Gilcrease Museum

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Gilcrease Museum And the American Western Collection of Dr. Philip Gillette Cole

by J. Brooks Joyner


On January 20, 1947, some sixty-three boxes of paintings and books plus eleven crates with bronzes and pedestals arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from the Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Co. in New York City. The unheralded shipment contained the American western collection of the late Dr. Philip Gillette Cole. It had been insured in transit for an amount equal to the purchase price and equivalent to the appraised value. The few knowledgable western art collectors of the time would have known the figure to be a fraction of the collection's real value. The collection's purchase price of 1947 would scarcely buy a single significant work by one of its major artists today. (left: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), Her Heart Is On the Ground, oil on canvas, 0137.907, Gilcrease Museum; right: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), The Buffalo Hunt, 0827.12, Gilcrease Museum)

The collection had been acquired three years earlier from the estate of Dr. Cole through an agreement signed January 18, 1944. Gilcrease offered to pay in fifths, with one-fifth down, one-fifth due annually over the following two years, and the final two-fifths in the third year. It was certainly one of the shrewdest acquisitions of American art of the century. It was also one of the best kept secrets. For many years after the sale, collectors, scholars and dealers wondered what had become of the remarkable collection of Dr. Philip Cole. (left: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), The Head Man, 1924, oil on canvas, 0137.1619, Gilcrease Museum; right: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), When Sioux and Blackfeet Meet, 1903, watercolor on board, 0237.1448, Gilcrease Museum)

The bill of sale, which stipulated that the collection came "without covenants or warrants," was attached to an inventory by P.J. Curry Company of New York. The inventory listed several hundred items. Notable among them were twenty-seven bronzes by Charles Russell, seventeen bronzes by Frederic Remington, and sixteen bronzes by other artists, including James Earle Fraser, Alexander Phimster Proctor, Malvina Hoffman, H.A. MacNeil, A.A. Weinman and other important American sculptors. The inventory also itemized some 560 paintings: forty-six by Charles Russell, sixty-five by Joseph Henry Sharp, twelve by Frederic Remington, eleven by Frank Tenney Johnson, five by William Leigh, eight by Charles Schreyvogel. Many other artists were represented, including Will James, Belmore Browne, Herbert Dunton, N.C. Wyeth, Edward H. Potthast, Robert Heerman, Albert Groll, John Marchand, Edgar Paxson, and Oscar Berninghaus. There were 320 works by Olaf C. Seltzer, including forty-three oils, 103 miniatures from his historical series, ninety watercolors, and dozens of illustrated letters and envelopes. (left: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), Meat's Not Meat, Gilcrease Museum)

As Gilcrease oversaw the opening of each crate he began to realize the magnitude and significance of his purchase. Also arriving that day was Dr. Cole's extensive library and special collections including Edward Curtis photographs, correspondence from Charles Russell, Olaf Seltzer, and Will James, and three suede folios of etchings by Edward Borein. There were prints and lithographs, ledger book drawings, original George A. Custer documents, and unpublished items relating to the frontier wars of the 1870s. In one envelope Gilcrease found forty-eight letters from Col. F.W. Benteen to Theodore Goldin. Identified as having an insurance value of $1000 it was accompanied by a handwritten instruction from the movers that stated, "At safe deposit vault in New York, not in house, we are not to handle." (left: Frederick Remington (1861-1909), The Outlaw, bronze, 0827.48, Gilcrease Museum; right: Frederick Remington (1861-1909), Missing, oil on canvas, 0126.638, Gilcrease Museum)

Cole was fifty-seven when he died of a massive stroke in 1941. His death set off a chain of events that would culminate six years later with the removal of his beloved collection from its luxurious surroundings at Zeeview, the Cole estate near Tarrytown, New York, to the modest sandstone long-house museum of Thomas Gilcrease in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gilcrease's first museum of the American Indian in San Antonio, Texas, had failed to attract visitors when it opened there in 1943. An important collection of American western art, Gilcrease believed, would attract the visitorship and public interest he desired. With the Cole Collection in hand, he knew that his dream could be realized. (left: Frank Tenney Johnson, The Overland Trail, oil on canvas, 0127.1093, Gilcrease Museum)

How did this remarkable collection, some might argue the finest of its kind ever assembled, find its way to Tulsa? As early as November, 1943, David B. Browne, a New Yorker and well known deal maker, was in correspondence with Thomas Gilcrease and Martin Wiesendanger, Gilcrease's first curator-director and a former salesman at the Kennedy Galleries in New York. Browne told the men that Cole's widow wanted the collection sold, preferably intact. Wiesendanger, known formerly as a "customer's man" at the Kennedy Galleries, was familiar with the quality of the collection and encouraged Gilcrease to consider it.

