“Mr. du Pont would have been happy to see his legacy alive and moving forward.”

The library, once a prominent part of the institution’s name and still a prominent part of the building complex and the heart of Winterthur, has been lost in transition: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum; Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library; Winterthur, An American Country Estate; Winterthur Museum & Country Estate.

Specially cast sewer covers bear the American Country Estate brand.
Winterthur™®© has suffered an identity crisis ever since someone decided that being a unique and invaluable research facility wasn’t good enough. By its 50th anniversary, it had been recast as An American Country Estate©--literally “recast” as a new die was made for casting custom sewer manhole covers. The 2001 50th-anniversary gift catalogue featured a resin “Enchanted Kiss Garden Sculpture” on its cover. The fairy-filled catalogue was meant to lure children to the minature-golf-course-like Enchanted Woods™, where young minds could be molested with a lot of kitsch invented by ossified adult imaginations and plopped onto Henry Francis du Pont’s elegant landscape. According to attendance records it was immediately popular with a certain type of parent, although I suspect modern, video-game-aware children indulge those parents just as we used to put up with the idea that the tooth fairy would take away our teeth or Santa would fill our stockings so we could get the goods. In any case, Winterthur™®© is ecstatic to be named one of the 10 best art museums for kids.

“Little girls love to play dress-up all through the year,” according to the 2001 gift catalogue. Little boys who love to dress up will have to get their fairy wings elsewhere—perhaps alighting in a Winterthur program or in a staff position.

That same year, Leslie Greene Bowman took another public face of Winterthur, the Delaware Antiques Show, out of the able hands of the volunteer women who had founded the show before it benefited education programs at Winterthur and who had expertly handled the daunting logistics during the years before the directrix arrived. Dealers, including the likes of the august Elinor Gordon, staged a revolt when supposedly professional (and remunerated) show manager Marilyn Gould was brought in. She replaced the smooth-running volunteer machine with chaos—she wasn’t anywhere to be seen throughout the run of the show, which made hell of the already hard work of breaking down and packing. A rude and disrespectful Bowman let it be known that those who didn’t like her changes were more than welcome to leave (I did). The following year the show was moved from the difficult but charismatic Tattnall School site to the bigger, easier, more generic, and more isolated Chase Center on the Riverfront. In 2006, it was the place to buy shell sailor’s valentines… or commodes in “old paint” with hearts lately sanded into their door panels.

Sailors’ valentine--who knew so many have survived in such pristine condition!

Recently Bowman launched another volley in her aggressive, expensive offensive when the new face of Winterthur Magazine© (the publishers, Pace Communications, also do airplane magazines) was introduced as a handout at the Antiques Show. Who was that new face? Why, Thomas Jayne! Why Thomas Jayne? Jayne is somewhat condescendingly qualified as “the celebrated New York [only source for real talent] designer” who has been appointed Yuletide™ czar. “Yuletide,” when period rooms are decked out with Christmas finery, has always been a big deal at Winterthur®©™. Before Jayne was hired, much of the hoo-hah was based on Victorian fantasy, which required permanent staff to trundle out and dust off fake roast turkeys and antique toys year after year. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the thing for an institution with a mandate to uncover the truth about objects made in America before 1840, but it did have an accessible, heartwarming truthiness to Dickensian Christian tradition. The new face Jayne puts on Yuletide™ and Winterthur®©™ is that of a stylist for the modern young family’s home. Which of his “chic” decorating hints will those of us who don’t live with accurately upholstered eighteenth-century wing chairs and original Wyeth paintings use in our homes? Will those who can afford antique dower chests with delicate painted surfaces pay for a Yuletide tour to learn how to use them as coffee tables? Jayne hopes dead du Pont would like his version of Yuletide™.

Demonstrating how the clever young homemaker might use an eighteenth-century painted chest as a serving table.

