Review by Kenneth L. Ames
An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum

Wendy A. Cooper. An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, 2002. 214 pp.; 150+ color and bw illustrations, checklist, index. $35.00.

Winterthur is a wonderful place. That may sound trite but it is true. There is nothing quite like it. Winterthur has its imitators, surely, but it has no peers. Winterthur is, simply put, the greatest collection of early American decorative arts anywhere.

I had the privilege of working at Winterthur for some seventeen years. Few days go by when I do not wish that I still had access to that extraordinary collection. Even now, when looking at quirky New England eighteenth-century chairs, I can still visualize details of similar chairs at Winterthur that Benno Forman and I examined and argued about in his office a quarter of a century ago. I say all this to alert readers that I was once a Winterthur insider and know something about the place. Furthermore, I am predisposed to think positively about it and, at least at the outset, to give the benefit of the doubt to any product that emanates from it.

An American Vision is a celebratory volume produced to coincide with and serve as a souvenir of an exhibition of Winterthur highlights on view at the National Gallery in Washington from May 5 to October 6, 2002. The timing was not accidental. The year 2002 marked the Winterthur Museum’s fiftieth anniversary and the DuPont Company’s two hundredth. Appropriately, the company was one of the supporters of the project.

Anniversary ventures are a tricky business. How does a museum with nationally ranked education programs mark such an occasion? What balance of celebration and cerebration is appropriate? Hard to be quite sure. On average, anniversary projects tend to fall a bit short on substance. It may simply be the nature of the genre.

An American Vision was both an exhibition and a publication. I did not see the exhibition at the National Gallery, although I have seen, repeatedly and at close hand, many of the objects included in it. The exhibition may have been quite lovely but, as we all know well and sometimes regret, exhibitions are ephemeral while publications endure. This publication is also lovely, but that, alas, is pretty much the end of it.

The best features of An American Vision are easily identified. The first is Winterthur Director Leslie Greene Bowman’s graceful biographical sketch of Henry Francis du Pont and of his creation of Winterthur. The second is the superb collection of spectacular photographs, most taken by Gavin Ashworth, adorning the volume. It is a very pretty book and most enjoyable to leaf through.

Reading it is another matter, however. And here we return to the dilemma of what an anniversary publication should be. Wendy Cooper, either of her own volition or someone else’s, produced five short thematic essays dealing with, in this order, early settlement, Asian impact on the West, the rococo, the Pennsylvania Germans, and American classicism. A pretty ambitious undertaking for a text of only about eighty full pages, I think, and one that frankly just does not work well. She should have offered either more or less. This is one instance in which the middle option, in contrast to what we learned in childhood from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, is not “just right” at all.

I have no desire to dissect Cooper’s text in any detail. Suffice it to say that it is superficial, simplistic, and unfocused. The subtleties and nuances of the American historical past are completely and consistently swept away. Sometimes the text is outright wrong, as when it claims that rococo equals Chippendale and that Chippendale equals rococo. And sometimes it is inconsistent or unclear, with historical and art historical commentary interrupted by unnecessary and, I think, inappropriate fawning over H. F. du Pont. Most sadly, the book offers no ideas. And that is both unfortunate and avoidable.

The book did not have to take this form. There are alternatives. One would have been to offer less text and more pictures, to celebrate the visual splendors of the place without the pretense of doing much more. I have in hand a handsome volume that offers a useful model. The long and clearly descriptive title is A Concise History of Glass Represented in the Chrysler Museum Glass Collection. Written by Nancy O. Merrill and published by the Chrysler Museum in 1989, this little gem is roughly the same size as the Winterthur publication. Here and there it provides a page or two of historical background or overview, but the bulk of the book is taken up with photographs of objects accompanied by captions, some long and some short. The result is an attractive and useful volume that can also be a handy reference. I think it is demonstrably superior to An American Vision and would have required even less effort at Winterthur to produce.

Another route altogether would have been to insert a few ideas into the volume. Now I recognize that there are those in the field of decorative arts who love ideas and those who do not. It is my sense, however, that the museum-visiting public includes a goodly number of educated people who are not afraid of ideas and, indeed, embrace them. These are people who, for example, read the New York Times, the small-circulation cultural commentary magazines, and books that are overtly and unapologetically ideational. There are millions of such folk in this country. An American Vision could have decided to talk to them.

