling the public more about the man. For now, exquisite examples of his taste will have to do. Winterthur was, indeed, his American vision.

Wendy Cooper, Winterthur senior curator of furniture, has divided the show into five roughly chronological segments that "tell the story of America."

In the "Early Settlement and Sophistication" section, viewers will first see a 1680 massive, ornate wooden cupboard from Peter Woodbury's house in Beverly, Mass. Mr. du Pont moved whole rooms to what he called his "American country estate" on 1,000 acres of fertile land in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware. If exhibition visitors had been fortunate enough to visit Winterthur, with its museum, library, sweeping lawns and gardens, they would have seen the room where this cupboard stood. Here, in this superbly installed show, they must content themselves with the room's choice object.

Next comes the section called "A Passion for Rococo." Mr. du Pont shone with purchases of decorative arts made of elegant, gracefully curving designs that emanated from natural forms such as shells, blossoms and leaves. The "rococo" probably derives from the French word "rocaille," a reference to fantastical rocklike designs in late 17th- and 18th-century French gardens, according to the catalog for the show. The style made its way to England and to American shores, and became known as Chippendale. It was Mr. du Pont's favorite period.

Mark Leithauser, National Gallery chief of design, created "walls" of objects in the rococo gallery through three stunningly tall desk-bookcases. He gave continuity to the exhibition by reflecting these walls in mirrors in each room, then carrying the images to the next gallery with more mirrors.

The center of what Mr. Leithauser calls "the mahogany wall" is the handsome bombe desk and bookcase fashioned of choice woods and inlays. It's one of the best examples of furniture made for the wealthy mercantile elite in Boston during the late 18th century. The swelling forms ("bombe" is French for "convex") that combine with delicate rococo ornamentation are carefully rendered with the expert craftsmanship typical of this furniture.

The two other furniture pieces of the wall are the shell-decorated Providence chest-on-chest from Rhode Island and the richly carved mahogany high chest that was made for Philadelphia residents Miriam and Michael Gratz. This display alone is worth a trip to the exhibit.

The "East Meets West" gallery contains a set of huge celadon porcelain "Pagodas." The rage for chinoiserie was as great in the 18th and 19th centuries as the taste for rococo had been earlier. Asian products came to the United States through Europe and England, and craftsmen in both Europe and America imitated goods from the East.

A particularly handsome example is a high chest from Boston of walnut, maple and white pine with japanned decoration and brass hardware. Japanning imitated shimmering Chinese and Japanese lacquerware. Craftsmen made it by mottling layers of paint to look like tortoiseshell and built up gesso for the ornamental motifs.

Mr. du Pont also liked the art of the Pennsylvania Dutch, a misunderstanding of "Deutsch," or German, and their approach to decoration. The German settlers of eastern Pennsylvania painted their functional chests and chairs with brightly colored, whimsical birds, stars, flowers, animals and "trees of life," or illuminated manuscripts called Fraktur, which served as records of births, marriages and house blessings.

Another side to Mr. du Pont's story of Americans' search for an aesthetic language is summed up in the last "American Classicism" gallery with some of the show's stars. The curator mounted Benjamin West's "American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations With Great Britain" (1783-84) above a veneered New York sideboard that holds six matching silver Paul Revere tankards (1772) and a pair of mahogany urn-shaped knife boxes.

John A.H. Sweeney, 71, was the first curator at Winterthur and worked with Mr. du Pont for 15 years. He regards that time as the best of his life. Mr. Sweeney, who retired from the museum in 1991, recalls that the collector intended to be the best in the American decorative arts field. Mr. du Pont's father, Henry Algernon du Pont, an authoritarian West Point graduate who collected European antiques, probably influenced his son more than is recognized, Mr. Sweeney says.

"Mr. Harry loathed the European stuff, in particular the big one-story Italianate marble staircase in Winterthur's original entrance hall. When he was on a cruise around the world, he had his architect replace it with the present magnificent elliptical two-story Montmorenci Staircase. He wrote from the boat, 'When this is done, I will know my memorial will not be a marble staircase,'" Mr. Sweeney says.

He remembers that while Mr. du Pont was creating his house and museum, his family was living there. "The younger daughter liked to set up some of the antique stools and chairs in the long hallway and use them as hurdles for jumping. I don't think her father ever knew about it," he says with a laugh.

One day an art dealer brought in a painting showing the chaos of an election. Painted by John Lewis Krimmel of Philadelphia in 1815 and titled "Election Day in Philadelphia," it appealed to the curator. He telephoned Mr. du Pont at his other home in Florida and recommended he buy it. "Will it appeal to the children?" he recalls Mr. du Pont asking. Mr. Sweeney assured him that it would. "Buy it," Mr. du Pont boomed. It joined the collection and adorns the "American Classicism" room.

Visitors to the show might want to take the collector's advice to heart and rush down to their favorite antique shops: "During the years I have collected, I have had many satisfactions and only one regret. The latter is for the things I might have acquired, but allowed to escape me," he wrote.

WHAT: "An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museum"

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, tomorrow through Oct. 6


PHONE: 202/737-4215

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