Negotiations moved slowly at first. Gilcrease was a notoriously private and cautious individual. Late in 1943, with the estate trustees eager to meet a December tax filing deadline, Gilcrease, Wiesendanger, and Wiesendanger's wife Margaret, went to New York to examine the collection and to meet Mrs. Cole and Daniel Browne. They returned to San Antonio uncommitted and doubtful. Many of the works required conservation and the up-front cash requirements were not to Gilcrease's liking. Wiesendanger and Browne negotiated with the trustees for more time.

Finally, after much back and forth, an acceptable financial arrangement was reached. As part of the agreement, Gilcrease insisted that the purchase of the collection was not to be made public for at least two years following the conclusion of the transaction. Privately, Gilcrease's business associates and family were concerned that he would overextend himself with the purchase, but Martin Wiesendanger knew the collection, with its unparalleled quality and significance, must be obtained, as it would fit perfectly into the grand plan for the Gilcrease Museum. (left: Joseph H. Sharp (1859-1953), Big Moon, 1905, oil on canvas, 0137.467, Gilcrease Museum)

Then, at the very moment when negotiations were reaching a critical point between Gilcrease and the executors, another interested buyer in the form of the R.W. Norton Foundation in Shreveport, Louisiana, made an offer of $400,000, much more than what Gilcrease was prepared to pay. Gilcrease quickly concluded the purchase. Cole's beloved state of Montana might have been a third contender. According to Alice Ralston, Cole's longtime assistant, and others, Cole had made overtures in earlier years to the Montana Historical Society indicating his willingness to leave the collection to the state for their proposed museum, provided that a special wing be built to house it. Nothing ever came of this offer during his life nor was the plan considered after his death.

Who was Dr. Philip G. Cole and what were the circumstances that led him to amass this formidable collection of American western art? David Hunt, a former curator at Gilcrease, conducted extensive research into the life and motivation of Dr. Cole and reported his findings in the Gilcrease Museum publication The American Scene in 1967. Many of Hunt's discoveries were based on interviews with Cole's family and friends, including Cole's youngest daughter, Mrs. Kay Worden. Hunt also interviewed Miss Alice Ralston or "Aunt Alice" as she was known around the Cole home. Alice Ralston lived for many years with the Coles, serving as nurse and tutor and assisting Dr. Cole with the administrative details of his collection.

David Hunt referred to Dr. Cole's world as a very private domain, saturated by his love for Montana, where he had spent his early years, by his art collecting, and by his love of family. Alice Ralston and Kay Worden both emphasized his love for his home state. "Dr. Cole loved the West," remarked Miss Ralston, "and collected things about the West, whether it was art or [other things]. He loved Montana particularly and everything about Montana that he could lay his hands on, he bought."

Mildred Ladner's monograph O.C. Seltzer, Painter of the Old West contains what is probably the most detailed information available on the very private Dr. Cole. He was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, on September 25, 1883, the oldest child of Dr. Charles Knox Cole, a native New Yorker, and his wife Harriet Gillette, of Illinois. The Coles settled in Montana, where C.K., as the elder Cole was called, became speaker of the Montana Territorial Senate during the 1888-89 session, the last before Montana entered the union as the forty-first state in 1889.

C.K. was an investor and rancher as well as a physician. He registered the "J-Bar" and the "Reverse CK" brands with the territory, then the state, of Montana. He built the Helena Hotel, later trading it for other properties, and rumor had it that he also inherited some apartment properties in New York City. Whatever the circumstances, C.K. returned to New York in 1900 a successful businessman. There he invested in a small company founded by a German immigrant inventor named George Schrader, who had developed what came to be known as the bicycle tire valve. Schrader's invention was adapted for automobile tires just as the automotive industry was beginning mass production, proving C.K.'s investment providential. He was soon to become sole owner of the company, a development that launched him on a second career and brought immense wealth to the family. In due time this investment would support the creation of Philip Cole's great collection of the art of the American West.

