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October 2011

Hillwood Estate: Self-Portrait of an Heiress

Edward Chandor, "Portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post," 1952

How I’ve missed blogging over this past month! These past several weeks have been some of the most hectic that I have experienced in a long time. I don’t even have a Halloween-themed post for today (you can look at my Rubens and Goya posts from previous Halloweens). Instead, I want to share some thoughts on something completely different: a female collector who was interested in frothy, powderpuff, sumptuous decorative arts that are often called “feminine.” (And hey, I know that a few of you may find this art to be just as frightening and off-putting as a ghoulish work by Goya!)

Marjorie Merriweather Post was an art collector in the mid-20th century. In 1955, Post purchased the estate Hillwood in Washington, DC to house her large art collection. Hillwood is one of the “collection museums” that I listed in an earlier post. The museum has a short introduction film on their website which is as fabulous as the tag line for the museum: Where Fabulous Lives.

Early in life, at the young age of twenty-seven, Marjorie Merriweather Post became the heiress of the Postum Cereal Company (later known as General Foods Corporation) in 1914. Many biographers have commented on how Post was thrust into a “man’s world” of industry and business at a very early age.1 Several years after inheriting the family company, Post began to acquire furniture and decorative art with the help of art dealer Joseph Duveen. Interestingly, Post developed a keen interest in art during the same period in which she pushed for her business to merge with Birdeye Frozen Foods. Post’s art collection and museum can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Post, visually emphasizing her approachability, gender and femininity in order to draw a contrast with her perceived “masculine” pursuits in business.

Clock, 1896, silver gilt, bowenite, watercolor on ivory. Height 11.25", width 4"

The works that Marjorie Merriweather Post collected seem eclectic and even disparate at first glance: she was interested in French decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries, porcelain, jewelry, objects from imperial Russia, Farbergé, costumes, and even Native American art. However, when analyzing Post’s collection, one can see the majority the collection requires the viewer to interact with the objects in a similar way. Many of the items in Post’s collection are created on a small-scale, which require the viewer to examine the finely detailed objects at an extremely close distance. It has been commented that Post was considered to be intimidating and off-putting to many people, because she gave the impression of “being very grand.”2 In one sense, Post’s art collection reflects and even extends this idea of grandeur, since the objects are very fine, luxurious, and extremely expensive. However, Post’s collection of small, dainty objects also presupposes an environment of familiarity, approachability, and even intimacy. In turn, one can assume that Post wanted to have these characteristics extended to her own persona. Post wanted her objects to be seen up close, and perhaps used these smaller objects to creatively assert that she, as an individual, was also approachable.

French Drawing Room at Hillwood Estate

The interior decoration and collective effect of the display contribute to the sense of femininity at Hillwood Estate. Such femininity is particularly manifest in the French Drawing Room, which is designed to “evoke the splendor of the French aristocratic life from the 18th century.” Such objects, particularly those from the Rococo period of 18th century France, historically have been considered “feminine” in nature. Art historian Melissa Hyde has stated, “During the second half of the eighteenth century, the rococo qualities exemplified by the work of [the artist] Boucher – grace, plenitude, emphasis on the seductions of color…came to be identified exclusively with the feminine.” Post includes a tapestry by Boucher in her drawing room, which compliments the flowery objects and lyrical decorative lines that suggest plenitude and grace. Such femininity can be seen in the rugs, chairs, and even the gilded molding of garlands on the wall. It is this particular room at Hillwood Estate that is decorated with many of the objects that Marjorie collected in the 1920s, the period in which she rallied to have her business merge with Birdseye Frozen Foods.

This post isn’t long enough to give a sense of the rich, luxurious quality or the expansiveness of Post’s collection- it’s quite amazing. There are many other ways that the collection and estate relate to gender, femininity, and domesticity too (I didn’t even get to the estate gardens!). Has anyone visited Hillwood Estate? What was your impression of the place?

1 For one example, see interview with Ellen Charles, granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 3:39). Available at: http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/welcome.html

2 See interview with Dina Merril, daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 2:42). Available at: http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/welcome.html

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“Masculine” Civil Architecture in Colonial Brazil

This quarter I am lucky enough to teach a course on Brazilian colonial art. There are hardly any undergraduate courses in the United States that touch on Brazilian art, and I feel really lucky to work at a university that encourages students to expand their interests to include various global topics.

This week I am going to be presenting to my students some of my own research and thoughts on the civil architecture that was constructed in colonial Brazil. Through my own observations, I have noticed that a lot of the civil architecture is constructed with columns and pilasters from the Doric order (an architectural style that developed in ancient Greece).

Example of the Doric order with the plain, unadorned capital, as it appears on both columns and pilasters (rectangular columns embedded into a wall).

I think that this popularity of the Doric order especially interesting, since the Doric order has long been associated as a “masculine architectural style.” In fact, the Roman historian Vitruvius compared the Doric order to the proportions of a man. In his influential writing, On Architecture, Vitruvius explained that the proportions of a man’s foot (in relation to the man’s height) were used to form the Doric order. In contrast, Vitruvius continues to explain that the Ionic order resembles a female, and the Corinthian order can be compared to a slender virgin.1

So, what does this have to do with civil architecture in Brazil? I think that the usage of the Doric order might have had symbolic significance for the European colonists, some of whom probably were familiar with Vitruvius’ text. This “masculine” Doric order would have been in opposition to the Latin American soil, which was considered to have intrinsically female attributes. Annette Kolodny has explored how European colonizers viewed the Americas as having essentially female attributes (“land as woman”), and compared described the American continent to a virgin (“Virgin Beauties”).2 If the American land embodies the qualities that are already interpreted to be part of the Ionic (female) and Corinthian (virgin) orders, then perhaps the Doric order seemed like better point of visual contrast for colonial architecture. But I think that the Doric order is associated with much more than a mere visual contrast to the land. In a way, the rigid, masculine Doric order of the invading colonizers can be interpreted as a masculine European domination over the female Americas.

Muncipal Building (Casa de Camara), Salvador, Brazil, 17th century. Restored in 1960s

This theme of architectural domination and conquest can be extended outside gender binaries, too. Previous scholars, such as Gauvin Bailey, have discussed how the classical characteristics of Latin American architecture could have been used to associate the Spanish and Portuguese with the greatness of the Greek and Roman empires. As colonizers and conquerors of the Americas, the Portuguese and Spanish were building their New World empires, following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors.Therefore, by association, government buildings could embody authority, conquest, and domination. I feel like all of those characteristics can be seen in the Municipal Building of Salvador (see image above). The classical features such as the Doric capitals, Doric pilasters and arcade all reference the glory of previous empires. I also get a sense of domination from the low-lying, horizontal structure itself: the horizontal emphasis suggests that building wants to cover (or dominate) as much surface area of colonial land as possible.

Antonio Landi, Governor's Palace at Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1771. Landi was an Italian architect who moved to Brazil in the middle of his life. Since Landi worked as a professor of architecture in Bologna, I'm fairly certain that he was familiar with Vitruvius' "masculine" interpretation of the Doric order

I also think that Doric capitals also embody a sense of authority, since it is the most austere and rigid of the classical orders. This rigidity is especially apparent to me in the Governor’s Palace at Belém do Pará (see above), where Doric-like features (suggestive of pilasters) are decorated with quoining. The rigid, rectangular quality of the quoining reinforces the strength and rigidity of the structure (and therefore the governor, by extension). Did you notice that this is another horizontal, low-lying structure that dominates as much surface area as possible?

Any other thoughts on the Doric order and colonial conquest? Civic architecture in Brazil is a very under-explored topic in scholarly research, and I’m always up for generating more conversation!

1 See Vitruvius’ “On Architecture,” (1st century BC). Text from Chapter 1 (which mentions the Greek orders) is found here.

2 For more information on the Americas being interpreted as female (or as a woman), see Annette Kolodny, “The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters”(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 4-7.

3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Art of Colonial Latin America” (London: Phaidon, 2005), 43.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.