By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member
Many affluent American women patrons built some of the best art collections in this country. Three major women patrons are showcased here, each of their families had multiple members who also contributed significantly to American culture. Some robber baron families undertook to spread their wealth for public benefit and women played a prominent role. The emergence of these powerful women were a result of better educational opportunities, acceptance in major cultural venues, the Woman’s Club movement, and public recognition of women’s roles, all under the scholarly label of the New Woman movement, discussed before. Affluence informed all their actions.
Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer (1855-1929) and H.O. (Henry) Havemeyer (1847-1907)
Wealth married wealth when Louisine became the wife of Henry Havemeyer in 1883. They had three children: Adaline, Horace, and Electra. He was called the ‘Sugar King’ and organized the first sugar manufacturing trust in America. The Havemeyers were private within the New York social scene but Henry began to collect art and to eventually make major gifts of art to the country. The Havemeyers were the first to buy European and Asian artworks focusing on French classicism to fill their Tiffany-designed New York mansion. The couple learned quickly under the tutelage of French art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who eventually opened a New York gallery. Henry was the pocketbook but Louisine was the pioneering “guiding spirit” who showed patience and persuasion over him as they assembled their collection.
The Havemeyers had another formidable mentor: one of America’s most famous women artists, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), herself from a wealthy American railroad family who lived her adult life in France. Cassatt has been called “the godmother of the Havemeyer collection”1 but although her advice and preferences were strong, both the Havemeyers had to agree on an artwork before they purchased. Louisine had met Mary Cassatt at an early age and they formed a lifelong friendship. Philadelphia artist, Emily Sartain, first introduced the two in Paris and further introduced Louisine to artist Edgar Degas, a mentor and friend of Cassatt. Louisine bought her first Degas artwork for $100 in 1877.
The Havemeyers and Cassatt admired the work of Courbet and Corot and were the first Americans to collect their art, favoring figurative subjects. Slowly the Havemeyers developed a passion for French Impressionism. Soon the Havemeyers were collecting Monet, Pissarro, Whistler (whom they visited in London and purchased works), Manet, Cassatt prints, and Degas. On a trip to Spain, Cassatt introduced the couple to El Greco and Goya, today considered iconic Spanish modernists and whose artworks the Havemeyers brought to America.
Together the couple collected for 20 years until Henry’s death in 1907. He had loaned their Rembrandts to New York museums, believing that it was their civic duty while realizing that it gave their vast wealth respectability. At the time of his death, Louisine had completely reshaped Henry’s perceptions of art when he began to embrace modern art. As a widow, Louisine took up the mantel in surprising ways. Through annual collecting trips to Europe and to visit Mary Cassatt in France, Louisine continued to collect art and through Cassatt’s considerable expertise (Cassatt did not like Cezanne because of his sudden success and anointed place in the modern art canon, nor Matisse or Picasso) and close relationship with Degas, Louisine continued to collect Degas’s work until her death.2 She also ignored Cassatt’s advice and bought eleven Cezannes. At the time of Henry’s death, the Havemeyer collection (first designated as 142 works) were to be donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the name of H.O. Havemeyer Collection only, at her insistence. After her death and with many additional gifts by Havemeyer family members, son Horace Havemeyer oversaw the final Havemeyer donation of over 1,970 artworks to the Metropolitan Museum. Wisely, the family’s largess did not specify that the collection be held together in one unit but instead, could be distributed across the museum’s holdings in order to strengthen separate departmental collections. 3
Electra Havemeyer Webb, youngest daughter of Louisine, inherited her parents’ passion for collecting but took a different direction. With her wealth and her husband’s, James Watson Webb, she collected Americana, folk art, design, and fine art. On the Webb family estate in Vermont, Electra created the Shelburne Museum in 1947 in order to preserve her collection in what she called a “collection of collections”, a concept unprecedented in her time.4
In later years, Louisine took up her final mission of Women’s Suffrage through the Women’s Political Union. She was rebuffed by many members of her social class, but Louisine campaigned with the major leaders of the movement. She marched in Suffrage parades and campaigned tirelessly to win Congressional acceptance but when that failed, she sought ratification state by state. She was also embroiled in the most famous Suffragette event when her fellow protestors picketed the White House of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Guided by the rule of leader Alice Paul, Louisine was arrested and detained in a workhouse. This caused considerable consternation among the Havemeyer family as the event played out in the national media. Ignoring them, Louisine joined the “Prison Special” train that toured the country advocating for a Constitutional amendment that would eventually give women the right to vote.5 Louisine received the French Legion of Honor and wrote her memoirs in 1917.
Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849-1918) Potter Palmer (1826-1902) Chicago, Illinois
Known as the “Queen of Chicago Society”, Bertha Palmer, like Louisine Havemeyer, brought considerable wealth to a marriage to an equally affluent man and focused much of her energy on bringing arts and culture to Chicago. Palmer was a native of Kentucky and possessed great beauty and organizational skills. Her pearl necklace was known to hold 2,268 pearls.
She married Potter Palmer, a Quaker from New York state in 1870, and they became a powerful Chicago couple producing two children. He had moved to Chicago and built a successful dry-goods business, eventually selling it to owners who later opened Marshall-Field Department Store. Potter Palmer kept a much lower profile than his wife but, after the great Chicago fire of 1871, he helped rebuild the city, erecting the ornate Palmer House hotel with deluxe adornments like electric lights and he became a real estate magnate credited with developing the city’s Lake Shore Drive. Much has been made of Easterners’ negative opinions of the Midwest and its largest city, Chicago. At the end of the 19th century, Chicago was ridiculed as having been “built on pork and not Plato” as it rose through its inland shipping and railroad economies. Berthe Potter sought out mentorship from the same art associates in France as the Havemeyers had done. Using her considerable stature to shine light on Chicago she brought both artworks and women’s worldwide accomplishments to her city and its visitors.
A graduate of Visitation School in Washington, DC, Berthe Palmer possessed a thirst for intellectual pursuits. The couple joined the elite Fortnightly Club and the Contributor’s Club that promoted arts and culture in Chicago. She also had a sensitivity for social reform issues and became a participant in Chicago’s cradle of such movements including Jane Addams’s Hull House and the Chicago Woman’s Club. Palmer successfully organized the millinery women’s industry union. As a trustee of nearby Northwestern University, Palmer led the university to establish a Women’s College.
The couple built their requisite lake front castle in 1882 and added a gallery whose walls required European art. From 1891-1892, “Mrs. Astor of the Middle West”, another Palmer moniker, worked with Mary Cassatt to build a collection of Degas, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro works and is credited with having “brought Impressionism to the Midwest.”
Her most recognized role was serving as Chair of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that brought over 27 million visitors to the city. Having great leverage among civic leaders and Congress, Berthe Palmer supervised the first building at the fair ever dedicated solely to women’s progress. Called the Woman’s Building,6 she oversaw all design and construction, interior installations and exhibitions as well as decorations, and entertained all important world figures who visited the fair. She also coordinated a platform of state representatives who were charged with bringing their states’ women’s advancements to the Woman’s Building. She engaged Mary Cassatt, then unknown to Chicago, to paint one of the interior’s major murals, now lost.7 Palmer also brought a worldwide view of art to Chicago in an exhibition that showcased the work of Corot, Millet, Rousseau and the Barbizon School (H.O. Havemeyer loaned works). Rival easterner, J.P. Morgan, assessed the exhibition as having had “chambermaids as jurors”8 Yet, Chicago’s cultural leaders were turning to France rather than New York for its cultural legitimacy. Berthe’s self-assured managerial skills resulted in many contretemps during the course of the 1893 Fair but the Woman’s Building was a remarkable and tangible testament to women’s advancements in the United States.
