In One Work of Sculpture, the Stories of Three Local Families
By Anthony F. Hall
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, like almost every other major museum in the United States, owns a David Smith sculpture.
But unlike other museums, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts would not have acquired its sculpture without a connection to Bolton Landing.
How its original owners acquired the piece, how it was sold to the prominent Houston family who donated it to the museum, is a tale of friendships and families as much as it is the story of how one piece of art became a part of a museum’s collection of modern sculpture.
“My husband was, I believe, one of the first to buy one of David Smith’s sculptures. I had no inkling of it then, but someone told me years later that the sale of ‘Structure of Arches’ kept David and Dorothy Dehner from starving. He was so swashbuckling, it was hard to see the difficulties.”
The speaker, interviewed by the Lake George Mirror in the early 1970s, is Margaret Crockwell, the wife of illustrator Douglass Crockwell. In the 1930s, the Crockwells were at the center of a small circle of people interested in the arts and ideas.
Smith entered the circle abruptly, shortly after buying a farm in Bolton Landing with his first wife, Dorothy Dehner, in 1930. They had originally come to Bolton Landing as the guests of Thomas and Weber Furlong, whom they knew from the Arts Students League.
Another frequent guest was John Graham. Born Ivan Dabrowsky in Kiev, he immigrated to New York in 1921 and within years became the center of a circle that included artists like Arshile Gorky and Wilhelm DeKooning. He is said to have introduced Smith the steel sculpture of Pollack and Gonzalez and persuaded him to shift from painting to sculpture.
“Graham sent me,” Smith said to the Crockwells as he entered their house in Glens Falls.
Not long before, Douglass Crockwell had sold his first cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post, and married Margaret Braman, whom he had followed to her home in Glens Falls after meeting her in art classes in St. Louis.
They had attended classes at Washington University in the Hall of Fine Arts, donated to the university by and named in honor of another man with Bolton Landing connections, W.K. Bixby.
He had married Lillian Tuttle, a descendant of founders of the Town of Bolton, where they established a summer residence in the 1890s. Over the course of the next few decades, they camre to know some relations of Lillian Tuttle, the Bramans, including their daughter Margaret.
According to Bixby’s grand daughter, Elizabeth Bixby Hawkins, his daughter Ruth Stevens hired Margaret to be an au pair one summer, and became impressed with her talents as an artist. Apparently, she persuaded her father to send the young relative to art school in St Louis.
Success came relatively quickly to the newly-married Crockwells, says Hawkins.
“They built a beautiful house and had three children. In addition to Structured Arches, the Crockwells bought two other pieces by Smith, a bronze cast and a 1938 sculpture titled “Leda,” which, Mrs. Hawkins says, sat on the grand piano in their living room, and,
according to Peter Stevens, the director of the David Smith estate, an important example of Smith’s work of the late 1930s, integrating his interests in surrealism and symbolism,
David Smith’s reputation continued to grow, so that by the 1960s, he was already being hailed as America’s greatest sculptor.
But he continued to live in Bolton Landing, maintaining friendships with local people and developing friendships with summer residents, including many members of the Bixby family.
By the 1980s, Margaret Crockwekll had decided to sell the works by Smith because of insurance costs. At the same time, Bo Hawkins was attempting to find the right uses for a windfall that had come her way after her husband, William Hawkins, sold a company he had acquired 30 years earlier.
“I thought a lot about it, and wanted to do something special – like give the Leda to our museum in Houston,” said Mrs. Hawkins.
Mrs Hawkins made Margaret Crockwell an offer, which was accepted, and Leda was on her way to Houston.
“I can think of no one I’d rather have receive “Leda” than Bo and of course you and your museum,” Crockwell wrote Bill Hawkins.
And to Mrs Hawkins she wrote: “It thrills me to think how many people will be admiring her. “
Today, David Smith’s Leda is a centerpiece of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ sculpture gallery.
Below it reads a sign, “ Gift of Mr and Mrs William D. Hawkins.” “The connections between St. Louis, Bolton Landing, David Smith, the Crockwells and my family makes it seem like fate that we should one day own it and be able to donate it to the museum in Houston,” says Mrs. Hawkins.
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