“Lauren, Come Quick–There’s a Highboy on the TV!”…

…shouted my husband from the living room when he got home from work last night. I laughed but kept on cooking in the kitchen. On the tip of my uncle who lives on the East Coast, I was recording Jeopardy to watch over dinner.  Not only was the controversial champion Arthur Chu back on the program, my uncle said, but one of the categories featured a collection of American furniture! I am so there.

I finished cooking and we sat down to watch the recorded show. The category my uncle alluded to showed up in the game’s first round: “American Decorative Arts.” It was one of those categories with video clues—in this case, shot on location at Winterthur, a mansion museum in Delaware dedicated almost exclusively to American furniture/decorative arts. Yay!

I LOVE Jeopardy, but one thing I dislike is when the clue twists around a bit so that the response ends up having nothing to do with the category. Something like: “Once home to a thriving furniture industry famous for perfecting the bombé chest form, Boston is now home to this NBA basketball team.” OH COME ON.

I made up that example, but you’ll see shortly that some of the real clues from last night’s game made use of this annoying tactic. I’ve got to imagine they do this on purpose, to add a little more randomness to the game and prevent an expert in the category from making a run on it. I think it’s stupid.

For an American decorative arts enthusiast, all of last night’s clues were pretty easy. So easy, in fact, that I think you can get the answers without the video component, which obviously provided additional visual hints. Here they are, in order of dollar value–test yourself! (Answers at the end of the post)

$200: Here in the Delaware countryside, a member of this prominent industrial family spent decades collecting often overlooked early American art, before turning his 175-room mansion (Winterthur) into a museum.

$400: In 1929, Winterthur’s owner showed he meant business when he paid a then-record $44,000 for a classic high chest of Philadelphia Rococco, outbidding this controversial publisher.

$600: What was once the family’s dining room has an early American theme with square-backed chairs from around 1800 in the Federal style, and tankards by this Boston patriot and silversmith.

$800: Contrasting with more elaborate rooms is one named for this religious group, that believed crafting is an act of prayer, and that items should be simply functional.

$1000: Distressed by the discount-store furnishings, this woman reached out to the man who built up Winterthur to redecorate, especially the Green Room. She later wrote to him: “Everything lovely in the White House now is all your contribution.”

Okay, I know I’ve just been talking about Jackie Kennedy’s renovation of the White House (here and here), so it’s fresh in my mind. But please tell me how identifying a picture of Jackie Kennedy qualifies as the HARDEST question in the “American Decorative Arts” category! (Video clue, remember? They showed a PICTURE of Jackie Kennedy!) Give me a break.

And in the video clue that showed the Philadelphia highboy (prompting my husband’s initial incredulous exclamation), all you had to do in the end was identify a photo of William Randolph Hearst. *Face-palm* I guess I did learn something, though, because I had no idea that Hearst collected American furniture (when DuPont wasn’t outbidding him, I guess!) I suppose I’m not surprised—he collected everything. I’m still trying to decide whether this new knowledge raises my opinion of Hearst, though. His controversial “yellow journalism” aside, the man had poor taste.

When I visited Hearst Castle years ago, I had high hopes of seeing a great collection of fine and decorative arts in a beautiful mansion setting. What I saw instead was a garish, overstuffed mess of eclecticism in a giant house. He didn’t “collect” so much as “amass” a mind-boggling number of objects. What you see today is the edited version! He sold off much of his collection to pay debts towards the end of his life. This is not to say that many of the individual pieces themselves are not masterpieces—but in my opinion, Hearst didn’t have the eye for design to put a cohesive collection together in a tasteful setting. I also don’t mean to imply that “eclectic” is a negative in and of itself. Eclectic can be done well, or it can be done poorly. It’s too bad I missed this exhibition by LACMA several years ago, which apparently tried to counter this prevailing opinion about Hearst (yea, I’m not the only one) and defend him as a connoisseur. But I remain skeptical—anyone who buys objects as voraciously as Hearst did is bound to stumble upon some gems. For the gem-to-dud ratio though, my money is on DuPont. Or Garvan. Or Hogg. Or Sage/Bolles.

A bedroom in Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen via Flickr/Creative Commons license

A bedroom in Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen via Flickr/Creative Commons license

Back to the original topic though, it was exciting to see Winterthur featured on Jeopardy. I just felt the caliber of the clues left something to be desired. At least, for an enthusiast of the subject. Perhaps for the average Joe Public, the selection was an adequate if somewhat dumbed-down introduction to “American Decorative Arts.”

Did you see the show? What do you think?

Correct Responses:
200: Who is DuPont
400: Who is Hearst
600: Who is Revere
800: What are Shakers
1000: Who is Jackie Kennedy

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