When Electra Met Edith

When Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) met Edith Gregor Halpert (1900-1970), a prominent art dealer, in the late 1930s, they almost immediately formed a close personal and professional relationship. Founded on their shared passion for American art—specifically American folk sculpture—and their similar ambitious and hard-working personalities, their bond and admiration for one another lasted a lifetime. For Halpert and Webb, the act of collecting was an art form, and when collaborating, they created a masterpiece.

Webb, who founded Shelburne Museum in 1947, is widely known for assembling one of the world’s most esteemed collections of American folk art. While Webb’s personal taste and acumen in art was visionary, she was also wise in seeking the guidance of outside experts. By the 1940s, Webb was a regular customer of Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City, an influential business that uniquely sold both American contemporary and folk art. Seeking Halpert’s counsel and heeding her advice, over several decades, Webb purchased over one hundred objects from her for her new museum. Halpert even assisted with installing the Museum’s new folk art galleries in Stagecoach Inn. For shaping the Museum’s folk art collection, and acting as “the fairy godmother to the Museum,” in 1953 Webb appointed Halpert as a member of the board of trustees.

On the heels of the opening of Stagecoach Inn Webb wrote to her friend sharing her appreciation, saying: “You have no idea how deeply I appreciate your coming up here and working so hard over our (yours and mine) collection.”

Our Collection: Electra Havemeyer Webb, Edith Halpert, and American Folk Art celebrates the friendship between these two trailblazing women and explores highlights from their collection. Featuring archival photographs and ephemera, a voice recording from Halpert, and quotations pulled from Webb and Halpert’s extensive correspondences, this exhibition prominently features the voices of these two extraordinary women who forever changed the art world.  

Unidentified photographer
Edith Halpert, date unknown
Negative
Downtown Gallery records, 1824–1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Reel 5647, Box 109, Frame 193

Edith Halpert

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, with the birth name Edith Gregoryevna Fivoosiovitch, Halpert spent the majority of her life in New York City. Since her youth, she was perceptive, driven and hardworking, traits that benefited her family making their way in a new country, and later, Halpert’s own career success. Despite being a woman, Jewish, and an immigrant—attributes that were widely discriminated against at the time— she was welcomed into New York City’s lively avant-garde arts scene, a world in which she flourished and forever changed.

After several years working as a businessperson for prominent department stores, in 1926 Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery, the first profitable gallery in Greenwich Village. Boldly exhibiting contemporary American art—instead of European modernists and masters that were in vogue—her gallery featured rising artists focused on creating a new American art vernacular. As a result of her forward-thinking vision, socially progressive views, and shrewd business sense, Halpert became one of the defining voices on contemporary American art. She not only took risks and represented little-known American artists that would later become prominent figures, such as Stuart Davis (1892-1964) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), but she also promoted the art by women, immigrants, African Americans, and other minority artists including Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953).

Just as revolutionary, Halpert was the first gallerist to simultaneously exhibit and sell folk art. In 1929, she opened the American Folk Art Gallery, the first of its kind, located on her gallery’s second floor. Folk art appealed to her reformist business model in that, she said, “folk art was art for the masses and not the classes.” While Halpert never claimed to have discovered folk art, she was responsible for propelling these neglected objects into American art history by placing them in prominent private and public collections across the nation. Halpert also pioneered the contextualization and visual links between folk and modern art. “To me, the link between folk art and Modern Art is very strong,” Halpert wrote in 1952. For Halpert, and Webb, Shelburne Museum became the ideal place that could connect the past with the present through its folk art collection. Halpert professed that the Museum “will not only serve as a living document of past achievement, but will also inspire contemporary artists and craftsmen toward higher goals.”

Halpert’s Downtown Gallery and American Folk Art Gallery moved its location uptown in 1940, however, its legacy as a supportive venue for artists and diverse perspectives persists as a reflection of her own as one of the 20th century’s most respected, trailblazing gallerists.

Electra Havemeyer Webb

Electra Havemeyer Webb’s (1888-1960) beginnings differ substantially from Halpert’s modest background. Born in New York City in 1888, she was born into a life of privilege and luxury based on her family’s wealth derived from the sugar industry. Her parents, Henry Osborne Havemeyer (1847-1907) and Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer (1855-1929), amassed one of the world’s greatest art collections. Whereas they collected Asian and European fine and decorative arts, most notably French Impressionism, Webb diverged from her parents’ interests with her taste for American folk art. At the age of nineteen, Webb purchased her first artwork, a tobacconist figure. “Obviously, my mother did not consider my eagles, cigar store Indians, and primitive furniture art at all,” Webb later reflected in 1955 for an issue of Art in America. That of course did not deter the strongminded young collector, who went on to say that, this “brings us to the matter of individual taste and to a suitable definition of art, particularly folk art.”