Philip Cole studied at Phillips Andover Academy, graduating with the class of 1902, and then at Princeton, where he graduated in 1906. He completed his medical studies at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1910 and did post-graduate work at Bellevue and Harlem Hospitals. He interned as house surgeon at the Harlem hospital, specializing in gynecology, and was greatly respected and appreciated for the work he did there. The hospital community gave him a testimonial farewell dinner upon his departure for Helena, Montana, toward the beginning of the First World War.

Still in his early thirties, Cole left his Helena medical practice for service in France as a reserve officer during the war. With the armistice of 1918 he returned to Helena, where he met and married Katherine Pyle, the daughter of a prominent Montana family and a talented sculptor in her own right. As a wedding gift, C.K. Cole presented the couple with the large Charles Russell canvas of 1910, The Buffalo Hunt. This painting had previously hung in the elder Cole's suite at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.

With the end of the war, young Cole was confronted by a monumental career decision. His father was by then the principal owner of A. Schrader & Son Inc. of Brooklyn, New York. The manufacturing of automotive parts, valves, and gauges, anchored by the mass-produced tire valve, had mushroomed with the age of the automobile and C.K. wanted his son to take over management of the company. Cole was at a crossroads. He was forced to choose between his medical career in the Montana that he loved and life as an industrialist in New York City. He chose to return to New York. With the death of this father shortly thereafter, Philip became president of A. Schrader & Son. Although he returned to his home state whenever he could, his dream of owning his own Montana ranch never materialized. Instead, he transformed his homes in the East to reflect western themes, and filled them with the art of the West, which eventually lined the walls and filled the bookshelves of several galleries.

He even created a replica of a Montana ranch at his summer residence at Lake Placid, New York, naming it Last Chance Ranch after Last Chance Gulch, the original name for Helena, Montana, and the spot where a group of Georgians discovered gold in 1864. He stocked this New York ranch with young antelope flown in from Montana and reindeer from Alaska that arrived accompanied by an Inuit herder.

By 1923, Cole, his wife Katherine, and the couple's three children were living comfortably in their large house in Forest Hills and Cole's passion for collecting art was beginning to manifest itself. He was beginning to correspond regularly with Nancy Russell, wife of the painter Charles Russell, generally asking about available paintings by her husband, and occasionally commissioning special subjects. In a letter of 1926 he proudly relates that he is creating a special Russell room in his home to accommodate his new acquisitions. He also championed the work of O.C. Seltzer, whom he met in 1926. Cole and Seltzer became even closer following the death of Charles Russell that year.

In the fall of 1928 Cole purchased the former Whitney estate and home, Zeeview, which included twenty acres of land at Irvington-on-Hudson just below Tarrytown, New York. The family moved in early the following year. The manor house at Zeeview sat comfortably astride the brow of a bluff overlooking the broad Hudson River and the "Tappan Zee." Spacious hallways linked the more than twenty rooms. Zeeview would become Cole's own private museum. (right: Phillip Cole Estate. Tuip beds near wisteria loggia at Zeeview, photograph, 1940s)

The crowning glory of his collecting vision was the presentation of his collection within the high ceiling galleries of Zeeview. There he would personally arrange and rearrange his collection while perched high atop ladders designed especially to accommodate the twenty-foot-high galleries. He would even commission works specified to a size that would fit a particular opening on his gallery wall. Hung salon style, these galleries were breathtaking visual experiences. Over the years Zeeview became full to capacity. Upstairs galleries were overflowing with Olaf Seltzer's vast production. Seltzer's Western Characters, the miniature Histories and the many framed letters and envelopes dominated the stairway and landing. (left and right: Phillip Cole Estate. Various artists, Russell, Remington, Sharp, interior of main house, Zeeview, 1940s)

Cole built a children's rustic playhouse near the pond. He constructed a two-level stone artist's studio, intending for his wife Katherine to use it as a sculpture studio. It became Olaf Seltzer's workshop during his lengthy visits to Zeeview. There, under the scrutiny of Cole himself, Seltzer painted many of his historical miniatures.

