The Richard E Rich Academy Museum of Insider Art is launching a show featuring paintings of the country houses of RRA alums.
Some paintings were commissioned by professional artists, many were the works of the eccentric aunt or the bohemian grandmother. The artistic Uncle who dabbled in the expat lifestyle in the 1920s, but later buckled down to being a nominally straight actually rich stockbroker in Manhattan, is also a frequent type of artist in this genre.
Richard Rich parent Professor Polly Smith, an anthropologist at Fred’s University, is the guest curator for this event, which will include paintings of homes on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, various private islands in Maine, Cape Cod, Fisher’s Island, and many others.
Professor Smith notes that although the genre began in the 1400s in France, its heyday was the era of the great British country house estates. Starting in the 1500s, Brits would have oil portraits painted of their houses just as they would of their family members.
As the United States accumulated more wealth, the country house became a symbol of success among the middle-to-upper classes as did the portrait tradition. A picture of your country house displayed in your city house was an obligatory status symbol as well as a reminder of carefree days spent on the beach with the nanny.
These paintings often become the subjects of inheritance disputes, especially when the country house has to be sold or otherwise leaves the family. If the third wife and her children by her first husband end up inheriting The Old Manse, then the dusty watercolor displayed in the butler’s pantry by the liquor shelf becomes an important reminder of wealth gone by.
The very amateurish nature of the genre helps convey that the painting in question is not a piece of art in itself, but a personal object designed to beg the question “Is that your country house?”
For this reason, pictures of your country house are rarely hung with other important art. If you have scored a historic English oil painting of a legit country manor, you don’t want to pair that with your own buckling watercolor house portrait. Instead, the country house painting is usually found with other family portraits or perhaps framed children’s finger paintings and pressed flowers from the beach house.
While the original owner of the country house painting might relegate the painting to a less grand part of the house — a hallway, guest bathroom or unused phone nook — later owners of the country house painting suffering from downward mobility are more likely to place the painting in a prominent area in a sad attempt to signal their lost wealth and status.
Professor Smith has organized the paintings not by house type but by painting genre. She notes that while country house paintings do follow some larger artistic trends, non-representational genres, in general, are not suitable for status displays when the pictured object is the desired status token.
On display will be some very rare faux Cubist pictures of a house in Bridgehampton formerly owned by Bunty Lowell, and an abstract expressionist rendering of a Manchester mansion still in the family of Edward Nesbit. If any alums have a Picasso of their beach house, please contact Professor Smith!
Another interesting sub-category is the display of architectural drawings or architect’s renderings of second homes. Since new houses are a bit nouveau riche (unless they are net-zero eco-lodges designed by college roommates who have now become famous architects), this is a less common preppy trope. Conveniently, however, these drawings announce that a house is coming even if the land deal falls through or the second mortgage defaults.
The Museum of Insider Art considers this new exhibit particularly important as the genre of the country house portrait is in decline, and many gems are being lost to the giveaway bin at Goodwill.
One of the reasons for the decline of the Other House Paintings is the growing awareness of the history of slavery and exploitation behind the original British County Houses that inspired the phenomenon in the first place. A recent New Yorker article by Sam Knight exposes the way these great houses were part of the brutal role of empire, and its publication was a little awkward for the timing of the Insider Art opening this year.
There was some talk of canceling the Other House Painting show after Knight’s article came out, but in the end, the exhibition was saved by Chair of the Board of Trustees José Hernández, whose Beach House Borrow initiative to get Richard E Rich alums to loan out their summer houses to students on financial aid dovetails nicely with the show. Hernández explained that if he can foster a sense of competition among alums to show off their homes, he can get more alums to donate.
Interestingly it has been noted that with decreased interest in these artworks among preppies, there is actually increased interest from the domestic laborers who work in preppy houses and are watching these works be de-acquisitioned.
As woke preppies look to toss or hide their Other House Art, another art trend is brought into the light. A secret preppy art tradition is the display of discarded art found in the servants’ quarters of grand houses. These collections can happen when the owner of the house demotes artworks to the lesser rooms, but can also be part of found art collections created by domestic workers who “rescue” rejected art from the garbage.
A particularly poignant manifestation of this organic Outsider Art phenomenon is the gallery wall of photos of estranged family members often found in the servants’ wing. The housekeeper may be the last person in touch with Black Sheep Bob, or Crazy Cousin Carl and have the only remaining representation of outcast family members.
