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Saturday, 16 March 2013 23:51

The Whittemores of Connecticut: Pioneer Collectors of French Impressionism

Fig. 1: Harris Whittemore (1864–1927), son of J.H. Whittemore. One of the earliest American collectors of French Impressionist paintings, Harris acquired his first of thirty Monets in 1890.
Courtesy Whittemore family archives.


“Should you make the purchase, we will have more of the Monets than I think we will care for, but it strikes me we can sell some of those we now have, and thereby greatly improve our collection.” With this, an industrialist from the small town of Naugatuck, Connecticut, advised his twenty-eight-year-old son, honeymooning in Paris in 1893, to buy another Monet.

The son, Harris Whittemore (1864–1927) (Fig. 1), had already acquired a significant number of the fresh new paintings of Claude Monet (1840–1926), the French Impressionist. He began buying the artist’s paintings in New York in 1890, and before his honeymoon had acquired at least ten canvasses by the artist. In Paris that spring, he bought four more. By the time he was done, Whittemore had acquired more than thirty works by Monet, and that was just a small part of the extraordinary collection he assembled (Fig. 2).

More than one thousand works of art were acquired by the Whittemore family and hung in their homes in Naugatuck and Middlebury. This number included the Monets (Fig. 3), as well as thirty-five works by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), seventy-five works by Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) (Fig. 4), and more than six hundred works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), among others (Fig. 11).

The Whittemore family collection is not well known today because the family has strictly guarded their privacy, maintaining a firm “no comment” about the collection for more than a century. Much of the collection is now dispersed, with examples from the collection hanging in major museums across the United States and Europe. Research in the family archives has recently been permitted and reveals a collection of unique range and quality.

Fig. 2: Claude Monet (1840–1927),
The Church at Vernon, 1880.
Oil on canvas, 25 x 36 inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore in 1893.
Private collection. Photo courtesy of
the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

Fig. 3: Claude Monet (1840–1927),
Fishing Nets at Pourville, 1882.
Oil on canvas, 299⁄10 x 35 inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore, 1895.
Image courtesy Barclay Fine Art, LLC.

Fig. 4: Mary Cassatt (1844–1926),
Thomas Standing with his Mother,
Sucking his Thumb, 1893.
Pastel, 24½ x 20¼ inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore after 1904. Image courtesy of Barclay Fine Art, LLC.
The Whittemore collection was undertaken earlier than the Impressionist collections formed by the H. O. Havemeyers in New York and the Potter Palmers in Chicago, whose collections are today also exhibited in major American museums.1 The Impressionist collection assembled by the Whittemores’ friend and business associate Alfred Pope, now the centerpiece of the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, was started at the same time as the Whittemores’, and included many of the same artists and subjects, but was always considerably smaller than the collection in Naugatuck. Collecting was a passion for Harris Whittemore. Long after the walls of the family homes were filled with paintings, he continued to buy important works by his favorite artists.

Harris Whittemore was the only surviving son of John Howard Whittemore (1837–1910) (Fig. 5), who made a fortune in iron manufacturing, in addition to well-selected investments in railroads, real estate, and other iron-related operations throughout the Midwest. Harris was educated locally in Naugatuck, Connecticut, and at boarding schools in South Williamstown and Andover, Massachusetts, where he spent some of his tuition funds on a set of prints to decorate his room. In 1880, he began a two-year course of study in Europe, from a base in Munich, visiting prominent museums in France, Spain, and Italy, and reading about the great European art collections. Encouraged by his parents, he bought objects d’art to send home to his family and spent time in the studio of a contemporary painter in Munich who had been commissioned to paint a conventional German genre scene for the senior Whittemores.

Fig. 5: John Howard (J. H.) Whittemore (1837–1910), founder of an iron
manufacturing empire based in Naugatuck, Connecticut. Courtesy Whittemore family archives.

Fig. 6: The J. H. Whittemore house in Naugatuck, Connecticut, designed by McKim Mead & White, 1888.

Fig. 7: The hallway at the Harris Whittemore house, with Monet’s Haystacks in the Sun, Morning Effect and Gust of Wind. Courtesy Whittemore family archives.

