History at home
Many Americans know Newport as a vacation destination for the superwealthy industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries, who built massive summer homes on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Although the “summer cottages” are beautiful, I was fascinated with a much smaller historic home: the 1811 Whitehorne House.
“This isn’t a house museum — we talk more about Newport furniture,” said Elizabeth Spaden, education and public programs assistant for the Newport Restoration Foundation. “There’s a lot of showmanship going on in this furniture. Some people come to Newport just to see this.”
Walking through the different rooms of furniture displays, I was struck by the beauty, detail and workmanship of some of the items, the oldest of which dates back to 1700. I also realized that some of the pieces on display in the Parade of Chairs gallery would have fit perfectly in my grandparents’ home.
Nearby, the Newport Art Museum uses a historic home to showcase historic artwork. The museum’s campus comprises three buildings. One, the Griswold House, built from 1862 to 1864, uses an unusual “stick style” of architecture.
“It’s a wonderful feeling being in this old building to see art,” said Gayle Hargreaves, the museum’s director of marketing. “It’s quite different than an institutional feel. We have a lot of significant 19th-century works in our collection. Many of America’s top landscape artists came to Newport to paint.”
In addition to beautiful paintings of the shoreline and other Rhode Island landscapes, the museum’s collection features an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, as well as many pieces from the luminous movement in outdoor art.
Visitors will also find a modern gallery building showcasing the work of contemporary Rhode Island artists.
Canvas on campus
Back in Providence, art plays a prominent role in local culture as well. Providence is home to five major colleges and universities; Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in the middle of downtown, has produced some of the most accomplished visual artists of the past century.
Today, the streets of Providence teem with students, and it’s easy to pick out the RISD pupils: they’re the ones with the funky hair, the mismatched clothes and the offbeat, artistic swagger in their steps.
Those art students walking the streets downtown get great real-world exposure to art at RISD’s Museum of Art, an institution that has operated for more than 150 years.
“It’s teaching research for the school, not a museum of student art,” said the museum’s Colleen Mullaly. “Our whole collection is over 86,000 pieces at this point. Our strengths are 18- and 19th-century impressionism, as well as our 20th-century collection.”
To see all the artwork, visitors twist and turn through five buildings in downtown Providence, which have been built onto and connected to form one large labyrinth of a museum.
Wandering through the galleries, I found a great variety of media and styles — paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and furniture.
The museum exhibits works from nearly every part of the world, including ancient objects from Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as artistic treasures from Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Studying the art in these educational galleries, I remembered how I used to study the art that hung on the wall in my grandfather’s house. During this visit to my “ancestral homeland,” I realized that the Rhode Island traditions my grandfather carried with him have also become a part of me.
Researching your trip
Rhode Island Division of Tourism
Convention and Visitors Bureau
Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau