February 16, 2011
By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
Chester and Clara Congdon were the kind of people who pressed flowers between the pages of books and displayed shells they had gathered from beaches. They were also the kind of people who studied art museum catalogues, making notations and possibly purchasing items of interest.
For the past three years, art historian Jennifer Webb, an assistant art professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been studying the art collecting habits of the millionaire family who built Glensheen in the early 1900s as a retirement home. Webb combed their paintings, vases and shells. She went through their journals and books; she looked at the texture of draperies and considered the architecture of their home.
Her findings: “All the objects fashion the Congdons into disciplined, cultured and well-traveled individuals who were purveyors of good taste,” Webb wrote in the article “Golden Age collecting in America’s Middle West: Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen Historical Manor and Raymond Wyer’s ‘An Art Museum,’ ” published in May 2010 in the “Journal of the History of Collections.”
Webb will present a gallery talk about researching the famous family’s aesthetic at 2 p.m. Saturday at Tweed Museum of Art on the UMD campus.
At the Tweed
A copy of Wyer’s “An Art Museum,” published in 1916 and found in the Congdon archives, was a key that helped Webb define the couple’s approach to their collection.
The book — the Congdon’s copy is signed by the author — makes a case for small museums with a narrow focus on a particular period or art movement rather than scooping up pieces by the masters. It is a theory the Congdons seemed to subscribe to as they sought out high-quality landscapes in the style of French impressionists, as well as items that incorporated their interest in world travel. They were conservative collectors who probably never paid much more than $800 for a piece, and they weren’t buying art as an investment.
From interviews with family members, Webb confirmed that it was Clara, with her background in the arts, who was the primary collector in the family.
“They really felt she was the one collecting them, even though she was using Chester’s checkbook,” Webb said.
Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said the art at Glensheen is unique in the way the art is equal to the house where it hangs.
“A lot of times you walk through mansions or historic homes and the work, while it may be period, it’s not necessarily high-quality period art,” she said.
Webb selected two of her favorite pieces for an alcove at the Tweed Museum. “The Wharves of Quebec,” a pastel by the little-known but respected artist Birge Harrison, is a landscape that dabbles in abstract. “Passage de L’ouet” by Paul E. J. Chabas, is set in Algeria and pairs with the family’s Parisian vases and Egyptian lamps, Webb said in her article.
Knowing the Congdons
Webb’s research on the Congdons includes biographical information: neither came from money, they met at college in Syracuse and had a long-term, long-distance relationship while they both advanced in their careers — Chester in law, Clara teaching art.
Webb said she likes the moments in her research where the Congdons were made human: flowers pressed in the pages of a catalogue and the shells that were collected as memorial keepsakes, with labels to show where they came from.
“In all of my research, I feel like I know these people,” she said. “It’s the moment you hold things in your hand and you’re right there with them.”
Dugan called the collection at Glensheen amazing and said Webb’s research is a wonderful, long-lasting legacy.
“It’s exciting that there is someone of Jennifer’s level in the community doing work on that,” Dugan said.
Webb pointed out a wall of paintings by French impressionists at the Tweed as examples of the sort of work that would have attracted the Congdons’ attention. She can discern their taste from a lineup.
This story ran in the February 10, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune