Themes and Variations at Shelburne

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

Swordsman, New England, 1870–1900. Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

Shelburne Museum is built upon a personality—that of founder Electra Havemeyer Webb, whose eclectic, eccentric, and insatiable collecting habit impelled her to gather up everything from American furniture and folk art to historic buildings. Formal, academic rigor is not the point here; curiosity, wonder, and enchantment are. 

Those are some of the keynotes prompted by the Shelburne’s inaugural online exhibition, which presents selections from the collection organized under four thematic headings: color, pattern, whimsy, and scale. Under color you’ll find items that range from a painting of a Venetian canal by Edouard Manet, with waters of a rich cobalt blue to an evening dress in chartreuse silk designed for Webb by New York couturier Hattie Carnegie. In the pattern section there are quilts, coverlets, transferware, and finely carved and painted duck decoys. Whimsy includes a whirligig in the shape of a swordsman wielding a pair of cutlasses and a barber’s chair in the form of a rooster. The objects in the scale category range from the components of a 525-foot-long miniature circus parade to mammoth Staffordshire jugs and a full-size steamboat, the Ticonderoga.

Many of the items are accompanied by video or audio commentary from a curator or conservator. Browsing each section is like sifting through the contents of a treasure box, all within the larger treasure chest that is the Shelburne Museum itself.

Color, Pattern, Whimsy, and Scale online exhibition • Shelburne Museum, Vermont • shelburnemuseum.org