Grab a cup of coffee, folks, this is a long one!
On Sunday, June 20th the Merry Toddlers (this time consisting of Carolyn, Vivian, Kristyne and I) took a day trip to Newport, RI. (We are called the Merry Toddlers because we like to take little art trips and we are always merry!). Our destinations this time were Marble House and Vernon Court, home of the National Museum of American Illustration. It was a beautiful day - a little overcast and foggy when we got to the coast, but not too hot and with a delightful breeze - and the drive took about an hour and a half and was very scenic with little traffic.
Marble House was our first stop. The "summer cottage" of Alva and William K. Vanderbilt, this opulent edifice by the sea only served as their summer home for about 3 years after it was built. (Subsequently Alva scandalously divorced her husband and a year later married his good friend. She was also a prime figure in the women's suffrage movement...but I digress! For further information I suggest you read Consuelo & Alva Vanderbilt: the Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda M. Stuart).
Aside from the regular furnishings on view there is currently a special exhibit of objects that originally comprised the furnishings of the Gothic Room but were subsequently sold by Alva V. and now reside in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL. This exhibit is of special interest to fellow "Gardner Geeks;" Alva Vanderbilt acquired most of these works around the same time Isabella Stewart Gardner was collecting and there are some striking pieces that would also look quite at home in Fenway Court. I'm thinking particularly of a beautiful little terra cotta bust of the young John the Baptist and a couple of exquisite marble reliefs as well some cassone panels that we believe were loaned to the cassone exhibit at the Gardner a year or so ago. Interestingly, there is also a terra cotta bust here that is a fake by the same forger who passed one off on ISG!
The entire house is well worth seeing and the audio tour is excellent (and included with the price of admission). At the end of the tour there is a gallery of reproductions by Newport Reproductions that features copies of furniture and paintings from the era. (I lusted after the copy of a small seaside scene by Edward Darley Boit but I restrained myself. I hate restraining myself, it's very boring). There is also an excellent gift shop which has reproductions of the VOTES FOR WOMEN china that Alva designed for her suffrage activities among other things. (I was a little disappointed that there weren't more postcards of the interiors of Marble House but not a big deal).
After our tour we had a light lunch in the Chinese Tea House near the water. This is a garishly mad little building that reflects the fascination with Asia that was so fashionable during the period the house was built. The menu is pre-made and limited but not bad and the setting is fun.
After lunch we toddled down the street to the National Museum of American Illustration, housed in Vernon Court, a smaller but much more architecturally pleasing (to me) building. Vernon Court was designed by the same firm that designed the Frick and has been called the most beautiful house in Newport. The museum was opened ten years ago by Laurence and Judy Cutler; an architect and an art dealer specializing in American Illlustration. He is the CEO and she is the Director of the Museum and the collection is theirs which they have given to the museum. (I assume they also own Vernon Court but I'm not quite sure about this).
The collection is quite comprehensive and beautifully displayed on the ground floor of the house, with a further gallery in the basement for special exhibits. Being a Maxfield Parrish devotee, I was very happy here! I saw a couple of pieces which I am pretty sure I saw in the Parrish exhibit at the Currier Gallery back when I lived in Manchester, NH. Also on display in the light-filled garden loggia are several huge paintings that were commissioned for the "Girls Dining Room" at the Scribner publishing house in Philadelphia called "A Florentine Fete." I don't know what the "boys" had in their dining room but I'm pretty sure the girls got the best end of the deal! There are chairs arranged in the middle of the room and I could happily spend an entire afternoon moving from chair to chair and just drinking these paintings in. There is also an extensive collection of Norman Rockwell (the most outside of the Rockwell Museum) and quite a few N.C. Wyeths as well as many other artists.
This museum is only open on Friday afternoons for a guided tour and during the day on Saturday and Sunday. The staff is very nice but don't seem to be particularly knowledgeable about art - the young ladies at the entrance seemed to be college kids with a summer job. An audio tour would be a very helpful addition; also being able to go into the small library room at the beginning instead of standing at the doors would be nice as you can barely see some of the gems housed in this room. When I first read about this museum in Marshall's Art Museums Plus, it indicated that you could see the grounds as well but sadly now you cannot. The gardens seem as if they would be well worth seeing and there is some statuary I would have liked to have seen more of too. There is a very good introductory video about the collection that features one of the board members: Whoopi Goldberg, who is also a collector of American illustration!
At the end there is a very nice gift shop, although I would have liked more reproductions of pieces in the collection (as opposed to works by represented artists that are not here). The book selection was very good and I had to be quite severe with myself - I only purchased one small version of a catalog by the Cutlers, who have written fairly extensively about American illustration.
On the journey homeward (and on the way down too!) we were treated to special Swiss chocolate that Vivian's daughter had brought her and that she generously shared with us. All in all a wonderful day filled with friends, art and....chocolate! Check out the adjacent Museums page for some highlights from the exhibit and stay tuned for future photos of the "Merry Toddlers" on the road....