04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Electra Webb, whose collection is the basis for this traveling exhibit, was an inspired pack rat. An upper-class American who could have turned up in an Edith Wharton novel, she came by her acquisitive talents naturally. Her mother, Louisine Havemeyer, drawing on the family sugar fortune, collected French Impressionist paintings, many of which hang today in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Electra was a rebel who would have nothing to do with high art. For her, beauty lay in humbler objects. When she was 18, she bought her first piece of folk art, a wooden cigar-store Indian. Over the years, Electra relentlessly accumulated toys, quilts, hooked rugs, tools and furniture—whatever happened to please her eye. Finally in 1947, when there was no space left in her sprawling Long Island mansion, she founded the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vt., to house her collection. "How could you, Electra," her mother once quizzed her, "you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?" But that trash turned out to be treasure. Americana today fetches handsome prices in the art world—a wooden cigar-store Indian like the one that Webb paid $15 for in 1907 can easily go for $70,000 at auction. And An American Sampler, a traveling exhibit currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., shows that Webb was aesthetically, as well as commercially, prescient in her choice of pastimes. The exhibition comprises an enchanting potpourri that includes 120 of Webb's quilts, weather vanes, whirligigs, carousel animals and trade signs, on loan from the Shelburne Museum. Take a look at, for instance, the big bold 19th-century shop signs, which were made before advertising had institutionalized itself. They're hard to miss and a lot of fun to see. (American trade signs continued a style that dates back as far as Roman times.) A huge white molar, roots and all, touts a dentist's services. A gaudy seven-foot pair of gilded specs with real glass lenses tries to lure customers to an optician. Smaller but even more intriguing are a handful of imaginatively tooled pie crimpers for trimming and decorating crusts, carved by sailors from whale teeth and bones during long months at sea. Kitchen implements as works of art, they are sometimes quite surreal. In one, a horse with the tail of a phoenix pulls a chariot; the chariot wheel is the part that cuts the pastry. Another implement features the figure of a nude woman astride the crimper, as if on a one-wheel bicycle. The late-19th-and early-20th-century decoys in the show seem to be alive. An 1870 shorebird has an iron nail for its bill, and a beady eye has been flicked on its small round head by the craftsman. Another alluring creature, all grace and glide, is a plump swan that might well have come straight from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." Its neck curves serenely, like the handle of a beautiful pitcher. Among the show's many other visual pleasures are a barber's chair that was designed in the shape of a rooster, and five brightly-painted carousel animals made by the famous Gustav A. Dentzel Company of Philadelphia. Another of the objects is a wooden Indian squaw holding aloft a handful of cigars. But because she is also carrying a papoose who is peeping over her shoulder, the squaw has an almost Madonna
-like quality. These works, too, show that while 19th-century American craftsmen may not have set out originally to create art, they often did just that, with good humor and unself-conscious grace. An American Sampler will be at the National Gallery until April 14. It travels next to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth (May 7-Sept. 4) and then to the Denver Art Museum (Oct. 15-Jan. 8, 1989). Its later schedule includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., the New-York Historical Society, New York City, and the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum. A comprehensive and colorful catalog is available by mail for $18 from the National Gallery of Art, APO, Washington, DC. 20565.