Whimsy in a Mansion: Newport’s National Museum of American Illustration
Newport has been famous as a summer resort for America’s richest families for more than 150 years. Palatial homes of various Vanderbilts and their social brethren dot the architectural landscape of this small city on the coast of the state of Rhode Island just about halfway between New York and Boston. The most famous of these mansions, such as The Breakers and Marble House, have been turned into museums showcasing the grandeur of America’s Gilded Age. One small gem, though, shines bright among the larger stones surrounding it; perhaps this is because the owners of the National Museum Of American Illustration in the property known as Vernon Court are themselves sparkling personalities.
Vernon Court, one of many beautiful mansions lining Bellevue Avenue, is the home of the National Museum Of American Illustration, an artform best known to the world through the works of Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. It is also home to two of Newport’s most accomplished residents, architect Laurence Cutler and art dealer Judy Goffman Cutler, who have turned the ground floor of Vernon Court into a showplace for selected pieces from their formidable collection of illustrations, the largest in the world. As if the splendour of their home, set in meticulously manicured gardens, were not enough of a draw, the various fine works of art created for advertisements and magazine covers are both impressive in their beauty and insightful in their representations of American life―as well as their phantasmagorical escapes from it. Norman Rockwell, whose illustrations graced the covers of the weekly Saturday Evening Post for decades, is celebrated as the master of this artistic style, though less recognised but no less talented predecessors such as Howard Pyle and JC Leyendecker brought life to life before Rockwell. At the other end of the spectrum is Maxfield Parrish, perhaps not famous by name outside the US but certainly famous by his images of youthful fantasy against landscapes of mountains and castles painted in ethereal colours.
Along with the National Museum of American Illustration, Newport provides visitors with numerous other attractions and events beyond the allure of its imposing mansions. Further along Bellevue Avenue is the Audrain Automobile Museum, a private collection of exceptional cars embodying the history of automotive production. Right next door to the Audrain is the International Tennis Hall Of Fame, where the history of the sport lives on both indoors in the newly renovated exhibition spaces and outdoors on the grass courts where an annual tournament is still held 135 years after its began in 1881. Further north on Bellevue Avenue are the Newport Art Museum, whose gorgeous library room has recently been restored to its former glory, and the Redwood Library & Athenaeum next door, the oldest lending library in America. The Redwood hosts rotating art exhibits to complement its permanent collection on display throughout the public rooms. Nearby is the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the United States and an enduring symbol of the openness and acceptance that has made Rhode Island a haven for people of diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds since its time as a British colony.
The Discover Newport website offers helpful information to travellers planning a visit to this lovely city by the sea.