Monday, July 18, 2005

Truth, Beauty, Culture, Homer, Shakespeare

Where’s Winslow Homer?
Gina and I have been to the Adirondacks at least eight times since I last visited the Hyde Collection, in 1981, which means we’ve driven past its exit on the Northway, at Glens Falls, at least 16 times, and each time we talked about stopping there. But we never did, until last week. On a recent rainy Friday, as we drove home from a trip that took us to the Champlain Valley and the High Peaks region, we made the detour and spent about an hour at the Hyde Collection. It’s a terrific little museum, consisting mainly of the collection of Louis Fiske Hyde and his wife, Charlotte Pruyn Hyde. It has sculptures, tapestries, furniture and other artifacts, and one or two works by a lot of interesting painters: Picasso, El Greco, Botticelli, Rubens, Rembrandt, Homer, Seurat, Eakins, Pisarro, Renoir, Ingres, Hassam and Bierstadt, among others.

The building that houses the collection was the Hydes’ house. It was designed as a Florentine villa, but it seems modest in size and general grandiosity by the standards of other 19th- and early 20th-century robber barons, industrialists, and land-rapers. Mrs. Hyde’s father was a founder of the Finch Pruyn paper company, and the family made its money by laying waste to the Adirondack forests in the 19th century and turning the trees into newsprint. But at least she didn’t completely sequester herself from the unsightly source of her wealth. Glance away from a Rubens portrait in one of the house’s rooms and you can see Finch Pruyn’s Glens Falls mill, its huge machines grabbing logs from a pile of timber of a scale that wouldn’t be out of place at Cheops, and sending them to the mill with its huge smokestacks.

Not that I mean to single out the Finches or the Pruyns, or even the Hydes for that matter. Museums and galleries and collections throughout the U.S. are filled with paintings bought with the profits of pollution and environmental degradation (and then given away for tax breaks from the IRS), just as the buildings that house them were built with those profits. The Adirondack forests have grown back, their destruction led to the Forever Wild section of the state constitution, and Finch Pruyn is now logging 160,000 or so acres in what it claims (and I have no reason not to believe them) is a sustainable manner. And at least we can go see the paintings.

When I was there in 1981, the visitors center and new gallery had not been built, and everything was in the villa itself. It was relatively small and intimate and dark, and it felt as if I were in Mrs. Hyde’s house, rather than in a museum, and that the old woman herself might be in the atrium taking tea. I went specifically to look at one of Winslow Homer’s Adirondack watercolors, “A Good One,” and it was on my mind again on this visit.

My favorite room this time was the Down Guest Room, which was one of the first we walked through. A small Homer called “Adirondack Guide” hung on a dark wall near the door (this being an old house, the lighting occasionally is more conducive to napping than to looking at paintings), and nearby there was a terrific Homer watercolor called “Forebodings,” which depicts two women holding babies on a foggy shore presumably waiting for their fishermen husbands and fathers to return. Over the bed in the Down Guest Room is a Bierstadt (“Yosemite”), and near the bathroom is a beautiful Childe Hassam called “Geraniums” -- brilliant sunlight, a woman in the background knitting or doing some other handiwork, two watering cans in the foreground, and small drops of vermillion geraniums.

It took us about an hour to look through all the galleries, and when we were finished I was baffled by not having encountered “A Good One.” A guard on the second floor didn’t know its whereabouts. A woman at the information desk had no idea where it might be and in fact had never heard of it. She asked a guard near the front door, but he had never heard of it either. Maybe I was imagining things. I found a Hyde Collection catalogue in the gift shop and quickly flipped to the page with “A Good One.” I showed it to the woman at the information desk, who took it to yet another guard - one who had worked at the Hyde Collection for longer than the others, I gathered. Oh yes, he said. It used to be in the Down Guest Room, hanging on the dank wall where “Adirondack Guide” now hangs. It’s been in storage for a couple of years, presumably to protect it. I was disappointed, but I hadn’t expected to see the other two Homers, and the rest of the collection,
including the Childe Hassam.

The suggested donation at the Hyde Collection is $8 for a family, which is a bargain, even if you have a daughter who will sit in the lobby and read, and a son whose energetic wanderings threaten to topple the sculptures in the atrium and set off the alarms protecting the book collection in the library. It was well worth the detour.

Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I …
On Wednesday it was overcast and humid, but there was no rain, and so we went to Boscobel, in Garrison, New York, to see The Tempest, put on by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (not that the weather mattered - the show goes on, rain or shine).

We brought our dinner, as Boscobel encourages play-goers to do, and ate on the lawn. It has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Garrison is in the heart of the Hudson Highlands, and the lawn looks south over Constitution Marsh and toward the Bear Mountain Bridge.

The play itself was terrific. The tent that covers the seats looks out past the lawn to the Highlands (throughout the performance we could see commuter trains running along the west shore of the Hudson), and the cast magically came and went through the darkening landscape, materializing far off among the trees or seeming to rise out of the grass.

We had been to Boscobel before but never to the Shakespeare Festival. The play cost $25, and for that price you can wander around the gardens at will; considering that it costs $7 to visit the gardens without seeing the play, it is truly a bargain, and a delight. They're also staging Two Gentlemen of Verona this summer, and they'll do two more next summer. Depending on the play, we’ll be sure to go again.


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