The smoke leads us to the museum.
My husband and I have gotten off the highway in Glens Falls, N.Y., where we’ve driven to revisit the paintings in the Hyde Collection; but we keep getting lost, tangled in the webs of small residential neighborhoods. There are huge plumes of smoke in the sky — and suddenly we realize they must be coming from the paper mill adjacent to the museum.
Once we get there, the museum is as spectacular as we remembered: a large house built in 1912, filled with great painting after great painting. Botticelli, Veronese, Tiepolo, Degas, Eakins, Seurat, Picasso — the list goes on. In the library alone there are works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres, Tintoretto, and van Dyck. Yet today, as I stand in this wood-paneled room with its glowing canvases, I find I am looking not just at the paintings, but through the window at the paper mill sprawling at the bottom of the garden. It’s an immense cluster of corrugated sheds and pipes, belching smoke. It bristles with metal tubes and tentacles, as if at any moment it might crawl up the hill to devour the museum.
On this winter afternoon, with no screen of leaves to soften the view, factory and museum seem yoked together, making visible something that has always been true about America: Unlike the great museums and collections of Europe, which came from royalty and the church, American museums were born from the marriage of industry and art.
Edith Wharton portrayed the phenomenon in her 1924 novella “False Dawn,” whose title refers to a prematurely brilliant, and therefore mocked and unappreciated, art collection amassed in the 1840s by the story’s hero, the sensitive son of a bullying, ignorant rich man. The story’s irony rests on the fact that by Wharton’s own time, the big wave of true connoisseurship and collecting among American tycoons had begun. Andrew Mellon, with his aluminum and banking money, Henry Clay Frick (coke and steel), and the Rockefellers (oil) all built significant art collections, partly for personal satisfaction, partly to ensure their own immortality, and partly from a sense of civic duty.
The Hyde Collection was formed by Charlotte Pruyn Hyde and her husband Lewis, using the fortune her father had made from the paper mill. Inspired by Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Hydes built a house that they would fill with art, occupy during their lifetime, and then endow as a museum. Like Mrs. Gardner with Bernard Berenson, the Hydes had several trusted art advisers, among them William Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Art. They worked together with discernment and imagination, assembling a collection ranging from the early Italian Renaissance to some of the best European and American art of their time.
The Hyde Collection was just one of the contributions the family made to Glens Falls; they built the public library and started a concert music series that continues today. The museum has expanded, with a new wing for exhibits of work by regional artists and art education classes for children.
Part of what makes the Hyde Collection moving is that it is local and it is small. When you visit a big museum, you think about the paintings, not about how they got there. It may be beautiful, but it’s an institution. The Hyde Collection is a house. We walk through the dining room, the library, the bedrooms, marveling not just at the quality of the art, but also at what might seem like the weirdness, the anomaly, of the collection being here, in this large but rather ordinary house whose western windows look out at a sprawling paper mill. But why shouldn’t it be here? Henry Frick’s museum in New York City is tied to the coke ovens of Pennsylvania, but you’d never know it, strolling through the cool marble halls of the Frick Collection. The proximity of the Hyde Collection and the mill offers a startling, tangible picture of where money comes from and how art museums are made.
As we leave the Hyde Collection, I take another look at the paper mill, its tangle of enormous arms and offshoots splayed against the darkening sky. I still think it’s oddly alive. But the creature that looks as if it’s going to climb the hill to eat the museum is actually the creature that fed it.Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’