Winterthur Magazine© instructs in “fairy code” and plugs an exhibition that “celebrates the grandeur and grace of the silver screen.” Fashion in Film is ongoing, but attendance has already surpassed that of any other exhibit since the galleries opened in 1992. This is a canned road show put together from costumes made and owned by the British costumier Cosprop Ltd. It is offered as a rental from the long list of Trust for Museum Exhibitions packages that travel to museums like the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, NE, The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, FL, and the Avampato Discovery Museum in Charleston, WV. Anyone aware of Winterthur’s®©™ world renown might wonder, but such shows can be real moneymakers. Museums don’t have to spend much on development, so the 15-bucks-a-head admission fee adds up fast. Before running Winterthur®©™, Bowman directed the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY, so she knows how to make money by pleasuring a crowd. In the magazine she redefines Winterthur’s®©™ mandate as “… our mission to inspire, enlighten, and delight our visitors.” Her statement is signed only with her carefully designed logo. As another imperious babe with a lot of fancy dresses and a cipher famously said or didn’t say, “Let them eat cake.”

The trouser fronts may be too saggy to inspire (I would have liked to see Colin Firth when “he suddenly grew into Mr. Darcy”), but the dresses in the exhibit are pretty delightful. You can actually touch strips of cheap iridescent cloth hanging on a gallery wall even though they are nothing like the extraordinarily accurate beaded and embroidered textiles used in the costumes on display. Right in the galleries is a gift shop chock full of costumey, dress-uppy, sparkly, filmy stuff you can buy. Winterthur®©™ may have a collection of period textiles, but when it comes to enlightenment, it is nothing like these! Short of meeting her in person, how else could you see just how cute ’n’ curvy Elizabeth Taylor once was? It’s no wonder there is more interest in Hollywood schmatas than in the shockingly overcleaned Rockefeller paintings that were stored on the Winterthur walls while the de Young museum in San Francisco was under construction or scuffed, scratched, and dirty Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts furniture. Of course some shows have been based on Winterthur®©™ collections—hey, did you know they have 6,316 spoons? And don’t forget those Campbell’s™ soup tureens.

You’re probably thinking all this doesn’t add up to “An American Country Estate”© like Biltmore Estate, where it is easy to imagine the over-the-top luxury that once smothered our money-based aristocracy. After all, the vast château George Vanderbilt built in North Carolina still has all the accouterments the public associates with the gilded lifestyle of America’s robber barons. Henry Francis du Pont lived for his antiques. He modified his home to accommodate them and eventually added so many display rooms that he had to move his family into the nearby “cottage,” which was modest by Biltmore standards or even the standards of the lavish mansions built in the Delaware area by du Pont’s relatives. With the addition of parking lots, a visitor center, a library, and galleries, there is little about the campus that reflects life on a private country estate. Not to worry—Leslie™ is going to stay the course with her country estate gambit, which will be much more credible when a flock of real and fake sheep is added.

She has branded a gallery full of elegant 18th-century furniture “In Style,” appropriating the name of a supermarket-checkout fashion magazine. She has called in more troops and says her board is working on a long-term strategic plan that will continue “wowing our visitors every day” long after she’s moved on to greener pastures—with her résumé, she might well aspire to a position at the National Gallery or its partner in crime, the Wal-Mart museum. But I wonder if the wow factor will do as much for the collections as it does for Bowman’s reputation outside the Winterthur®©™ community. The Keno Brothers™ have been enlisted to put their brand of “gaga” on collections whose unique qualities could have been popularized without TV celebrity porn—Bowman wants visitors to “cavort through the galleries with Leslie and Leigh.” Will the “average citizen” be any more interested in the collections than they are now once the breathless boys leave Winterthur®©™ “hanging ten” on a technological wave?

Biltmore, built in George Vanderbilt’s lifetime, was based on European precident but by its very vastness and excess survives as a particularly American country estate.

Winterthur Cottage, where du Pont actually lived after his collections overtook the main house, has an intentionally plain exterior so as not to draw attention away from his museum. Evidence of his lifestyle did survive in the form of mostly British and European furniture, myriad sets of china with their matching embroidered table linens, and silver until 1994 when they were auctioned off in New York. Now the cottage houses the gift shop. If it were important for Winterthur to “show the visitor how to mix antiques with twenty-first-century lifestyles and tastes,” the cottage might well have served, taking wear and tear off the sacrosanct period rooms.

Web site spin: “In a single lifetime [H. F. du Pont] created an extraordinary American country estate on par with English examples that had evolved over centuries. In its heyday Winterthur had few counterparts; today it is the greatest surviving example of its kind in the nation.”

Winterthur, the museum and library, is indeed extraordinary and there is no greater example of its kind in the nation. Winterthur, the American country estate, began long before H. F. du Pont created the museum and gardens, which have little to do with English examples. One would have to be ignorant of places like Biltmore to characterize the Winterthur estate as the greatest surviving example in the nation. But of course the estate does not survive. Its heyday ended in 1951, when du Pont opened his museum to the public. I fervently hope the museum’s heyday is now and coming.

Nemours, the elaborate American country estate Alfred I. du Pont built just a few miles away from Winterthur--no research library or collection of early American decorative arts, but a lot of evidence of the fancy lifestyle favored by the du Ponts in their heyday.

Winterthur Magazine (for “targeted upscale consumers”) is riddled with product placement—from the grinning Keno Brothers™ to Rolls Royce™ autos to iPods™ to Norm Abrams’ New Yankee Workshop™. A Sotheby’s ad (Leslie Keno works for the auction house, which sold a private silver collection that Leslie Bowman curated.) is cleverly laid out next to Bowman’s letter so it looks like the magazine’s contents page. Why shouldn’t the institution be merchandised this way? Every effort must be made to appeal to the widest swath of public possible. It’s one thing to find funding for unglamorous scholarship and quite another to figure out how to pay for all the expenses involved in moving the place out of its insular essence as the premier resource for learning about American material culture toward an outreaching theme park where families will pay to play. In post-9/11 America, it is wiser and safer for our leaders to drug the masses with entertainment than arm a few intellectuals with knowledge.
Under a photograph of the 1992 addition cropped to look a bit more like a chateau than what H. F. built, the 2006 catalogue summarizes du Pont’s vision: “When Henry Francis du Pont opened his home to the public in 1951, it was a loving tribute to the country estate in America. Taking his inspiration from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European models, he created a great museum and country estate that showcased his passion for American decorative arts and horticulture.”

It goes on to suggest that the reader will relish the catalogue “objets d’art that echo the elegance of Winterthur. Just as H. F. du Pont relished finding items for his home, we’re sure you’ll experience the same pleasure while perusing these pages.” and “If you’re unable to [experience Winterthur firsthand,] you’ll be pleased to know our Winterthur Home catalogue offers you the next best thing: the beauty of timeless design, shipped right to your door.”

Carrying through the French theme so beloved of H. F., this “Woodland Oak Jewelry Armoire” is offered as the next best thing to Winterthur. It has curvaceous cabriole (French for curvy) legs, a bombé (French for bulging) base, and filigree appliqué (French for curly, tacked-on decoration) and is “crafted of solid hardwoods and veneers, and wood composite” (faux bois?) Surely Mrs. du Pont would have kept her jewels in something with this beauty and timeless design if only she could have!

Putting some wow in the mission to enlighten, the catalogue educates about chinoiserie (French for Western misunderstanding of the arts of China) by pointing out the delightful similarities between objects in the museum’s collections and those you can have shipped right to your door. The white CD cabinet is hand-painted overall and was a WINTERTHUR EXCLUSIVE in 2001. The pagoda Tea Light Holder from 2006 is “heavy, handcrafted cast iron.” It is not a CATALOGUE EXCLUSIVE but “antique porcelain pagodas are on display at Winterthur.” The “Exotic Beauty Painting” is “hand-painted oil on canvas” so “slight variations may occur.” Any of these things teach Asian-American children about their cultural heritage but, more importantly, they prove the craftsmanship of eighteenth-century artisans lives on.
“This impeccably dressed gent is inspired by humorous, nineteenth-century illustrations found in the Winterthur Library. He wears the traditional scarlet hunting coat (often referred to as ‘hunting pinks’), riding breeches, top hat, boots, even a monocle! Handmade of a durable resin composite, the sculpture is amusing on the porch or in the foyer. A WINTERTHUR EXCLUSIVE.”

Where to start? Who did the research at the library? What is handmade about this “sculpture”? If you call it sculpture, doesn’t that make it art? If he’s wearing hunting pinks, isn’t the “gent” hunting little foxes? Isn’t that like using Big Bird to sell chicken sandwiches? I haven’t been to Leslie’s on-campus digs in quite a while (I know, I know, how could that be?) but when I was, I didn’t notice one of these in her foyer.

Hampton Stripes Bedding: “The Winterthur collection includes many exquisite late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century striped textiles.”