"Living at Zeeview was like living at the Hilton" recalled Kay Worden, "I never went into the kitchen, I was afraid of the chief cook, but the waitresses were nice to me. Our meals were prepared below and brought up to us in the playroom. Only Mother, Dad, and Aunt Alice (Ralston) ate below in the dining room." She also remembered Cole's fun at Easter when he would hide jelly beans amongst the bronze sculptures, in the horses' mouths or under saddles of such works as Remington's Coming Through The Rye and Stampede.

Although Zeeview was visited by Cole's valued friends and by celebrities, including Nancy Russell, Will Rogers, and Olaf Seltzer, for extended periods of time, it was never a rendezvous for the rich and famous. For the most part Zeeview was a sanctuary for the very private Cole, his family, and his beloved art. Consequently, few people were aware of the scale and importance of the American western collection housed there. Cole never spoke of the monetary value of his holdings, nor did he posture himself as an illustrious collector. Although he assembled handsome limited-edition photographic albums of his collection to share with his closest friends, it was not in keeping with his character to extol his own vision and achievement. His obsession was essentially a private one.

Like Thomas Gilcrease, Philip Cole was a scrupulous businessman, especially when it came to buying art. He never purchased sight unseen and rejected as many pictures and sculptures as he accepted into his collection. As a pre-condition to every purchase, Cole made it clear to the artist or dealer "that there is no obligation of any kind whatsoever on my part regarding it." He assumed this polite but nevertheless emphatic position with everyone, including Nancy Russell. He required from the Russells, as from other artists, a bill of sale accompanied by a personal statement or story describing the subject or circumstances surrounding the picture.

Cole usually purchased through one of two galleries, Milch or Kennedy. But with Charles Russell and O.C. Seltzer he dealt directly, developing special relationships with both artists. His correspondence with Nancy Russell about his many purchases of her husband's work was punctuated by precise and sometimes elaborate details regarding credits, shipping costs, and other matters.

During the 1930s Cole employed as many as three secretaries at a time to catalog and record his collection and acquisitions, coordinate shipping and handling, and to act on his behalf in his absence. His own index of the collection recorded some 780 items. It was an engrossing and time-consuming project for Cole and for Alice Ralston, who became his most trusted administrative assistant. He was well connected with the few dealers who specialized in western art and he aggressively sought out emerging marketplace opportunities through his contact with Nancy Russell. He was very friendly with other New York collectors such as the prominent Wall Street brokers Harry Durant and Malcolm MacKay. Although he was indifferent to the opinions of art critics and others who dismissed western art, Cole, like Thomas Gilcrease, took advantage of the impact of their criticism on the market. He was ever mindful and studious when it came to pricing and purchasing. He did not speak of his long-range plan for the collection except to mention in his letters and to friends that he was building a fine western collection that everyone might someday enjoy. In a letter to Nancy Russell he stated that he was collecting "for posterity."

Like Thomas Gilcrease, Cole was animated about his role as collector, taking extraordinary steps to acquire only the very best and most representative examples of an artist's work. He delighted in his role of patron to Russell and Seltzer, although he was more removed and formal with Russell than he was with Seltzer. Cole's collection contains numerous original letters and illustrated envelopes from both Russell and Seltzer highlighted with words of gratitude and appreciation and more often than not with drawings, poetry, and anecdotes. He collected these small treasures with the same enthusiasm and treated them with the same importance that he bestowed upon oils and bronzes.

Of all of the artists that he admired and collected, it was Olaf Seltzer with whom he was most intimate. It was with Seltzer that Dr. Cole demonstrated the generosity of the art patron, and it was through Olaf Seltzer that Dr. Cole discovered the way to complete his vision of celebrating the American West and his beloved Montana. Through their friendship Seltzer became something of a confidante of Dr. Cole, performed restoration on works in his collection, collaborated and exchanged ideas about the history of Montana and the Old West. In return, Cole became Seltzer's foremost patron and supporter. (left: Olaf Seltzer, Medicine Man, Gilcrease Museum)