I am not suggesting a deep philosophical treatise here, just a text that invites its readers to muse, reflect, and contemplate, to make connections between Winterthur and the things in it and their own world. Some of these matters are quite basic. Consider possession, for instance. The text refers repeatedly to H. F. du Pont’s buying but does not suggest why possession itself might hold such appeal or what it might mean. Charles F. Montgomery maintained that the best way to learn about a category of goods was to buy one. Still sound advice. Integrating ideas of self-education through acquisition or of a personal odyssey of growth into this text might have added nuance to an understanding of du Pont, who, despite the fawning—or perhaps because of it—does not come off as a particularly attractive character here.

Was du Pont an antiquarian? What is antiquarianism and what might it be all about? Bill Hosley has useful—and typically impassioned—things to say on this topic in his article “Regional Furniture/Regional Life” published in the 1995 volume of American Furniture (pp. 3–38). Hosley also talks to the importance of place. Furniture historians and other decorative arts scholars are highly attentive to place. It might have been useful to talk a bit about why this is and what it might mean. Everyone has some understanding of place. The topic is familiar, accessible, and, treated correctly, profound.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, writing as an informed and friendly outsider, has brought a new humanistic perspective to the study of American decorative arts. Her chapter (pp. 108–41) on Hannah Barnard’s cupboard in The Age of Homespun (New York: Knopf, 2001) is a notable achievement, combining local history, genealogy, a sensitivity to the many-layered meanings of objects, and woman’s awareness and perspectives. Better than many others, Ulrich has been able to bring people of the past back to the objects they once owned and lived with, creating a picture replete with all the cares and complexities that are part of human lives. Even if Cooper had missed The Age of Homespun, she might have extracted something from Ulrich’s warm-up piece, “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts,” which also appeared in the 1995 volume of American Furniture (pp. 39–68). Following Ulrich’s model, An American Vision might have offered a bit more biography, mused on the importance of memory, or, better still, meaningfully acknowledged difference in the American past.

Ann Smart Martin has a wonderful article in the Winterthur Portfolio laying out consumerism as a framework for studying American material culture and decorative arts. Useful ideas could have been extracted. Richard Bushman has written a fine book of several hundred pages about the refinement of American life. Some of the large transformations he describes could have been sketched in here. Richard Lawrence Greene has a provocative article in Antiques about fertility symbols on Hadley chests. A bit of that could have been woven it. Maybe most to the point, considering the fact that Cooper wrote an entire section on the rococo, something from the article, “The Rococo, the Grotto, and the Philadelphia High Chest” by Jonathan Prown and Richard Miller in the 1996 issue of American Furniture (pp. 105–36) could have been incorporated. In fact, it should have been. But nothing is there. An opportunity lost.[1]

In the end, An American Vision is a disappointment. It offers no inspiration, because it takes us nowhere, except maybe backwards. By avoiding virtually all ideational scholarship in and relevant to our field, it trivializes what we do. Instead of summarizing all that is best in decorative arts scholarship, it exemplifies much of what is worst. And that really is unfortunate.

I could write more but my assessment would only grow bleaker, for there is yet more that is disappointing about this publication and, perhaps, the strategies and perspectives behind it. Instead, let me conclude by noting that museums have had a tendency in recent years to grasp at opportunities for funding or publicity that take them away from their appointed courses. These side trips, which often require considerable staff time and additional resources, can have unanticipated consequences, either damaging to reputations or simply, when all is said and done, making no difference whatsoever. The lesson is that sometimes what seems to be a good deal really is not. The trick here, as in so many other aspects of life, is to learn to resist temptation.

Kenneth L. Ames
Bard Graduate Center 


Ann Smart Martin, “Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework,” Winterthur Portfolio 28, nos. 2/3 (summer/autumn 1993): 141–57; Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992); Richard Lawrence Greene, “Fertility Symbols on the Hadley Chests,” Antiques 112, no. 2 (August 1977): 250–57.

American Furniture 2002


  • [1]

    Ann Smart Martin, “Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework,” Winterthur Portfolio 28, nos. 2/3 (summer/autumn 1993): 141–57; Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992); Richard Lawrence Greene, “Fertility Symbols on the Hadley Chests,” Antiques 112, no. 2 (August 1977): 250–57.