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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: Constructing a House and a History in Newport’s Gilded Age : Catharine Lorillard Wolfe’s “Vinland”


September 20, 2013

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In the early 1880s, tobacco heiress and New York art collector, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe (1828-1887), the first female benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hired the Boston architects Peabody & Stearns to create a Newport summer “cottage.” She had a distinct vision in mind. The finished stone façade that she and her architects conceived resembled no other residence in Newport. It would be named Vinland to commemorate local legends of Viking explorations in this region, a subject which fascinated the patron. For Vinland’s interior, she hired the British firm of Morris & Co., and other artists, to create cutting-edge art and décor, much of which would reinforce Viking motifs on the exterior. The final product became a unique example of a total narrative aesthetic conceived for an American domestic space. Rather than being merely an escapist haven for Wolfe, Vinland was the deliberate projection of a site-specific identity she crafted for herself in the resort town.
Much of Vinland’s original art and décor has subsequently been removed, and Vinland is now part of an academic institution. Yet studies, fragments, and individual works of art are housed in repositories and museums on both sides of the Atlantic. This talk contextualizes the circumstances of this commission, and focuses on the interplay between patron and the artists. It provides in-depth analysis of three works Wolfe commissioned or purchased for designated spaces at Vinland: a major stained-glass ensemble by Morris and Edward Burne-Jones; a monumental frieze by Walter Crane; and a Winslow Homer marine painting. A consideration of the dynamics underlying their creation and display provides crucial insight into the aesthetic program of Vinland’s interior. It also reveals how Vinland's art and décor enhanced Wolfe's status in Newport, and thus adds to our understanding of interconnections between artistic patronage, display, and identity formation, at this moment in Newport's Gilded Age.
Margaret R. Laster, Ph.D., a writer in residence at the Library’s Wertheim Study, is an art historian specializing in nineteenth-century art, architecture, and material culture. She has held research positions in museums and cultural institutions in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C.  The recipient of a doctorate from the CUNY Graduate Center, and an MA from the University of Chicago, she has been awarded fellowships and grants from the CUNY Graduate Center; the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Art Reference Library; the Huntington Library and Art Collections; the William Morris Society; and the Smithsonian Institution. As the inaugural fellow for the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies at the Freer Gallery of Art, she developed the 2011 international Symposium “Palaces of Art : Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism.”