A world-class art museum in the western US benefited from some surprising patrons, writes Shandelle Battersby.

A small museum perched on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Columbia River Gorge in Washington is the last place you'd expect to find more than 85 works by Auguste Rodin including plaster studies, watercolour sketches, bronzes and terracottas.

The Maryhill Museum of Art's collection features some of the French sculptor's most famous pieces of art, including The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais and portions of The Gates of Hell. The Rodin display is just one part of an eclectic collection that ranges from ornate chess sets and small carved ivory crucifix figures from all over the world, to a varied collection of Native American art.

The Thinker, bronze sculpture by French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
The Thinker, bronze sculpture by French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

We were visiting the museum on a shore excursion as part of Un-Cruise Adventures' Four Rivers of Wine and History cruise on the Columbia and Snake rivers of Oregon and Washington. We'd woken that morning to find our replica steamship, the SS Legacy, docked at the charming town of The Dalles on the Oregon side of the Columbia River; we'd have to cross back into Washington state for the day's activities.

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As we wound our way through the dry, sagebrush-covered landscape on our way to the top of the hill, a half-hour drive from The Dalles, we learned more about the remarkable history of the man who founded it. Samuel Hill was a successful businessman best remembered for his advocacy of paved roads in the area at the beginning of last century.

Hill — contrary to urban myth he's not the Sam Hill referenced in the popular expression — had originally planned to start a Quaker community named for his daughter Mary, and the three-storey Beaux Arts mansion was supposed to be a private home, but he ran into financial and logistical problems and building stalled in 1917.

Luckily, he'd made a few important friends over the years, including dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who convinced him to turn the building into an art museum and who happened to be a personal friend of Rodin; Queen Marie of Romania, who donated treasures such as Eastern Orthodox icons and many personal effects and palace furnishings; and San Francisco sugar heiress Alma Spreckels, who saw the project through after Hill's death in 1931 to its opening in 1940.

Spreckels was also responsible for one of the jewels in the museum's collection, the 68cm-tall mannequins wearing authentic mid-1940s haute couture from the Theatre de la Mode. This was a touring exhibition created to help revive the French fashion industry after World War II and raise money for war relief. The original sets may not have survived but the clothes and figures are really something special.

Another highlight is the collection of historic photographs by semi-professional photographer Thomas Leander "Major Lee" Moorhouse, an Oregon businessman and former mayor of Pendleton who worked as an Indian agent on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. One of his favourite subjects was Dr Whirlwind, a Cayuse medicine man, who loved any excuse to get kitted up for a picture in elaborate head-dresses and native jewellery, as well as Native American trading blankets, normally owned by Moorhouse.

At the museum you'll also find European and American paintings, a native plant garden and a sculpture park with stunning views of the river gorge below.

On the way to or from the museum, make sure to stop at Hill's near-exact replica of Stonehenge, built in the early 1900s as a memorial to the local Klickitat County soldiers who fought in World War I. Dedicated in 1918, it was the first World War I memorial to be built in the United States. Hill's gravesite is nearby.

He may have never had the chance to live at Maryhill, but thanks to the buildings he left behind, Hill cleverly ensured that his legacy will last for generations.

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THE CRUISE

Un-Cruise's journeys along the Columbia and Snake rivers run from April to November.

DETAILS
Maryhill Museum of Art is at 35 Maryhill Museum Dr, Goldendale, Washington. Admission is $12.50.

ONLINE
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