Impassioned to share her growing art collection—which grew to include horse-drawn carriages, quilts, decoys, dolls, and carousel animals to name but a few—Webb founded Shelburne Museum in 1947. Webb’s extraordinary work ethic, fortitude, and passion for American art and design—which parallels Halpert’s—is embodied by the Museum she created – multiple historic buildings over forty-five acres and gardens to house her collections of collections, which today number more than 100,000 items.   

Ahead of her time, Webb was one of the nation’s first female museum founders as well as one of the first woman collectors of American folk sculpture. Her understanding that American art can, and should be, inclusive and pluralistic to encompass all artistic materials and disciplines remains unparalleled.  “People like Mrs. Webb are so rare,” Halpert passionately declared in a recording during a celebration of her life, which can be heard below. “I haven’t met any since she passed away who have that same attitude toward a work of art.”

Unidentified photographer
Electra Havemeyer Webb at the Burke Ranch in California, mid 1940s
Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives, PS3.2-113

Folk Art

Throughout this exhibition, the vague term “folk art” is widely used when describing a varied group of predominantly utilitarian objects created by traditionally untrained and often unknown artisans and craftspeople working outside of the dominant conventions of fine art. Sculptural folk art objects are diverse and vary in materials, and many of their varied forms can be found at Shelburne Museum, including ships’ carvings, cigar store figures, weathervanes, trade signs, decoys, painted furniture, scrimshaw, and whirligigs.

While “folk art” is a complex and increasingly problematic term, for the purposes of consistency and in reference to how Webb and Halpert referred to this category of objects, it will be used in this online exhibition.

In 1950—in anticipation of the 1951 opening of Shelburne Museum’s Stagecoach Inn—Halpert exhibited some of Webb’s finest folk art purchases at her Downtown Gallery’s American Folk Art Gallery. The exhibition, titled A Museum Collection, featured a diverse array of sculptural works—from weathervanes to painted woodcarvings—presented in a sleek, minimalist, and modern display. Inspired by contemporary design, Halpert’s gallery and exhibition presented simple, unadorned pedestals and mounts within a lightly painted, austere space that provided little distraction from the objects. In the archival photograph of the exhibition, Halpert’s innovative display of five weathervanes is prominent. Installed individually on thin upright metal rods, the weathervanes appear almost to be floating in space, not only emulating their original locations atop barns and buildings but also highlighting their modernist visual elements. When juxtaposing folk art with Halpert’s contemporary exhibition space, the objects’ bold silhouettes become more pronounced, placing greater emphasis on their geometric lines, simple forms, and bold colors. 

Unidentified photographer
Shelburne Museum’s Folk Art, 1950
Negative
Downtown Gallery records, 1824–1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Reel 5654, Box 115, Frame 673

 

The Downtown Gallery (New York, New York, 1926-1974)
A Museum Collection: American Folk Sculpture Exhibit Catalogue, May 16-June 2, 1950
Ink on paper
Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives

In the press release for this exhibition, Halpert clearly states her firm position regarding this collection for its strong aesthetic values, equal in significance to any other works of fine art. She exclaimed that the collection “comprises a group of important sculpture in wood and metal…In line with the established policy of the gallery, the emphasis in the exhibition of folk art is on aesthetic quality rather than historical significance, antiquity, or nostalgic association.”

Stagecoach Inn is the Georgian style building that houses the Museum’s folk sculpture collection Built in 1783 and used as an inn in nearby Charlotte, Vermont, the building was moved to the Museum in 1949. Halpert worked closely with Webb and Lilian Baker Carlisle (1912-2006), Webb’s assistant, during the first installation of the sculpture in this building. Halpert assisted Carlisle in cataloguing the objects and was heavily involved in the exhibition design and its interpretation. Wholeheartedly believing that there is a strong connection between folk and modern art, the installation of sculpture in Stagecoach Inn reflected this relationship. Despite the building’s architecture—which features ample windows, ten fireplaces, and a second-floor ballroom—its interior space was transformed into a modern art gallery by silhouetting the three-dimensional artworks against walls painted a deep, saturated red. Halpert also took inspiration from the exhibitions she organized at the Downtown Gallery utilizing chronological and medium mixing methods to create an engaging and varied exhibition of Webb’s prized collection.

