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

By Wendy Kendall-Hess



With the Macbeth Gallery's help, in 1930 he sold ten paintings to the new Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. This group included works by William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Shaw made more than $20,000 from this sale, but he seemed equally pleased to see these paintings go to a respected educational institution. Although childless himself, Shaw genuinely liked children and took pleasure in knowing that his works would benefit the young men at Phillips. He referred to this in a letter, stating:

"Ever since my visit to Andover I have been impressed with the desirability of the boys having every opportunity of effectively absorbing the benefits that should follow the splendid idea being developed...it is to be a place of interest where the youngsters will...gradually acquire a real grasp of true art appreciation that will be a powerful influence in their lives....I have therefore given the matter of the material for the books of record my special care...."[3]

The books he referred to were the pertinent parts of his notebooks, which he donated to augment the paintings. Shaw went beyond his required duties in the transaction again later, donating nineteen prints by Frank Duveneck and John Twachtman when approached by Thomas Cochran, an Addison Gallery Trustee, in 1931.

In 1934, by the time that Shaw wrote his will, his relationship with the art institution in Akron that he had helped create seemed strangely tenuous, but once again, financial considerations were probably to blame. Despite earlier intentions to donate his entire collection to the Akron Art Institute, he had abandoned trying to keep the collection intact when he sold off art. His will eroded this possibility yet further by stating that artworks could be sold as needed to cover any financial obligations or to support his unmarried sister Caroline (she had come to live with the Shaws in the early 1930s and when Jennie Shaw died in 1934, Caroline became mistress of the house).

Fortunately for Akron, the Depression, coupled with waning interest in turn-of-the century American art, made sale of more works so disadvantageous that the bulk of Shaw's collection remained intact until his death in 1941. Since the estate left no pressing debts and Caroline did not need the minimal sums that the sale of these works would have provided, the art was kept to grace the Shaw home's walls. Caroline, unlike her brother, entertained frequently at Wytchwood, enabling many other people to see and enjoy the lovely house and its artistic riches for the first time.

Probate of the Edwin Shaw estate followed Caroline's death in 1955. Shaw's will promised payments to various charities and noted that if insufficient money was available to meet these promises, then art should be sold as needed. Any remaining artworks would then be donated to the Akron Art Institute. The executors held a sale of the household items and art, with admittance by invitation only, but fewer than ten paintings -- mainly less important examples -- sold, all for a fraction of their original prices. These results reflected the shift in taste and style, typifying the art market's capricious nature, that had occurred over the previous three decades. Shaw's artists, regarded as masters when he purchased their works, had fallen far from favor.

The estate's bad fortune proved a boon for the Art Institute; thanks to this fortuitous mixture of generosity, chance and timing, the remaining forty-three paintings and a small group of prints entered the collection. This body of works remained intact until 1965, when the Institute authorized sale or trade of twelve paintings to the Victor Sparks Gallery in exchange for a group of European paintings. In the ensuing thirty years, the Akron Art Museum (renamed in 1981) has come to regard this group of artworks as an indispensable treasure within the collection, and has even been able to get back through donation some of the works dispersed at the 1955 auction.

Many of the Shaw Impressionist and Tonalist paintings in the Akron Art Museum collection are by the acknowledged masters of these two styles. Impressionists represented include Frederick C. Frieseke, Frederick Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf and John Twachtman. Individually, several of these works stand out as exceptional examples of their creators' hands. Frieseke's painting On the Balcony represented that artist at his finest. Painted in Giverny, France, at the peak of Frieseke's Impressionist period, it depicts a woman sitting on the balcony sewing. This visually complex image carefully juxtaposes varying textures, colors and shapes into a busy but cohesive whole, from the striped dress and the wicker chair to the curled metal railing and profuse foliage in the background. These various tones and textures enabled the artist to explore the effect of light and shadows. Other works, such as Bedford Hills by Frederick Childe Hassam and Maytime by Willard Metcalf are very fine, typical paintings by these artists.

The Tonalists in the collection include Charles Dewey, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Charles Warren Eaton and Dwight Tryon. Few were more successful at evoking feelings in the viewer than Dewing, who was a personal favorite of Shaw's. His Symphony in Green and Gold was considered by the artist himself to be one of his finest "decorations," the term Dewing coined for pictures made purely as pleasing arrangements of color and form. This dreamy image is so thinly painted that the drawing beneath is clearly visible in several areas. Light and ethereal, it is an unusually daring work for that artist, as well as for Shaw. Another outstanding piece, Tryon's The New Moon was one of the few large paintings that that artist executed later in his career; he considered these works to be among his very finest. Tryon said that "My object in painting this picture was to portray the beauty of the spring sky when the last of the daylight is changing into the mystery of night,"[4] and noted as well that it represented several years of experimentation with technique involving repeated layers of undertones to achieve the desired luminosity.


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