The Hillwood- A Collection

Previously, I introduced Marjorie Merriweather Post as a collector by providing a brief synopsis of her life. Now, I would like to present some highlights of her collection that I feel encapsulates its beauty and dimension, while providing some critique. All of which can be seen in her Entry Hall.

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From the top of the stairs looking down to the front hall main wall.

In the Entry Hall, Russian Imperial art and French decorative art is not in juxtaposition, as some may assume. Rather, they come together in a seamless display of wealth, power, and superb taste. The apex of the entry hall is, of course, the massive portrait of Catherine the Great  painted in 1788 by Dmitry Levitsky. In this portrait there is a quote that reads “She finishes what has begun.” This is in reference to Catherine the Great finishing Peter the Great’s mission to Westernize Russia. Catherine enhanced the arts and sciences for the benefit of Russia- opening schools, and bringing in European fashion and culture to her court. Both Marjorie Merriweather Post and Catherine the Great collected and commissioned French art, however, much of Marjorie’s collection was once Catherine’s. In an interesting documentary the two women are even compared due to their similar tastes, wealth, and influence. By having this portrait in the front hall, it makes a statement about Post as a collector. It was Catherine the Great who began the Hermitage Museum out of her personal collection, and now a portrait of hers sits in the Entry Hall of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate.

                                            Catherine II, Dmitry Levitskiy, 1788.

There were two less obvious pieces in the Entry Hall that drew me in. In the coat closet is a soft yet striking portrait of a partially nude woman draped in billowing black fabric. Then, below the grand Portrait of Catherine the Great is a stunning detailed and painterly portrait of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. The former was painted by Ilya Repin and the latter by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. However, it took me until I got home and looked it up that I discovered that those were the masters were behind these pieces. There lays my only qualm, nearly nothing was labeled and not every piece had its information in the pamphlet. I imagine it is because wall text and labels would make her estate feel less personal and intimate, both of which are the desired experience the Hillwood wants to provide. (I imagine Post had her reasons for displaying a Bouguereau in a closet then instructed that her estate remained as she left it postmortem). The names of Ilya Repin and William-Adolphe Bouguereau carry much weight, especially to the Russian and French. Therefore, I would have expected a little more attention brought to them.  In spite of that, the mystery leads people to look it up on their website (like myself), or go on a guided tour in the future. At any rate, both of these men are a testament to her as a collector.

Night (La Nuit) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1883, (above) is on display in the men’s coat closet. The contrast of the milky soft skin of the woman and the black light fabric caught my eye. I figured someone extremely well trained painted it due to the impeccable quality of the skin’s tone, texture, and softness. So, I made a mental note to look it up in their collection and discovered a French 19th century master, Bouguereau, painted it. Bouguereau spent his lifetime featured in the Paris Salon. Thus, this is a testament to Post’s collection that she owns his work because he is also in the Musee D’Orsay, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bouguereau is most known for his paintings of nude women, classical subjects, and mythological scenes. More attention brought to this piece would broaden the scope of her collection significantly. I would argue that Bouguereau is a more recognizable name to a Western audience due to his fame and the emphasis in most art history classes, than some of the names that were mentioned. Even myself, didn’t recognize many of the names were in the pamphlet. I believe a broader audience of art aficionados would come to the Hillwood, if they knew a French master was featured. While seeing a Bouguereau was a pleasant surprise, realizing I stood in front of an Ilya Repin painting had me floored.

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Portrait of Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, Ilya Repin, 1896.

Beneath the Portrait of Catherine the Great is another portrait of Russian royalty. What drew me in wast the beautiful woman wearing white, ivory, and gold against a black background. Again, I had no idea who the artist was or a definite idea of who the subject was. Once home, I realized I had guessed correctly, it was a portrait of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, however, I was not expecting the artist to be the Ilya Repin. Repin is easily one of the most-well known Russian artists and is the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century. He is so revered in Russia he even has a statue in Moscow. He is also one of my personal favorite artists. However, I can confidently say there is not much of his art outside of Russia, his work in mainly in the Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum. Repin is known for his realist works like Barge Hauler on the Volga 1873, and Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan 1885. What also makes Ilya Repin an ideal fit for the collection of Post, he was the one of first Russian artists, painting Russian subjects, to receive praise from France. He even got to study in France and maintained relationships there. Repin’s name carries significance to a Russian audience, and should really be a name American art history audiences recognize. Again, I would have expected attention brought to this piece. Further, because of his relationship with France he represents a collision of Russia with France, similar to Post’s collection.