A Danish born American, Seltzer met Dr. Cole in the early spring of 1926 in Helena at the home of their mutual friend, the veterinarian Dr. W.T. Butler. Seltzer needed a patron and Cole saw in Seltzer the man who might help him realize his dream for a comprehensive collection of art of the American West. They were both friends of Charles Russell, both history buffs, and both had an abiding passion for Montana. Their acquaintance blossomed into a devoted friendship and business relationship. Seltzer and his family even moved to New York for a brief period of time in 1926-27 to be closer to Dr. Cole, but ultimately returned to Montana. During the next ten years Seltzer painted literally hundreds of subjects in watercolor and in oil for Dr. Cole. The Seltzer-Cole correspondence forms a rich and fascinating part of the collection itself and reflects the mutual admiration and appreciation that developed between the two men.

Cole commissioned Seltzer to create a series of watercolor sketches on the theme of Western Characters in 1928. The two men collaborated on the concept and execution of the work, forming a traditional artist-patron relationship. Five years later these miniatures were followed by a commission to paint another series of small pictures known as the Histories. They were oils painted on board and were not to exceed seven inches in height. Cole was intimately involved in selecting and reviewing each of these works for historical accuracy and authenticity. Altogether, Seltzer painted some 340 works for Cole during this ten-year period.

The exclusivity of Dr. Cole's patronage of O.C. Seltzer may account for why Seltzer's reputation was not widely known even though Cole was helpful in introducing Seltzer to other collectors. Seltzer also worked with businesses that produced calendars and other illustrated material. He returned to Great Falls, Montana, in June, 1927, bought a home, and realized for the first time a level of celebrity that he had never known before. He and Cole remained the closest of friends right up until Cole's sudden death in 1941.

"He lived in a world of his own" observed Kay Worden of her father, "always promoting plans for the estate or buying books, paintings, and other things that seemed to remind him of the 'Good Old Days' back in Montana. He always told us that we were 'Montana blood' and reared us to be just 'simple Montana folk'. None of us had ever seen Montana though, and living at Zeeview-which was like living in Buckingham Palace-it was sometimes difficult to believe." (left: N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), The Water Burial, oil on canvas, 0127.1547, Gilcrease Museum)

During the 1920s and 30s Cole and Gilcrease were two of only a handful of serious collectors of American western art and Indian material culture. Europe was considered the place for sophisticated collectors and European masterpieces dominated the showrooms and auction houses. Ironically, some of the most important American western material was to be found in European and British private collections, as Gilcrease himself was to discover.

The unique circumstances or twist of fate that brought the vision and spirit of Dr. Cole together with the ambition and mission of Thomas Gilcrease could not have been more providential nor better timed. Although they were indeed from very different backgrounds, they had much in common. Both had acquired significant working capital at an early age. They were personally rooted in a love of history and America, especially the legacy of the West. Both were defiantly private men, rigorously businesslike in all matters, and outwardly modest and self-effacing. Had the timing been different and the opportunity presented itself, Cole and Gilcrease would probably have been the best of friends. (left: Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912), Breaking Through the Line, oil on canvas, 0127.1235, Gilcrease Museum)


About the author

Brooks has more than twenty-five years of academic, curator and administrative experience in art museums and art history. Prior to his appointment as Director of Gilcrease Museum, in July of 1996, he was Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also served as Director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama, Executive Director of the South Bend Arts Center in Indiana and Director of the Nickle Arts Museum and University Gallery at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

In addition to his extensive curator and administrative experience, Brooks has considerable teaching experience at the University of Maryland, Towson State University, University of Calgary and the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Born in Baltimore, Brooks received his B.A. in 1966 and M.A. in art history in 1969 from the University of Maryland. He began postgraduate doctoral studies at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, concentrating in 19th and early 20th century American art, as well as British and European painting and sculpture.

He has written articles and essays for numerous publications and exhibition catalogues, and has been an active member of the Association of Art Museum Directors since 1989. He has been a member of Rotary Clubs throughout the US and Canada for more than fifteen years. Brooks' family includes his wife, Louise Joyner, and their two children, Jonathan and Isabel Clare. He also has a daughter, Shelly Joyner Andrews.


Read more about J. Brooks Joyner

Reprinted with permission of the Gilcrease Journal.

rev. 4/22/01

Read more about the Gilcrease Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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