Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art is currently displaying an exhibit of 100 women’s shoes spanning a time frame of 175 years, ranging from a lovely pair of delicate satin wedding slippers created in 1838 to the “glass” slippers designed by Stuart Weitzman for the 2013 Broadway production Cinderella. The exhibit includes one-third of the total number in the collection of Weitzman and his wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman, which they loaned to the New York Historical Society, the organization responsible for this popular traveling art show.
The shoe exhibit is housed in the lovely and historically significant Baum-Longworth-Sinton-Taft home, built by Martin Baum in the early 1800’s and described by contemporaries as the most elegant house in town. Purchased by famed Cincinnati pioneer Nicholas Longworth in 1829, the structure became home to the many works of art purchased by the enterprising winemaker who at one time owned the entirety of now trendy and upscale Mount Adams.
To ornament the impressive foyer of his home, Longworth, an ardent abolitionist, commissioned a set of eight grand murals by African-American landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson which you can still enjoy; those masterpieces were covered with wallpaper only two decades following their installation, but were lovingly restored when the house opened as a museum in 1932. Interestingly, the layers of paper and glue that had covered Duncanson’s paintings for decades aided in protecting and preserving these rare pre-Civil War pieces of art.
Industrialist David Sinton acquired the property in 1871; he lived there with his daughter Anna who in 1873 married Charles Phelps Taft, half-brother of U.S. President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft. When Sinton died in 1900, he left his fortune to his only child, who instantly became the richest woman in Ohio; the Tafts continued to live in her lifetime home, while also contributing mightily to culture and education throughout Cincinnati. They traveled widely and collected magnificently to beautify their home, at the same time sharing their collection with the public. They were dedicated to elevating local standards of artistic appreciation and artisanal production, hoping to enhance their region’s economy while providing aesthetic enjoyment for their fellow citizens.
The Tafts designated that upon their passing the house was to serve as a museum for the benefit of their home community, housing all of their collections which were bequeathed to “the people of Cincinnati in such a manner that they may be readily available to all.” That dictum is in practice to the present day; when visiting the Taft Museum of Art, one is warmly welcomed into a home filled with timeless works of worth and beauty. Among the many pieces displayed are portraits by British masters Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds as well as Rembrandt, masterpieces by James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Cincinnati’s own Frank Deveneck, as well as a variety of Medieval and Renaissance treasures.
And of course, housed within the Taft through June 6 is “Walk This Way,” the shoe show currently on display. The collection’s owner, Stuart Weitzman, says that “shoes tell an almost infinite number of stories, stories of conformity and independence, culture and class, politics and performance.” And it is those stories which explore the history and process of shoemaking as well as the changing role of women in society that transform the exhibit from a collection of fashionable footwear to something more relevant and important.
Gorgeous shoes that I coveted, ugly shoes that defy explanation, high-heeled shoes with a “Spring-o-later” inserted so that Ginger Rogers wouldn’t lose them as she danced in movies with Fred Astaire, and elegant shoes designed in the 1950s for the glamorous Sophia Loren are all on display along with high tops, mules, T-straps, spectator pumps, and peek-toe designs sported through the years by ordinary women at home, at work and on the street. Frankly, I have no idea if these shoes are works of art, but I do know that touring the delightful and informative exhibit is a whole lot of fun, and the historic Baum-Longworth-Sinton-Taft house contains work of great significance and artistry, so that’s enough for me!