Westervelt Warner Museum, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Westervelt Warner Collection: Hopper Going, Going…

Tuscaloosa’s Hoppers were originally in the Gulf States Paper Corporation’s art collection. This is a big timber region. On the way down from Memphis to Tuscaloosa, the mixed pine and deciduous forests are impenetrable. An occasional dilapidated house, with a family relaxing on the porch, breaks up the journey.

The Hoppers then went to the Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art. The museum is named after Jack Westervelt Warner. Warner was former head of Gulf States Paper and its majority shareholder.

Jack Westervelt Warner
Jack Westervelt Warner

Westervelt Warner: A Personal Corporate Collection

I have to probe Jack Warner to understand his relationship with Gulf States Paper, now called the Westervelt Company. Finally, he answers simply, ‘I was Gulf States Paper.’

Three-quarters of the pictures in the Westervelt Warner Museum originally belonged to Gulf States Paper. They now belong to the Westervelt Company. However, the whole enterprise was Jack Warner’s personal passion. Warner served in the armed forces during World War II. Afterwards, he started the art collection with Audubon prints and primitive art. He acquired his first paintings, by Charles Bird King, in the 1970’s. King was an early American artist who painted portraits of Indian chiefs brought to Washington to sign their territory over to the government.

'Sharitarish (Wicked Chief) Pawnee' Charles Bird King (1822)
‘Sharitarish (Wicked Chief) Pawnee’ Charles Bird King (1822)

Westervelt Warner Museum

Warner, is in his 90’s. He is a tall, charismatic man with an aquiline nose and dancing eyes. He ambles the two blocks from his house to the museum on a Saturday morning to show me around. Meanwhile, my mother explores the galleries incognito.

The museum is set in an immaculately manicured, wooded area outside of Tuscaloosa. In addition to Warner’s residence, it houses the Yacht Club and Golf Club. Inside, lacquered wooden walls and period furniture make the museum feel like an extension of Warner’s home. In fact, that’s exactly what the museum used to be.

The receptionist tells me that Warner often comes down to the galleries on Saturdays to have a chat with the museum’s visitors. Most are ignorant of the presence of the museum’s namesake in their midst. My own meeting with Jack Warner was similarly impromptu. I thought I was meeting with a museum curator. Instead, I was taken aback when the receptionist said she’d call Jack down to greet me.

Warner’s collection is exclusively American and focuses on art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His initial goal was to get the Founding Fathers ‘back into the history books.’ Not content to stop there, he acquired a rich, chronological history of American art from independence through to World War II. His special interest is the Civil War period.

The collection is thus a natural place for one of only two Civil War pictures Edward Hopper painted, ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’ (1934).

In my next post, we will meet ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’, perhaps for the last time, as the Westervelt Warner Collection is being decimated…

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