In her own words, Halpert introduced Stagecoach Inn and its collections: “The Stagecoach Inn houses the collection of American Folk Art, with special emphasis on three-dimensional objects or Sculpture. Some are fashioned in wood, others in metal, or stone, clay or chalk, and a large portion also show evidence of paint, either in a solid color or polychrome. Although the majority were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries for utilitarian purposes primarily, these objects have attained museum status in recent years as their genuine aesthetic value has been recognized by art experts, and their vital place in American art history has been acknowledged.”

Stagecoach Inn at Shelburne Museum, Summer 2021

Unidentified photographer
Unknown guests with Edith Halpert (right) at Shelburne Museum, ca. 1960’s
Negative
Downtown Gallery records, 1824–1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Reel 5647, Box 109, Frame 287

 

“There are very few people today who compare with Mrs. Webb. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they’ll ever make them that way anymore. Today, in my experience, in my split personalities, experience the modern art and folk art, some centuries apart, I come in contact with a great, great many collectors and today the accent has been directed so largely toward investment, art for investment…There’s no real dedication. People like Mrs. Webb are so rare. I haven’t met any since she passed away who have that same attitude toward a work of art.”

Unidentified maker
Edith Halpert Lecture on Folk Art, August 4, 1965
Digital copy from 7” reel
Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives, SR-144

Samuel Anderson Robb (New York, New York, 1851–1928)
Bust of Indian Chief, ca. 1880
Carved and painted wood, 28 x 18 x 14 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, bequest of Electra Havemeyer Webb, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1941, 1961-1.148

The first work of art Webb purchased form Halpert was this cigar store sign, which uniquely features an elaborately adorned Native American male chief in bust. Believed to be carved in New York City during the nineteenth century, the bust was found in Philadelphia, where it was most likely displayed above the doorway of a cigar store. The exquisitely carved sculpture features an ornate headdress with a bald eagle head and feathers supported by a colorful wampum band, which several tribes often use as narrative and ceremonial objects. Like the majority of artwork depicting Native Americans from this period, Bust of Indian Chief is a racist caricature of an Indigenous person.

It is not shocking, however, that while out on a walk going past The Downtown Gallery in March of 1941, Webb stopped at the sight of this beautifully painted carving, which was on view in the gallery’s window display. At the time, Halpert was exhibiting Masterpieces of American Folk Art, and her decision to prominently place the sculpture in the window not only brought in a sale but a lifelong relationship with the American art collector.

In 1967, paying tribute to Webb, Halpert fondly recounted their first encounter at her gallery, during which the collector firmly established her interest in American folk art. “[Webb] appeared somewhat puzzled as she looked around and finally asked for the ‘primitive art’ and, specifically, several examples she had seen illustrated accompanying a review of an exhibition, which had opened at the Gallery a few days before. According to Webb, whose name and intimate association with art were unknown to me, she was obliged to pass a cross-examination before I led her to the second floor, where the exhibition was on view.”  

Unidentified maker
Turkish Girl, ca. 1860
Carved and painted wood, 69 x 20 x 21 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, bequest of Electra Havemeyer Webb, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1941, 1961-1.139

Long before Webb first entered Halpert’s gallery, she had established her collecting interest in folk art. By 1941, she was already an owner of a cigar store figure for over thirty-four years. She was nineteen years old, when much to the chagrin of her parents, she made her first acquisition— a tobacconist figure, Mary O’Connor, purchased for fifteen dollars in Stamford, Connecticut. With this purchase, Webb became one of the earliest collectors of what we now know as American folk art. In 1967, in a memorial address for Webb, Halpert wrote, “Mrs. Webb was not only one of the pioneers in the field [of folk art], but stating with her first visit to The American Folk Art Gallery, she certainly made evident that her taste and personal response were of the highest order.”

Correspondence and sale receipts indicates that Turkish Girl was probably the second tobacconist figure Webb acquired for her burgeoning collection. Found in Binghamton, New York, Turkish Girl is carved entirely in the round out of a block of pine with glue and wooden dowels holding it together. According to Halpert, this figure was “carved with an understanding of sculptural mass and balance, it is among the outstanding examples in the tradition.” As with many of Halpert’s objects, this tobacconist figure was included in the Index of American Design. Halpert worked alongside Edgar Holger Cahill (1887-1960) to create this Index in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, identifying the country’s design vernacular through decorative, folk, and applied arts.

Unidentified maker (Pennsylvania)
Nine Pins, ca. 1867–1900
Carved and painted wood, 11 ¾ x 19 x 4 ¾ in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, bequest of Electra Havemeyer Webb, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1941, 1961-1.141

With its origins dating back to 1200 AD and popular through the nineteenth century, these six figures are from a set of nine pins utilized for an indoor bowling game. While only a partial set Nine Pins’ detailed carving featuring expressive, individual figures make this set exceptional from other, more simplified, game sets. The carver—believed to be a Pennsylvanian-German artisan—carved the figures in the round out of pine wood and used gesso and paint to create their unique personalities. Set within a boot, the carver gave each character a different skin tone, gender, facial expression, haircut, and wardrobe creating what we now view as racist caricatures based on stereotypes of race, sex, and class.

Nine Pins was a relatively early acquisition for Webb from Halpert, but the carving had already been celebrated within art world. In 1931, Nine Pins was included in the first American folk sculpture exhibition organized by Cahill at Newark Museum. Subsequently, Halpert was instrumental in having Nine Pins a part of the illustrated publication and associated exhibitions a part of the Index of American Design.

It is no mistake that many of Webb’s purchases from Halpert are celebrated, highly acclaimed sculptures like Nine Pins, and it is the assemblage of these objects that make the Museum’s collection of folk sculpture one of the best in the world. Halpert knew as such, writing to Webb in 1953 that “You and I, as well as a thousand other people, know that there is no such other place [like Shelburne Museum] in the country—nor can be—and I am only slightly prejudiced.”

Cushing & White Co. (Waltham, Massachusetts)
Liberty Weathervane Pattern, 1879
Carved and painted wood with gilding and metal
Museum purchase, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1949, 1961-1.128

Webb purchased Liberty from Halpert in 1949, both under the impression that the carving was a ship’s figurehead due to its large size. Created by Henry Leach in 1879 for the weathervane manufacturer Cushing & White Co. in Waltham, Massachusetts, Columbia Liberty Pattern was utilized as a pattern for creating weathervanes in her likeness. As the national personification of America, often referred to as Columbia or Lady Liberty, she is an allegorical figure meant to symbolize the pursuit and protection of freedom and democracy. Leach, familiar with iconographies associated with Columbia, modeled Columbia Liberty Pattern in traditional costume and pose. He carved delicate draped Roman-style costuming emulating movement; her left arm is elegantly pointing outwards, positioning her looking toward the future; and originally the figure was designed to grasp a large pole with an American flag in her right hand.

Webb had a penchant for collecting American folk art of patriotic subjects, such as eagles, George Washington, and allegorical motifs of Lady Liberty. With Halpert guiding her collecting, Webb acquired sculptures, like Columbia Liberty Pattern, which feature bold lines and geometric forms, creating a modern silhouette that appealed to Halpert’s taste. While Halpert was persistent in guiding and refining Webb’s collection, as a perceptive businessperson she was always astute to defer to her friend’s wishes and aesthetic interests in art. “I think it would be a great mistake for you to have in your collection anything that you do not respond to, no matter how fine it is,” Halpert wrote to Webb in 1953. “The whole quality of the museum is based on that, and I should feel simply terrible if I were, even indirectly, responsible for a tiny blemish.” Webb most likely did not need much convincing in acquiring this distinguished object; Columbia Liberty Pattern was another object later procured by Webb that was previously featured in the eminent 1931 American folk sculpture exhibition at Newark Museum.

Unidentified maker
Pilgrim, 19th century
Carved and painted mahogany, 22 x 16 x 14 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, museum purchase, 1949, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1961-1.129

Carved in the round, this striking bust in costuming resembling a pilgrim bears some resemblance to American founding statesman and innovator, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Sculptured out of mahogany and painted, Halpert was enchanted with the bust, referring to it as an “extraordinarily sensitive carving for the period.”

The bust is a rare example in which the artist included an incised inscription: “Privat Armed Brigg/PILGRIM/1781.” In a written document dating to 1954, Halpert cheekily stated that the signature is “indicating that the carver excelled in his craft but not in spelling.”

