On April 28, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art will open one of its most exciting and personal exhibitions of the year when it unveils the 13 works recently donated by Winifred Vedder and her late husband, Dwight Vedder. The Vedders are ranchers who have grown avocados here in Santa Barbara County for several decades. They began collecting art in the late 1970s when they met Los Angeles art dealer Louis Stern, who took them to the great art auctions and helped them get started. The resulting collection is many things-impressive, rare, and important-but most of all it is poignant, because it so clearly represents the love and passion of this couple both for fine art and for each other. Winifred Vedder recalled how she and her husband would often enter a gallery and proceed on separate paths until they rejoined to discuss their impressions. “Even if we had not been walking together,” she said, “it would almost invariably be the same painting that was our favorite.”
Of all the gifts people can make to institutions, the gift of an art collection is in some ways the most personal, as this show makes abundantly clear. The Vedders bought what they did out of instinct and intuition, and the mark of their distinctive style remains with the group of pictures as it is being prepared to hang in the SBMA. For the museum, there are many reasons to be excited. Until now, the SBMA has never owned a single picture by Pierre-Auguste Renoir or Mary Cassatt. Now it has two-of each. The Cassatts are both magnificent and are Mrs. Vedder’s favorites. “The Blond Baby” (ca. 1875) is an oil painting that shows Cassatt at the height of her powers and working with one of her favorite subjects-the dreamy, introspective face of a very young child. For sheer sensitivity to the moods and presence of small children, there is no other artist who comes close to Cassatt. Her other work in the collection, “Helene of Septeuil with Parrot” (ca. 1889), is a pastel with lots of exposed paper, and it is stunning in its effortless modernity and vividness.
There are so many highlights to the Vedder collection, it’s hard to know where to start or stop describing them. The Marc Chagall, “Femme Cheval” (1945), would be considered a prize even at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan in New York. It shows a dark-haired woman in profile stroking the head of a reddish-orange horse, but that is only the beginning. In the complex background lurk a fish playing the violin and a second woman holding flowers. This is Chagall at his mythopoetic best. Armand Guillaumin is a turn-of-the-century landscape painter with a technique reminiscent of Cezanne and a palette given to intense reds and oranges. His “Banks of the Creuze” (1903) is a wonder of complex surface and depth effects, with the surface of the water rendered with an almost Monet-like intricacy and reverence.
In addition to these impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, the Vedders also took an interest in the folk art of Grandma Moses and the Englishwoman Helen Bradley. Their related styles make them a natural pair, and the examples included are absolutely first-rate. It’s impossible not to be charmed by Grandma Moses’s “Bringing in the Yule Log” (1949), with its Brueghelian directness and attention to detail.
Being involved in agriculture, it is natural that the Vedders would own some intriguing works depicting flora. “Roses, Zinnias, and Pinks” (ca. 1880) by Victoria Dubourg Fantin-Latour is a sterling example of the work of the “other Fantin-Latour,” the wife of the great still life painter Henri. When I spoke with SBMA director Phillip Johnston about the collection, he expressed an almost giddy excitement about the other flower picture, a small oil painting of roses by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “I’ve had some people in to look at the works,” Johnston said, “and two separate artists came together over the Renoir ‘Roses,’ which they were both drawn to by the innocent, upright strokes, and their extreme expressiveness.” The Renoir “Roses” are genuinely amazing, with a subtle balance between detailed observation and impressionistic brushwork.
All of this glorious art will get a suitably elegant and idiosyncratic presentation from the museum, where a team of designers and artists have been hard at work creating the space in which it will be shown. Scott Flax is the color consultant most frequently responsible for the dramatic wall tones that support such exhibits as the current Tamayo retrospective. For the Vedder collection, Flax has put together something quite daring and unusual. For more than a week, craftsÂ-people have been working on the walls of the gallery with stencils, creating a pattern reminiscent of Edwardian- or Victorian-era wallpaper. The suggestion for this move came from Phillip Johnston, and he is clearly excited about it. “We wanted to do something that would distinguish the upper from the lower half of the wall, to give the room some architectural definition,” he said. “The stencil comes from Christopher Dresser, who was an important designer of patterns in the 1870s and 1880s. I have always felt that paying attention to the details of the installation and making the ‘envelope’ the shows come in is an important part of what we do.”
Everyone will have a different favorite image from among this distinguished group. The large Henri Matisse drawing, “Bust of a Woman with Her Hand under Her Chin” (1943), spoke to me most powerfully. There is something about the way Matisse can express so much with just a few lines that awakens a sense of absolute wonder. Go to A Gift for Santa Barbara: The Dwight and Winifred Vedder Collection, and you are certain to find something that will do the same for you.
A Gift for Santa Barbara: The Dwight and Winifred Vedder Collection opens on Saturday, April 28 and will be on display through December 2007. For more information, call 963-4364 or visit sbmuseart.org.