In 1885, Harris was sent to Cleveland, Ohio, to learn the iron business at Alfred Pope’s iron factory, which listed his father, J. H., as the company’s vice president. Remaining there into the early 1890s, Harris was regularly included in the Pope family’s activities. He traveled to Europe with them in the fall of 1888, where he saw Impressionist paintings at the gallery and home of Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) in Paris, and at the Boussod, Valadon gallery. Recognizing Harris’ discerning judgment in art, Pope encouraged J. H. to commission Harris to buy artwork for the new Whittemore home then under construction in Naugatuck (Fig. 6).
Fig. 7a: Claude Monet (1840–1927), Haystacks in the Sun, Morning Effect, 1891. Oil on canvas, 25⅝ x 39½ inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore in 1891. Private collection. © Agnews, London UK/
The Bridgeman Art Library International.

Harris left the Popes in Rome and continued to travel on his own after his proposal of marriage was rejected by Pope’s daughter Theodate. He probably viewed the Impressionist works exhibited in Paris in the spring of 1889 before returning home. Back in America, he went to the New York gallery of Durand-Ruel and began to purchase the brightly hued paintings by Monet. These paintings may not have been what J. H. and his wife, Julia, had in mind for their new home; initially, at least, preferring the German genre scenes they had purchased when visiting Harris in Munich in 1881. But J. H. graciously supported his son’s choices.

Father and son were close, writing to each other several times a week when they were separated, and sharing management duties at the iron foundry in Naugatuck from the early 1890s until J. H. died in 1910. Indeed, Harris continued to live in his parents’ home until 1899, six years after his marriage. He selected the paintings that hung in the extended family home, while J. H. made the payments (Figs. 7, 7a).

Fig. 8: Edgar Degas (1834–1917),
The Rehearsal, 1873–1878.
Oil on canvas, 18 x 23⅝ inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore in 1907. Harvard Art Museum, Fogg Art Museum, Bequest of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906. 1951.47. Photo: Katya Kallsen
© President and Fellows of Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When Harris returned to Paris with his bride, Justine, in the spring of 1893, he went on a spree, buying at least twenty-three artworks between March and June. He continued to buy Impressionist paintings, and to advocate their merits to his bemused father, who paid for his son’s purchases. “I have made a purchase through Durand Ruel of three pictures for you…” Harris wrote in a letter, “…but if you don’t like them I will relieve you as soon as I am financially able, but I trust you will [like them]. One is a Monet, a most stunning thing, as good as any of his I have ever seen. View of the cliffs and sea off the French coast. The other two are by Degas [:] a portrait of a lady and a small picture of four ballet girls. They are both simply fine…. The three pictures I spoke of amount to $3,260. Do you think you can stand it? Or shall I dispose of them on this side? I think you will be pleased, besides having a good investment.”2

Fig. 9: Mary Cassatt (1844–1926),
Boy with Golden Curls (Portrait of
Harris Whittemore, Jr. B. A. 1918), 1898.
Pastel on paper, 21 x 19 inches.
Gift of the artist to Harris Whittemore, 1898. Yale University Art Gallery;
gift of Robert N. Whittemore, B. S. 1943.

Harris was anxious about his father’s reaction to the ballet dancers, fearing they might be less to his taste than the more manly Degas scenes of racehorses that Harris would acquire later. His father must have approved, for in 1907, Harris spent $30,000 on Degas’ The Rehearsal, now at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University (Fig. 8). But in 1893, a worried Harris wrote: “I forgot to say that you may think the picture of ballet girls a trifle queer subject to buy. But when you see the picture, I am sure you will like it.”

On April 10, Harris bought a painting by expatriot artist Mary Cassatt at the Durand-Ruel gallery.3 With an introduction from the gallery, he later called on Cassatt in her Paris apartment. As Justine wrote in a letter to his mother a few weeks later: “Hearing that Miss Mary Cassatt was in town and admiring some pictures he saw of hers he went to call and found her charming. She was so pleased that Harris had bought one of hers and that it was to go to her country…. She invited us to take tea with her the following week and was very interesting and pleasant. She is about 40 I should say and lives with her mother in Paris during the winter and goes to some country place in the summer. Their apartments are lovely. I believe they have a good deal of money outside her art.”4

Fig. 10: Mary Cassatt (1844–1926),
Portrait of Mrs. Harris Whittemore
and Baby Helen, 1898.
Pastel, 23 x 19 inches.
Image courtesy Adelson Galleries.
Cassatt suggested they visit the dealer Alphonse Portier, and later in the month Harris purchased from the dealer works by Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Berthe Morisot (1841–1895) and Etienne Tournes (1857–1931), as well as a drawing by Degas of Cassatt, now in the Louvre. Harris seems not to have done further business with the dealer, instead, he continued to do most of his business with galleries in New York.