Professor Smith remembers stealing up the maid’s room to look at secret pictures of her dead mother that her step-mother had attempted to throw out when she took possession of The Pines. The maid had been close with the mother and had a little shrine set up in the staff bathroom where Professor Smith could remember her mother.
Among the homeowner family photos collected by these amateur gallerists in the back rooms of grand houses can also be found discarded unflattering photos or pictures that reveal the lowly origins of the now wealthy homeowner. These ad hoc galleries are vernacular collections in their own right that can serve as an ironic or emotional commentary on the pretensions of the front of the house.
Here we see the daughter before her nose job, the mother back when her hair was brown, not blond, Tag in his tubby phase before he took up Lacrosse. The Sears portraits of the rarely-seen grandparents reveal polyester and long lapels. Perhaps that first dog was a mutt.
This intersection between Insider Art and Outsider Art Collection is the subject of a powerful piece in the Other House Painting show, the work of recent Richard E Rich alum Molly Forbes. Forbes’ work is a collage of country house paintings cut up into a quilt that incorporates images of the slave trade and mill factories that financed them.
Although the inclusion of the work was meant to serve as an olive branch to those who objected to its elitist content, the work has generated controversy of its own. Owners of some of the paintings on display threatened to withdraw their works if Forbes’ piece was included in the exhibit. It was noted by one angry patron that Forbes commented in a Substack piece on her work that historic New England mansions are the equivalent of southern plantation houses and that no one should be displaying these paintings unironically or without commentary.
Professor Smith was able to smooth the quarrel over by inviting the various parties to her family’s lakeside summer compound in Vermont. There Forbes met up with a fellow Richard E Rich alum with whom she turned out to have a lot in common. They trysted in the Boat House after a drunken double kayak ride. The brief but passionate affair with the alum chum is the subject of an upcoming painting from the noted artist.
** Starred Comments**
I grew up in one of the houses in this exhibit. (Benjamin Moore “Hawthorne Yellow” with black hard-to-clean shutters). My father was the chauffeur and gardener for the family that owned it. We lived over the garage. I proudly and unironically display a painting of the house done by the only nice member of that family, the great aunt, over my own mantlepiece today. After the owner died, I found the painting wrongly placed in the recycling bin instead of the garbage. In the end, I did recycle it! That house meant a lot to me as my childhood home (the garage is actually visible behind the Wisteria bush on the left). In the painting I see the brick wall I repointed, the shrubs I planted with my father, and the gutters I cleaned every fall. My painting is much better than the one in the exhibit, which I believe was the work of a moocher houseguest trying to buy another free month at the beach. When you discard the history of the rich, you can also erase the history of the poor.
We few “woke” Southerners would never display our plantation house paintings, let alone have an exhibit of them. Those paintings have been stored away in the underwear drawers of our mothers. The idea that Southerners were exploiters and white Northerners were innocents is fiction. New England was founded on slavery. After slavery was ended in the North, Northerners still directly benefited from slavery in the South. And the North grew rich on exploitative factories which relied on the dirt-cheap labor of desperate immigrants treated as disposable trash. Get over yourselves Yankees!
Why no inclusion of dachas? We have a significant Russian enrollment and the country house is very important to the type of donor parent we are trying to cultivate.
I was delighted to see my grandmother’s house featured in this lovely show. How wonderful to remember the happy days I spent in Cotuit sleeping under the generous eaves of this welcoming house. I can also add the missing attribution which my cousin, the current owner, must have forgotten. The painting was done by the lively founder of the Ladies Auxiliary Art Group, Lilly Long. She was a kind and giving woman whose lively spirit lives on in the many paintings she did of local homes. It is a pity that women like her did not have a chance to compete in the male art world, but her modest contribution should be valued in its own right.
Are you saying we should refocus the narrative from white male painters inside the academy toward white women outside the academy?
As a corporate wellness coach, I can testify to how important it is to have positive images displayed in your home that promote feelings of happiness and satisfaction. A picture of your summer house is the ideal image for sparking your inner joy. Harness that happiness for success!
I come from a working-class family and my Dad had a cabin out by the lake. Yes, the lake was a dump for General Electric in the 1970s, and the cabin was modest. But it was a genuine second house. You preppies don’t have a monopoly on summer fun.
Is this what passes for anthropology these days?
Also Read: Armchair Anthropology