Halpert sold the carving to Webb under the impression that Pilgrim was once a figurehead on a ship. In her notes for the sale, Halpert wrote “according to previous owner and to Charles E. Harris, authority on marine material, the bust was used on the Private armed ship or Privateer, “Pilgrim,” in commission at the time of the American Revolution. The boat is dated 1781, and sailed from the port of New York City.” While it is possible that this small bust decorated such a craft, new research on its use of mahogany makes some scholars believe it is unlikely a figurehead but could have been architectural.   

Unidentified maker
George Washington on Horseback, early 19th century
Carved and painted wood, leather, and brass, 21 ½ x 21 x 7 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, museum purchase, 1950, acquired from Mary Allis, 1961-1.232

In 1943, Halpert wrote that this sculpture, which was found in Andover, Massachusetts, “is one of the most important sculptures discovered in recent years, in the Folk Art tradition.” Today, this charming carving continues to be one of the most highly regarded and rarest examples of early nineteenth century folk sculpture. One of the many popular prints depicting President George Washington (1732-1799) on horseback most likely inspired the carver. While Washington was well known for his skilled horsemanship, whether on his farm or battlefield, equestrian portraiture has long been popular throughout history, dating as far back as ancient Greece and the sixth century BC. Throughout history, rulers and military leaders—from Marcus Aurelius (121 AD-180AD) to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1840)—have been commemorated in paintings, prints, and sculptures mounted on horseback honoring their military and civic achievements. Halpert and Webb, who would have been acquainted with this traditional style, would have understood that the carver of George Washington on Horseback was also presenting Washington as a fearless leader.          

Halpert was one of the first art dealers to understand that American folk art can, and should, be appreciated at the same level as fine art. “They didn’t even really show folk art in antiques shops, you know, as art,” Halpert later recollected. “The only difference between all these people and me was that I made a business out of it.” With her keen business-mind and the invaluable support of likeminded visionary collectors, like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) and Webb, Halpert’s dream of seeing folk art enter prominent art institutions, like Shelburne Museum, became a reality.

Unidentified maker (Boston, Massachusetts)
Peacock Weathervane, 1875–1900
Copper, lead, zinc, brass, and paint, 16 x 36 ½ in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, museum purchase, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1950-292

Found in Connecticut in 1950, this whimsical peacock weathervane is intricately molded,
featuring a sleek profile silhouette and a detailed tail with stylized comb and stamp-decorated
feathers. This highly decorated object likely came from a manufacturer which sold mail-order
weathervanes through illustrated catalogues. While peacock designs such as this one were widely
available for purchase, according to Halpert, peacock motifs were rarely found in New England.
“[They’re] bad luck in New England. I believe it is. It’s never appeared on anything—furniture,
quilt, pictures, weather vane, or anything, because it was thought of as bad luck.”

Weathervanes such as Peacock were not always acquired through traditional means before finding their permanent homes in private and public art collections. One of Halpert’s more humorous weathervane acquisitions happened during a drive through rural Vermont when she spotted a rare deer weathervane adorned the roof of a barn that she desperately wanted to procure. Brazenly, she approached the farmer, looking to make a trade, saying, “How would you like to trade? I just bought this fabulous cow weather vane, and this is wrong. You’re telling everybody the wrong thing. You don’t raise deer. I’ll trade you this cow for the deer, and I’ll give you twenty‑five dollars.” Agreeing to Halpert’s deal, the New England farmer said it was contingent on the condition that Halpert remove the current deer weathervane off the top of his barn. “It was the tallest barn I ever saw,” Halpert said. “I carried slacks with me, and I’d climb into all sorts of dirty joints, so I went off into the bushes and got into my slacks, went into the barn and started to climb, and I saw a rat, and I jumped off the hay so fast!” Only then regretting her decision to reach the roof, Halpert recalled passing a fire station not too far from their current location and bartered with three women at the department to retrieve the coveted weathervane for an addition twenty-five dollars. In the end, “I got the deer weather vane, and it’s now in Williamsburg, Virginia.”

While this amusing anecdote does not directly relate to any of the weathervanes in the Museum’s collections, it denotes Halpert’s unflappable tenacity and her ingenious and impassioned business deals.

Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849)
Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, 1840–45
Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 ¼ in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, museum purchase, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1953-1179

Edward Hicks (1780-1849)—a Quaker preacher and sign painter—is an example of one of the rarely distinguished American self-taught painters who lived off his income selling art to family and friends. However, prior to Halpert exhibiting one of his paintings, he was almost entirely unknown within the greater art world. Today, his artwork continues to be popular and easily recognizable. His paintings feature bold outlines, bright colors, and decorative typography characteristic of trade signs, and their subject matter—often featuring scenes of humans and animals together—express the artist’s religious convictions and ideals, such as peace and harmony.

Inspired by a historical event, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians depicts the 1683 Treaty of Shackamaxon. Hicks was most likely familiar with Benjamin West’s (1738-1820) painting of the same title, completed between 1771-72, which at the time would have been accessible through prints. Hicks’ created at least nine known versions of this work, capturing a peaceful exchange between Tamanend (c. 1625-c.1701), Chief of the Lenape Tribe, and William Penn (1644-1718), an English Quaker and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania. While Hicks took some liberties, such as capturing the event as a calm diplomatic exchange devoid of asserting power, his paintings are among the most famous renditions of this fabled scene. Halpert, however, considered the Museum’s version of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians to be “among the top few and is larger than most” within Hicks’ oeuvre and, despite its high price tag, was excited for Webb to purchase this painting.

Webb replied to her friend letting her know Penn’s Treaty with the Indians arrived safely to Shelburne, writing “… I like it very much, although I hate to pay that much for a Pennsylvania painting.” Halpert, no doubt, would have seen this acquisition as a hard-fought victory. For while it was impressive that Halpert convinced Webb to purchase this painting—who, it was known, was not a fan of Pennsylvania folk art—it was more so significant that she purchased any folk art painting from Halpert at all. Just one year prior to procuring this painting, Halpert wrote frankly to Webb that “I have never found your response to paintings positive enough to give me the same guidance as in offering you sculpture.” For years thereafter, they would have honest, sometimes harshly candid, conversations about Webb’s interest in, yet resistance to, acquiring paintings. While Webb would later go on to acquire over one hundred paintings from art collector Maxim Karolik (1893-1963), in 1955, Webb sealed her decision not to purchase any more paintings from Halpert, writing “Now, I have decided not to go on collecting folk art paintings. This, I know, will upset you… You have always been terribly fair with me and I appreciate it, but I don’t feel that any painting collection…could compare with our sculpture folk art which we have collected together.”  

Eliodoro Patete (Italian, 1874–1953)
Liberty, ca. 1909
Carved and painted wood and glass, 33 x 16 x 10 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, museum purchase, acquired from Edith Halpert, The Downtown Gallery, 1954-537

Like Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, this elaborate carving is one of the few objects Webb purchased from Halpert that has an identifiable maker. Near the turn of the twentieth century, Eliodoro Patete (1874-1953), an Italian citizen, visited the United States and found temporary employment and residence in West Virginia for an unknown period. While working in a coal mine, Patete carved Liberty, which shares close resemblance to the traditional portrayal of the seated Virgin Mary or Lady Liberty. Shortly after Liberty’s completion, correspondence from President William Taft’s secretary suggests that Patete bestowed the carving to the American Politian before Halpert became aware of its existence.  

In a letter to Webb dated in 1953, Halpert waxed poetic about Liberty, elaborating on its rich provenance, including how it had once passed through her hands. “Liberty was offered to me by a dealer from Baltimore in the early 30’s for a very small sum of money. Because my personal taste runs to the highly simplified objects, I turned it down.” Juliana Force (1876-1948), Director of the Whitney Museum, and then Elie Nadelman (1882-1946)—a modernist American sculptor and founder of the first American folk art museum—subsequently acquired the sculpture. Not willing to let Webb make her same mistake of finding the carving too ornate, Halpert pleaded that “as a motherly type, I think that you should keep Liberty because it will add ‘self-confidence’ to the Shelburne Museum collection.” Like Leach’s Columbia Liberty Pattern, Webb most likely did not need much convincing in acquiring this object, as by this time the carving was well known within the American folk art scene. Patete’s Liberty was a featured object in the Index of American Design and its exhibitions, donned the cover of a popular 1948 American folk art publication by the pioneering folk art scholar Jean Lipman (b. 1909), and, according to Halpert, a popular post card image of the time. For good measure, Halpert ended her correspondence, using her new leverage as a trustee: “It is considered one of the most celebrated early American sculptures; I—as a trustee of the Shelburne Museum—feel that you should acquire it.”