Harris remained friendly with Cassatt for the remainder of their lives. She visited the Whittemores on a rare visit to the United States in 1898, completing three large pastel portraits of Harris’ mother, wife and children (Figs. 9–10). During the teens, when Europe was at war and Cassatt was struggling with declining vision and health, Harris purchased her paintings and sent encouragement and funds by way of her Paris banker. He defended her during a 1924 dispute with Lousine Havemeyer in New York over the quality of some prints Cassatt sent for exhibition. Harris offered to buy a set of the disputed prints, without revealing that he already owned a set from the original printing. Cassatt replied gratefully, “Your letter gave me the sincerest pleasure. I thank you for its kind appreciation of my feelings.”

Wishing for some diversification in the collection, J. H. was gratified with the purchase Harris made in 1896 of Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (Fig. 11). Rejected from the Salon in 1863, it subsequently met with public ridicule and critical acclaim at the Salon des Refusés. It was bequeathed to the artist’s nephew in Baltimore and later sold for $6,500 to the Whittemores through the Boussod, Valadon gallery in New York. In the Whittemore house it hung in the stairwell alongside Whistler’s Mother of Pearl and Silver: the Andalusian purchased at the Wunderlich gallery in New York in 1902 (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11: James A. M. Whistler (1834–1903),
Symphony in White, No. 1:
The White Girl, 1862.
Oil on canvas, 83⅞ x 42½ inches.
Acquired by Harris Whittemore, 1896.
The Harris Whittemore Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art.
Harris added to his reputation as a Whistler collector with the 1919 purchase of the Mansfield collection of Whistler etchings and lithographs. Believed then to be the world’s best collection of Whistler prints, the collection was assembled by Howard Mansfield, who produced the first American catalogue raisonné of the artist’s prints. The purchase, and its price ($350,000), was excitedly reported in the New York Times.5

While Harris was acquiring art, his father was creating a new image for Naugatuck and, to a lesser extent, the nearby towns of Middlebury and Waterbury. He was determined to use his wealth for public benefit, and to transform his hometown into a model American village centered on a new colonial style green. He built libraries, churches, and schools, and prompted the development of new housing, transportation, and hospital facilities. Many of these projects were gifts to the towns, which included endowments for the buildings’ maintenance. The renowned New York architectural firm of McKim Mead & White designed thirteen projects, including some of these public structures and the Whittemore homes where the paintings hung. Alfred Pope’s daughter Theodate, one of the first women architects in the country, was commissioned to design others.

The legacy of the Whittemore family is visible today in the monuments they built and the collection they nurtured. After J. H’s death, Harris continued his father’s community efforts, planting hundreds of thousands of trees and donating thousands of acres of parkland for public enjoyment in Connecticut (as well as a redwood preserve in California), and creating schools, housing, and playgrounds for city neighborhoods. He also continued to buy works by his favorite artists right up to his early death, a few days after his sixty-third birthday.
An account of the family, their collection, and their architectural commissions is available in Ann Smith’s Hidden in Plain Sight: The Whittemore Collection and the French Impressionists (2009).

Fig. 12: The stairway of the J. H. Whittemore house, with Whistler’s White Girl and The Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian.
The publication contains a complete listing of the works from the collection and the location of those accessible to the public. It is available at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. Call 203.753.0381 or visit The author is grateful for the assistance of Robert N. Whittemore, Thyrza Whittemore, and Joel Finn.

Ann Y. Smith is the former director and curator at the Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center, Waterbury, Connecticut.

Ann Y. Smith is the former director and curator at the Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center, Waterbury, Connecticut.

1. The Havemeyer Collection is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and the Potter Palmer collection is exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago.

2. All letters quoted in this article are in the archives of the Whittemore family and the Harris Whittemore, Jr. Trust.

3. Probably Susan Comforting the Baby, No. 1, now at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

4. Justine seems to have had a playful attitude about the collection. According to the family, she bet her husband that she could paint as well as the Impressionists. When she painted a copy of a rooster by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and switched it with the original that hung in the dining room, Harris claimed to have been fooled. Surely he was humoring his wife. He wrote a sweet poem about the event when he presented her with the $1,000 winnings.

5. The New York Times, March 2, 1919.