After her husband died in 1902, Berthe Palmer spent considerable time in London and Paris then returned to the United States in order to become a member of the exclusive society of Newport, Rhode Island. In 1910 she moved to Florida and became a vast 80,000-acre landowner, building an estate called “The Oaks” where she introduced agricultural and citrus growing innovations. Like her real estate husband in Chicago, Berthe Palmer became a major developer of Florida’s West Coast.
At her death in 1918, Berthe’s estate donated $100,000 to the Art Institute of Chicago for collections. Many of her personal artworks were transferred into its collection including Manets, Monets (the Haystack series), El Grecos and Renoirs. Her son, also an arts devotee, became the President of the Board of the Art Institute and ensured the Palmer legacy at the Midwest’s most important art museum. At her death, Berthe Palmer had doubled the couple’s wealth and she, too, received the French Legion of Honor.
The Bartlett Family of Chicago: Florence, Maie, and Frederic
Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881-1953) was the youngest of the children of Adolphus Bartlett who was a partner in the hardware supply business in Chicago that became True Value, today. The family lived in the south side of the city in an elite neighborhood on Prairie Street and owned a country home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Three surviving Bartlett offspring, with their love for art and social reform stewardship, had a tremendous impact on America’s cultural institutions, despite being little known today.
Florence graduated from Smith College in 1904 and began to travel and devote her energies to the Eleanor Clubs of Chicago, established in 1898, to help young women urban workers transition from rural to urban living including housing, recreation, and counseling. Eleanor Clubs operated residences across the city and Adolphus Bartlett supported a summer camp for working women in Lake Geneva. During this period Florence (she never married) was traveling globally, often with sister, Maie, and her husband, and began to collect folk art during these journeys. She gradually came to believe that global folk art is a common language by which all peoples are bonded.
In the 1920s she moved to New Mexico, building a ranch north of Santa Fe called El Mirador, entertaining world celebrities like Leopold Stokowski and continuing to travel in such places as Egypt, Morocco, and the Sudan. Pottery, textiles, costumes, jewelry, furniture and all manner of world material culture entered her personal collection.
In the early 1950s, Florence Bartlett planned a museum in Santa Fe to house her collection. The Museum of International Folk Art, opened in 1957, was the largest endowed gift to the state of New Mexico at that time. She sought the input of noted folk art specialist, Rene d’Harnoncourt, as well as museum directors in Denver, Chicago, and Williamsburg. In the inaugural exhibition, Bartlett chose “shoes” from diverse civilizations as a metaphorical vehicle to illustrate commonality among all peoples. A unique museum today, the Folk Art Museum contains 5,000 objects from Bartlett’s collection. Later, other patrons reposited their own folk collections to the museum. American designer, Alexander Girard, increased the collection five-fold, to 100,000 objects representing 100 countries, and a new wing was added in 1978. Twenty years later Lloyd Cotsen, head of the Neutrogena Company, added his collection to the museum. Around the time of giving her collection and estate to New Mexico, Florence Dibell Bartlett lost both her sister and brother, witnessed the destruction of her Chicago childhood home, and observed significant alterations in social reform institutions that she had held dear. Bartlett committed suicide in 1954, one year after her museum opened.9
Maie Pitkin Bartlett Heard (1868-1951) and Dwight B. Heard (1869-1929)
Maie was the oldest Bartlett sibling and shared the family’s privileged circumstances and benevolence. In 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, she married Dwight B. Heard who worked for her father. He had lung disease and the coupled soon moved West in 1895 to Phoenix. They eventually built a 6,000-square-foot house called Casa Blanca in downtown Phoenix and Dwight became a rancher and one of the largest landowners in the Salt River Valley. A lifelong Republican he bought the Arizona Republican in 1912. During this period the couple traveled widely, often with sister Florence, and as the two women collected, Dwight Heard researched palm trees and other agricultural specimens that he introduced to Phoenix’s climate. At the time of his death in 1929, he was President of Arizona’s Cotton Association.
That same year the Heard Museum, next door to their home, opened to house their Native American collections. Dwight had died months before it opened. For twenty more years, Maie served as curator and director, continued to collect, and gave tours of the museum. Always loyal to her own civic causes, she was active in the Woman’s Club and helped build the library, helped establish the Phoenix Little Theater, and influenced by a 1937 visitor, Margaret Sanger, helped start Planned Parenthood in Phoenix. Maie died in 1951, exactly 22 years after her husband.10
Frederic Clay Bartlett (1873-1953)
The third Bartlett sibling was brother Frederic Clay Bartlett, an artist, art collector, and major donor. Early in life, Frederic was prepared to attend Harvard University but instead he was greatly influenced by the Chicago World’s Fair, practically in his family’s neighborhood, and decided to go to Munich where he graduated from the Royal Academy of Art. Returning to Chicago, Frederic became a member of Friends of American Art and was a founding member of the modernist Arts Club of Chicago.
Frederic married three times, first to Dora Tripp with whom he built a mansion on Prairie Avenue with a magnificent artist studio, and painted numerous city-wide murals for churches, gymnasiums (in memory of his sibling, a brother, who had died) and the University Club. The couple had his only son, Frederic, Jr. After Dora died in 1917, Frederic married Helen Louise Birch, a musician and poet whose uncle worked in the Bartlett hardware empire. Her family had early associations with Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The couple added to her family’s already vast land holdings and built a winter retreat in Ft. Lauderdale named the Bonnet House.11 By the 1920s, the couple had begun to build their own collection of European avant-garde art that eventually included Derain, Lhôte, Modigliani, Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Rousseau. The crown jewel in the collection became Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grande Jatte, bringing Post Impressionism for the first time to America. When Helen Birch Bartlett died in 1925, Frederic donated 25 of their seminal modern works to the Art Institute of Chicago as her memorial. He continued to add to the gift through the 1930s acquiring John Marin and Charles Demuth works, rare Americans included in his collection. He and his last wife, Evelyn Fortune Lily, also wealthy, divided their time between a residence in Munich where Frederic maintained a studio and their family home in Ft. Lauderdale.12
From the East to mid-west Chicago, to the American Southwest, the Havemeyer, Palmer and Bartlett families were unparalleled forces in the history of art and culture in the United States. Except for museum labels accompanying their benevolent gifts, these movers and shakers have been under recognized. These families were fortunate to receive advice and assistance from one of America’s foremost women artists, Mary Cassatt, whose role in building these collections has been equally overlooked.
- Frances Weitzenhoffer, The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America, Harry Abrams, Inc., 1986.
- Ibid, p. 208.
- Ibid, p. 11.
- Shelburne Museum, shelburnemuseum.org.
- Weitzenhoffer, p. 234; and see Carolyn Kinder Carr, Sara Tyson Hallowell: Pioneer Curator and Art Advisor in the Gilded Age, Smithsonian Institution, 2019. Chicagoan Hallowell is considered the first American curator and advisor in avant-garde art. Her role in building America’s collections is also important. She was friends with Cassatt, Havemeyer, and Potter.
- Jeanne Madeline Weiman, The Fair Women: The Story of the Woman’s Building World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Academy, 1981. This is the “go-to” source for the famous Woman’s Building history with more detail than the reader may wish.
- Mary Cassatt’s mural titled “Modern Woman” for the Woman’s Building has been lost. Weitzenhoffer, pages 195-214.
- Aline B. Saarinen, The Proud Possessors: The lives, times and tastes of some adventurous American collectors, Random House, 1958, p. 15.
- Laurel Seth and Ree Mobley, Folk Art Journey: Florence D. Bartlett and the Museum of International Folk Art, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.
- Maie Bartlett Heard, en.m.wikipedia.org.; Folk Art Journey, p. 23, 30.
- Bonnet House, en.m.wikipedia.org.
- Frederic Bartlett, en.m.wikipedia.org.