European Decorative Arts at the Birmingham Museum of Art
The Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection
The Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama ranks among the finest regional art museums in the country. Founded in 1951 by the Birmingham Art Association, an active group of local artists who gathered regularly for talks and exhibitions, the Museum was envisioned as an encyclopedic collection of objects that would inspire residents of the growing city. The Museum started life modestly in five small rooms in City Hall, but grew rapidly after 1959, when the first museum building was constructed. That same year a gift of thirty-nine Old Master paintings was given to the Museum by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, setting a standard of large scale generous donations, so that the collection now numbers more than 27,000 objects. The Museum’s extensive holdings offer an overview of art history, allowing the Museum to serve as an important educational and cultural resource for the state and region. Since its inception, the Museum has had a vested interest in collecting the decorative arts, which further burgeoned in 1991 when the Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection of 18th century French decorative arts – an assembly of more than 500 works – were donated to the Museum. The collection debuted in 1993, with the opening of the Museum’s last expansion and renovation.
Eugenia Woodward Hitt was born in 1905 in Birmingham, Alabama, the eldest of five siblings. Her family had settled in the South during the 19th century and subsequently made its fortune in the iron industry. As a result, Woodward descendants lived a life of luxury and privilege. Indeed, Eugenia was tutored at home until age twelve when she left Birmingham for boarding school in Virginia, where she became passionate about French history. Eugenia took her first trip to Europe at age 16 and, according to her sister, “was bored to death in England with all those cathedrals and could hardly wait to get to France.” After completing her high school education, Eugenia opted out of college and instead chose to return to Europe, staying with a former classmate who had married into the Hungarian nobility. Unaware of the worsening Depression at home, Eugenia traveled throughout Europe between the two World Wars, honing her taste and developing a keen eye for French art and antiques.
Eugenia returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II and was reintroduced to William F. R. Hitt (1879-1961), an uncle of another former classmate. The couple married in 1940 and Eugenia convinced her new husband to make New York City their home. Although William Hitt’s Virginia estate was furnished with 18th and 19th century English furniture, he encouraged his wife to purchase what she liked, and most of Eugenia’s collection was assembled during their marriage. Eugenia purchased three or four large objects each year, documented every purchase, and carefully filed all invoices and bills of sale. She bought from the most respected dealers including Bensimon in Paris, Rosenberg & Steibel in New York and Frank Partridge & Sons in London. The Hitts purchased a large apartment at 720 Park Avenue and Eugenia commissioned renowned international designer Pierre Scapula (1916-2008) to create the interior scheme. The interiors were striking; one of almost twenty rooms in the apartment, the formal living room was, for dramatic effect, papered with mirrored glass to reflect endlessly the rich fabrics and decorative finishes it contained. The Hitts had a staff of fourteen and they entertained often and lavishly, including such illustrious guests as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who became close friends.
Eugenia lived a life of privilege, yet rejected the role of the proper Southern belle. After William Hitt’s death in 1961, Eugenia spent half the year in Paris, living at the Ritz Hotel and traveling throughout Europe. She then chose to remain in New York and – just as Louis XV created a gilded cage for the French aristocracy at Versailles – so too did she create an exquisite environment in which to live and entertain. Theodore Dell, an authority on French furniture and good friend of Eugenia’s said after her death in 1990 at age 84, “Eugenia… knew precisely what she liked. Her desires and aims in collecting were simple: to acquire the most beautiful objects she could find.” Like many society figures of her era, Eugenia favored the elegant lines of the Rococo over the styles of other periods. She sought to create an environment as splendid as Versailles, a mid-century interpretation of all that was glorious during France’s ancien régime.
As the Birmingham Museum of Art contemplates its future and looks forward to its next expansion, it has chosen this moment to reassess the European decorative arts collection. The Museum is relinquishing pieces given by Eugenia Woodward Hitt that are not the right fit for the Museum’s evolving collection. Eugenia collected furniture and decorative objects that enhanced her life and made it rich and enjoyable. These objects were acquired in order to be lived with and used. The Museum has retained the finest objects in the collection, and through the sale of others, hopes to encourage new collectors to come forward with the hope that these beautiful objects will find new homes where they will be loved and enjoyed.
Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama