GREAT UNCLE JIM
Richard Cranch Greenleaf
artist, collector and beloved great uncle
It was the family custom to name the oldest son after his father, so Jim was christened with his father’s name, Richard Cranch Greenleaf. Another son was born earlier who died in infancy was also named Richard Cranch Greenleaf. So they kept with the naming tradition but chose to call their new son “Jim”. Why “Jim”? We will never know. Jim was born in Berlin, Germany on August 2, 1887, the youngest child of Americans Dr. Richard Cranch Greenleaf (1845 -1912) and Adeline Emma Stone (1849-1936). He grew to be an artist, collector, and one of the most beloved members of my family.
Jim spent his boyhood on the family estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. Tutor educated except for one term at Middlesex School, he never attended college and never worked. He inherited his wealth from his great grandfather John Greenleaf and grandfather Richard Cranch, successful merchants in Boston. Jim became a skilled stock market investor.
Life in Lawrence, Long Island
With only a briefest exception Jim, a gay bachelor, lived with his mother. After his father died in 1912 he and Adeline moved to “The Little House” in Lawrence, Long Island, making frequent trips abroad. At Lawrence Jim became know as a “character” because of his fastidious ways and his routine of taking Adeline’s two little white Maltese Terriers, Wee-Wee and To-To, out for walks. Adeline was known for hosting her family with fabulous feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For a short time just before World War I Jim and Adeline lived in Paris. When the US entered the war they returned to the States where Jim joined the Department of Camouflage and was stationed for the duration of the war in Syracuse, NY.
Vertefuille in BarbizonIn 1918, the war over, Jim and his mother returned to France and purchased a picturesque house in Barbizon. They settled into life in France with the aid of servants Alice and George Marois along with their son Lionel. Jim named the estate “Vertefuille” (French for Greenleaf). Near the historic homes of artists Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, Vertefuille was nestled in the lovely countryside near the forest of Fontainebleau on the Barbizon’s main street hidden behind a stone wall.
Domestic life in Barbizon was simple. Aging Adeline spent most of the her days in bed. As George prepared breakfast she would make lists and get ready for another day. Most of the food that was prepared was grown on the estate, even the wine.
With the encouragement of Parisian friend, Jacque Rubel, Jim’s passion for lace and textiles came to full flame. Avid collector Rubel presented Jim with several prized pieces from his own collection.
As his collection grew, Jim began to donate and loan objects. As early as 1915 American Art News reported that he had donated lace to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and he frequently loaned pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper-Hewitt (then Cooper Union), where he had close relationships with the curators. In 1917, he was among a group of lace experts who founded the Needle and Bobbin Club and became the first editor of its bulletin.
World War II and return to the United States
In 1936, after years of decline, Adeline died. Jim decided to remain in Barbizon. In 1940 as the they advanced on Paris, Barbizon was occupied by Germain troops. While he was there they respected him and did not bother his estate. He stayed as long as he felt safe, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941, and the United States was in the war he knew it was time to leave beloved Vertfuille. Jim hastily packed the bulk of his collection in various containers hiding them at George’s family farm in hay lofts, pig pens, and other unlikely places. His most prized pieces of lace were stored into a small pin cushion shaped wad which he packed for his journey home. With considerable difficulty he traveled from Barbizon to Lisbon, Portugal where he boarded a ship to New York.
In New York he kept his mind off his endangered collection by working at a Salvation Army canteen. As war came to an end German troops retreated through Barbizon. When Jim returned he discovered the Germans had drunken all his wine but did not damage his home. Miraculously, he found his entire lace collection at George’s farm, untouched and unharmed.
Jim gathered his collection, sold his Barbizon house and returned to New York.
Home on Park Avenue
In New York he took up his bachelor life in an apartment on Park Avenue. In spite of his dislike for New York City life, he continued building his collections. He kept in touch with agents who might have information about important pieces of lace or textiles. His apartment became a showplace decorated with pieces of lace in frames; tassels displayed in a case; textiles and waistcoats kept in a specially constructed cabinet. He delighted in showing his collection to family and close friends among them where curators from the Metropolitan and Cooper-Hewlitt museums.
Jim was a person of unvarying habits and refused to adjust well to change. In 1958, the news of the pending sale and demolition of his apartment building compounded with failing health resulted in his becoming more or less a recluse. But every day he would still drink a single martini then stroll for luncheon at The Bistro where the restaurant staff was always ready to greet him promptly at noon. Other than that he seldom left his apartment except for Cooper-Hewitt Museum Advisory Board meetings.
Love and Generosity
Jim was an exceedingly well spoken man. He had great affection for the family of his nephew, Lewis G. Adams, who he looked on as the children he never had. He abhorred modern architecture, modern painting and sculpture. He disliked progress in general although he would respectfully listened to all sides of a point of view. He was also extremely generous. Although he enjoyed many pleasant hours with family who visited regularly, his last years were rather lonely. On the last day of 1961, at the age of 74, he died.
Cooper-Hewitt Museum Greenleaf Collection
Starting in 1950 Jim began donating groups of lace, small accessories such as purses and coifs, and finely woven European silks and embroidered textiles to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. His largest gift to Cooper-Hewitt came in the form of a 1962 bequest of over seven hundred objects. To a large extent, the strength of Cooper-Hewitt’s collection in the areas of lace, costume, and textiles can be attributed to this generous gift. The high quality of the lace, waistcoats, tassels, and other textiles he donated illustrates the deep knowledge that he developed during a lifetime of passionate collecting.
Richard Cranch Greenleaf the artistAt an early age Jim exhibited a talent for drawing and painting. In 1905 he studied art in Paris at the Académie Julian where William-Adolphe Bouguereau was teaching his last year at the Académie, however, we do not know if Jim took any courses from Bouguereau. We do know that he fell in love with French art and was profoundly influenced by the works of Fragonard. You can also see the influence of Sandro Botticelli and English illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley in his work. He owned several works by Beardsley.
When he returned to Lenox Jim continued to paint, draw and studied the art books he collected. Jim drewexcellent portraits of children and members of his family. A beautiful example of his delicate touch is the portrait drawn from life of my father, his namesake, Richard Greenleaf Adams. Some of the children portraits were commissions providing the only money he ever earned. He also decoratively painted on wooden cheese boxes.
Some of his most extraordinary work was created by combining watercolor painting with fabric and other materials. After completing a beautifully rendered painting with transparent and opaque watercolors he cut intricate windows in the painting to reveal a pattern of small pieces of textiles, wood or other textured materials glued in perfect alignment with those windows. The result is a breathtaking and gorgeous display of imagination and craftsmanship.