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A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings & Prints from the Edwin C. Shaw Bequest

By Wendy Kendall-Hess

 



 

Early in this century many wealthy American philanthropists helped shape and define the cities and towns in which they lived, making diverse contributions of such impact that they last to this day. Industrialist Edwin Coupland Shaw was one such benefactor. His adopted home of Akron boasts several important institutions that serve as reminders of his generosity. Shaw donated to and also co-founded the Akron Art Institute; the inefficient tuberculosis sanatorium that he helped turn around is today a noted rehabilitation facility; and money he earmarked for a charitable fund became the respected Akron Community Foundation. Yet, even with his many contributions to the arts as well as the Akron community, his paintings and prints only entered the Akron Art Institute's collection through a circuitous route that saw many of them dispersed before they could be accessioned. That sort of contradiction characterized Shaw's life; although in many respects he typified an entire generation of American art collector-philanthropists, he was also noted as much for his unpredictability as for his good deeds.

Shaw's early life was conventional enough. He was born in Buffalo in 1863, the son of a well-to-do manufacturer. Shaw attended Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School, graduating in 1886 with a philosophy degree and a major in engineering. Lured to Akron in 1893 by a job for the city's power company, he stayed on until 1895, when the young B. F. Goodrich Company hired him as a mechanical engineer. He moved up rapidly there, becoming Vice-President of Production in 1912. From that position, he initiated the change of the company's machinery from steam power to electric, and was invited onto the Board of Directors.

He first became prominent throughout Akron in 1912, however, because of his role as the Goodrich spokesman during a month-long series of rubber workers' strikes led by outside activists. Shaw earned further name recognition when he was later brought in to testify during a Senate probe into working conditions. The process of questioning workers' rights and becoming more aware of his own responsibility may have awakened some conscience within Shaw, for it was soon afterward that he began to focus his energies on those less fortunate than himself. From then on, he worked on behalf of one social cause after another -- though often not for long. A contemporary of his once noted that "He would get us all fired up, interested in his white-heat-cause until we were pretty well involved. Then he'd be off to another and leave us there to run it alone."[1]

Fortunately, art was one of the few causes that held his attention for any length of time. As with many collectors, no one knows with certainty what initially inspired Shaw's interest in art. Perhaps when he and his wife Jennie built Wytchwood, their large stone house set on sixty-plus acres, the desire to adorn the walls provided some motivation. Other collectors may also have been an influence, for evidence suggests that his family collected on a small scale and attests that some of his professional associates dealt with major East Coast art dealers.

Shaw's interest was probably not born out of a desire to impress others, for although he was quite public about his collecting, few other people got to see his art. The Shaws, who remained childless, seldom received visitors, a show of reclusiveness that contrasted sharply with Edwin's active public persona. The most pressing evidence, however, is provided in the twenty-two separate notebooks that Shaw prepared documenting his collection in the early 1920s. These notebooks are peppered with quotes from numerous sources that refer to art's uplifting qualities, suggesting a belief that it could benefit viewers and improve society. Shaw expressed identical views in his own hand and such motivation would clearly make sense in light of his other civic interests.

In comparison with his peers, Shaw came to collecting rather late, only acquiring his first major paintings in 1916, when he was in his fifties. His initial purchase, made from the Dunbar Art Galleries in Milwaukee, included examples by Emil Carlsen, Charles Harold Davis, Lillian Genth, William Lathrop and William Ritchel (all of which were subsequently sold or traded). Less than two months later, he returned to Dunbar to purchase five more works, including Foam Lace (circa 1910-1915) by Paul Dougherty and November Landscape (circa 1880s-1890s) by Charles Warren Eaton.

From this start, Shaw's buying soon accelerated. He continually sought out and obtained new works, always by American artists, particularly those working with Impressionism or Tonalism. The American Impressionists were following the lead of Europeans such as Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir in constructing their images from small, loose daubs of richly colored paint. In comparison with the earlier, revolutionary Impressionism of the Europeans which sometimes approached abstraction, the American version seemed rather tame. Yet, it was well suited to a more conservative collector such as Shaw. The distinctly American style of the Tonalists generally featured landscapes depicted in a more lifelike, limited range of colors than those used by the Impressionists. A principle concern of Tonalism was the harmonious arrangement of colors and shapes to elicit feelings or moods in the viewer.

Shaw found both styles well represented at the Vose Gallery in Boston and Macbeth and Milch Galleries in New York and began to deal frequently with all three, but continued to buy from dealers in the midwest as well as other eastern dealers. Additionally, he corresponded extensively with many of his favorite artists and came to know a number of them personally. Selections for his collection were based upon his own readings and his dealers' advice, but he also sought out outside affirmation of his choices, usually from other artists and their peers. A demanding buyer, Shaw often insisted upon various services as conditions of his purchases, including reframing, varnishing and rehanging of works. Obsessed with documentation, he demanded all available information on the works he acquired, from photographs and articles to multiple letters of authentication and statements from other artists and professionals attesting to the works' quality. Neither were his selections always final; he would frequently return or exchange pieces if they did not meet his initial expectations.

Shaw's dealers sometimes found his demands extreme. Because his purchases were frequent and large, however, sometimes reaching $45,000 -- a vast sum at that time -- the dealers usually acquiesced to most of Shaw's requests. Shaw even persuaded R.C. Vose to travel to Akron and personally rehang his collection, make framing recommendations and appraise almost seventy works. In a letter written shortly afterward, Vose said "I think I have never hung a group of pictures which gave me more satisfaction than that superb 'tonal' group in your beautiful living room."[2]

As Shaw continued to collect, it became apparent that he was striving to amass characteristic works by many of the nation's preeminent post-Civil War painters. Time also made the weaknesses within this assemblage equally clear. Although many of the primary styles and movements of this period were represented, all works were by established artists depicting attractive, often idealized subject ratter. Works of the Ash Can School, the Precisionists and other styles grappling with less pleasing themes or more formalist ideas were never purchased.

There are several possible reasons for this. The choice of safer, more established artists undoubtedly made financial sense to Shaw. Given his philanthropic bent, the idealized subject matter he chose would have echoed his hopes for a better society. His personal taste certainly came into play too. The same few themes -- beautiful women, lush landscapes and attractive stilllifes -- appeared again and again in the collection, and almost all of the artists that Shaw favored specialized in such subject matter. He clearly enjoyed living with such works and chose them at least partially for that appeal.

Yet, Shaw's choices may have been determined by a sense of civic duty as well. As early as 1920, evidence from correspondence suggests that he was assembling his collection with an eye toward eventual donation to a museum. Although no art museum existed in Akron at that time, when Shaw served as head of an Akron Art Association that same year, he publicly said that he hoped Akron could become a nationally noted home of fine art. He may have looked to many examples of donors in other cities, from Henry Clay Frick in New York to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, to see how other individuals had left their imprints upon their local art scenes. In December of the following year, under Shaw's guidance, sufficient funds had been raised by the Akron Association to initiate a program of art exhibitions in the basement of the city's Carnegie Library; that marked the founding of the Akron Art Institute. Additional evidence from 1922 and 1923 suggests that Shaw viewed this new institution as an ultimate home for his collection; he too wanted to make his mark.

Typically for Shaw, though, no concern ever seemed to hold his interest indefinitely. Late in 1923, after seven years of extremely active collecting, his buying came to a halt. He continued to correspond with dealers and artists well into the 1930s, but that was usually to inquire about selling or trading works. Other interests may have superseded his interest in art or, quite possibly, financial considerations had an impact. By 1928 he was reputedly suffering from major financial setbacks and made a concerted effort to sell off some of his works.

 

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