From Winterthur To The White House Showcases H.F. du Pont’s Connection to Camelot
by Melissa Jacobs
First things first: Winterthur’s Jackie Kennedy exhibit is not about the First Lady’s clothes. We weren’t entirely clear about that before we arrived, partially because one of the promotions features a red dress that Jackie Kennedy wore, and partially because we did not read all of the information provided. Oops.
We should’ve known that Winterthur would focus on the décor of the Kennedy White House. After all, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is dedicated to American decorative arts. The estate includes a 175-room house, a research library, and 1,000 acres of gardens, forests and fields. All told, Winterthur houses nearly 90,000 pieces of furniture, china, art and other objects made in America, some dating back to the 1600s.
But 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the focus of From Winterthur To The White House, on display now through Jan. 8, 2023. Apparently, Jackie Kennedy turned to a coterie of décor experts, dubbed the Fine Arts Committee, for advice about renovating The White House when she and President John F. Kennedy moved into it in 1961. Henry Francis du Pont, an heir of the legendary Delaware family, was appointed chairman of Mrs. Kennedy’s Fine Arts Committee.
And “Mrs. Kennedy” is the focus of this exhibit. Here, she’s not yet Jackie O., the modern, cosmopolitan, cultured woman recognized for the inner strength she displayed after JFK’s assassination. At Winterthur, we meet that woman’s predecessor, the chic, demure and distinctly Francophile Jackie Kennedy, who, like the rest of the country, imagined a bright future full of possibilities.
The red carpet leading into the exhibit is a clear indication of Winterthur’s focus on the glamour of the Kennedy White House. The carpet leads to an installation about the TV special Mrs. Kennedy filmed in 1962. She invited cameras into The White House and gave viewers a tour of the renovations she’d supervised. Those changes are detailed in the exhibit via fabric swatches, sketches, recreations of the blue room, red room, the Kennedy family’s bedrooms, and other areas.
As letters and telegrams between Mrs. Kennedy, du Pont and other members of the Fine Arts Committee explain, there was some disagreement, or at least tension, between certain advisors. The installation makes du Pont’s vision and influence clearly felt, which is not a surprising position for Winterthur to take.
But we questioned Winterthur’s point of view on Mrs. Kennedy. Did she really need du Pont’s guidance – which seems to have been delivered in patronizing, or at least paternal, tones? The JFK Library gives a more balanced view of Mrs. Kennedy’s endeavor and positions her as its driving force.
The exhibit uses the term “walking in Jackie’s footsteps” to suggest a tour of the du Pont house that follows the path she took. But we also know the path Mrs. Kennedy’s life took in 1963, the year after her TV special aired. She would be on the cover of Life magazine for an entirely different reason and those images of her as the black-clad widow would supplant those of her in that white suit. Nothing in the exhibit foreshadows that. Instead, it captures the Kennedys in Camelot, freezing them in time before the dark forces of murder and scandal invaded their public image.
Fans of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis will enjoy From Winterthur To The White House, as will décor aficionados and American history buffs. One of hidden gems of this exhibit is the way in which the First Lady signed Winterthur’s guest book. On the line for her mailing address, she wrote only “The White House.” That’s where this version of Jackie lives, and we were happy to spend time with her.
Admission to Winterthur is $22 per person and includes From Winterthur To The White House (exhibited until Jan. 8), the regular museum, a tram tour of the grounds, access to all of the paths and gardens, plus the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, which contains pieces from around the world, some dating back to the 1720s. Guided tours of the du Pont house cost an additional $10 and are conducted Tuesday – Sunday between 10 am – 3:30 pm. Reservations are required.
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