“What is it?” This is Rafael. He’s a bit of a boorish person, if you want to know the truth. At least when it comes to the finer things.
“Its art,” I say.
“But what is it?” Rafael looks closer, squinting. He has no eye for modern art.
We are here in Goldendale, Washington at the Maryhill Museum of Art. It was a bit of a drive from my place in Portland, but a drive through the Columba Gorge is always worth the trek. It’s especially worth it when you get to see more art—this of the manmade variety—upon arrival. Maryhill Museum of Art was founded by Samuel Hill, an unquestionably quixotic person. He was no Rafael. He could see the pictures in the shapes. He could see things that the naked eye couldn’t see.
But, he also had friends in high places.
In 1907 he acquired fifty three hundred acres along the Columbia River and established a Quaker farming communal and founded the Maryhill Land Company, which he named after his daughter. Seven years later, he commenced work on building a mansion on the hill overlooking the river. But, hard time hit his company, the doors closed, the business folded and the mansion stood empty and barren.
This is where the friends in high places comes into play.
A Parisian dance pioneer by the name of Loïe Fuller recommended to Hill that he convert the cavernous structure into an art museum. Being the visionary that he was, Mr. Hill set forth on this quest. Over the span of the next several years, he filled his halls with artwork from around the world, enhanced by works from Loïe’s own artist friends—including the illustrious Auguste Rodin.
Another friend of Hill’s, Queen Marie of Romania (yes—actual royalty!), donated Orthodox art and images from her birthplace. In 1926, the Queen dedicated the mansion as the Maryhill Museum of Art to a throng of over two thousand spectators.
But, the story doesn’t end there. That’s not how we got to Rafael standing confused by modern art nearly a century later.
On May 13, 1940, on what would’ve been Hill’s 83rd birthday (he passed in 1931) the museum opened to the public. In the years immediately following, Hill collaborator and arts patron Alma de Bretteville Spreckels fortified the museum’s already-impressive collection with works of art advanced and gifted from her own home.
Today, as Rafael stands flummoxed by the world of art, Maryhill overlooks the same landscape. Added now, a sculpture garden, demonstrating the diverse collection of art from around the world. In addition to eighty original pieces by Rodin, including The Thinker, paintings by other European and American artists, and the Théâtre de la Mode French fashion exhibition, the museum’s halls show Native American art from pre history up until modern times.
It’s far from stuffy. It’s a tremendous experience, from the drive to the museum itself. Rafael, in spite of his confusion, seems to be enjoying himself. And why shouldn’t he be? Everything about this place screams beauty.
For more information, please visit: http://www.maryhillmuseum.org/