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Circle of Learning

09/01/08 5:55PM By Leora Dowling
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As I sat on a bench under an apple tree at the Shelburne Museum the other day I could hear the fruit fall to the ground and smell its autumnal sweetness.

It’s autumn, no matter what the calendar says, and my thoughts automatically turn to school and to the teachers who shaped me. I especially remember Miss Maturo, who taught me history in the 7th grade. She used art, music and even food to make other times and places come alive. She was an exceptional teacher and she changed my world.

Some teachers change the whole world. The student/teacher relationship between American artist Mary Cassatt, and the younger, art-loving woman of means, Lousine Elder is one great example of that dynamic.

Louisine was only 19 when she met Mary Cassatt in Paris. Of those first meetings Lousine wrote, "She was very kind to me, showing me the splendid things in the great city, making them still more splendid by opening my eyes to see their beauty through her knowledge and appreciation."

It was Cassatt who suggested Lousine buy her first Impressionist painting, by Edgar Degas, in 1875. Back then the paintings of Degas - who was Cassatt’s mentor - and the other Impressionists like Monet and Pissaro, were considered avant garde - and even a bit scandalous. Lousine admitted to being conflicted about the painting - she wasn’t even sure she liked it - but she bought it anyway, on Miss Cassatt’s advice.

Ah, the power of a trusted teacher.

Louisine went on the marry H.O. Havemeyer, and the couple used his vast fortune to acquire paintings by great European masters, and those new Impressionists - by now Lousine’s friend Mary Cassatt was among them.

Ultimately, the Havemeyers bought thousands of works of art - and gave most of it back, to America in the form of a huge bequest to the Metropolitan Museum.

But of course, they also left some of the paintings to their children. Daughter Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne museum, inherited a number of Monet’s, Degas’ and Cassatt's, that are now an important part of the museum’s collection.

From her parents, Electra also inherited the passion, resources and confidence to collect on her own.

Electra learned her lessons well. And like the best students, she pushed beyond what she’d been taught. She moved past paint and canvas and set about collecting American crafts, antiques and even architecture. Then, rather than give her collection to an established museum, she founded one herself.

This season’s exhibit of the work of Mary Cassatt at the Shelburne Museum brings everything full circle. Degas inspired Cassatt, who mentored Lousine, who guided H .O., who taught Electra, who, through her taste and generosity, has now enhanced my life and that of many others.

The cycle of teacher and student remains unbroken.

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