PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Earlier this year, Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD) curators Maureen C. O’Brien and Elizabeth A. Williams had a fine time raiding the museum’s galleries and storage vaults, the period rooms of the museum’s Pendleton House and elsewhere to mount the new exhibition “Making It in America.” They gathered 100 objects from the colonial period to the early Nineteenth Century. The subject is a spicy exploration of the entwining of American ambitions and achievements over two centuries and the making of art. It raises the question, “What does the gathering of fine art and fine decoration really imply?”
The exhibition is laid out chronologically and with stylistic and societal pairings to draw the visitor from one space to another. The Chace Gallery where it hangs is cavernous, yet spare. Decorative arts historian and designer Thomas Jayne installed panels of historically appropriate patterned and deeply colored wallpaper panels. The result lends historic relevance to each object, enfolds the objects and serves as the perfect foil for the objects against the stark walls of the contemporary gallery.
The show-stopping Newport mahogany desk and bookcase attributed to John Goddard dominates the entrance and heralds Rhode Island artistry and superb craftsmanship. It is open to the interior, allowing inspection of its wealth of detail. It is set out from the wall to allow inspection of its back boards — even they are pristine. Its importance to the RISD museum is profound. It came to the museum in 1904 as part of the large gift of Charles L. Pendleton. Pendleton arrived in Providence from Westerly to study law at around age 20, had a look around and gave up law to pursue collecting. His gift was predicated on the construction of a typical Federal house to house his collection: the result was Pendleton House, the first American wing of any American museum.
The desk and bookcase spurred the acquisition of Copley portraits — now a total of four. In their original Chippendale frames, they pop against a deep red patterned paper that resonates with the bookcase and desk. The eminently self-satisfied 30-year-old Massachusetts hardware merchant and politician Moses Gill smirks in his silk finery — one wonders what the artist really thought. Gill is flanked by his two wives, each of whom was his elder and his financial superior.
The spiritual Sarah Price Gill brought strict religion and significant real estate holdings to the marriage, and the less pious, independent and even wealthier Rebecca Boylston Gill whom he married the year after Sarah’s death brought political influence and more assets. Each advanced Gill’s social position and purse, and Copley’s portraits attest to that. Prim Sarah Gill sits bolt upright with a prayer book and she is plainly, if not uncomfortably, garbed, while her successor in marriage Rebecca wears a fashionable Turkish costume, a fad of the day, and she is pictured with lush lilies.
The fourth Copley, the 1757–1758 portrait of the 20-year-old Theodore Atkinson of Portsmouth, N.H., hangs in an adjacent space. It came to the museum in 1917 and was thought originally to be by John Wollaston. All four were painted wearing Copley’s studio costumes and, like the artist himself, would be called “upwardly mobile.”
The group on other side of the gallery walls tells another story. While they are considerably less grand, these objects attest to the efforts toward self-improvement on the part of their makers and users. An early Nineteenth Century Windsor highchair has bamboo turnings, a handsomely crafted early Nineteenth Century cradle was jazzed up with yellow painted and red, green and white decoration. An Eighteenth Century Rhode Island sampler worked by 11-year-old Nabby Martin at the Mary Balch School, once a few blocks away, depicts flowers, the alphabet, animals and figures along with a fillip of civic pride, the old State House in Providence and the College Edifice, the oldest building of Brown University.
“Making It in America” is centered on Rhode Island, the smallest state, but one that has been influential since its founding in the early Seventeenth Century (even though Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed in Narragansett Bay in 1524.) Certainly ambition and acquisition are universal.
Another group includes a pastel portrait of a fashionably dressed but unidentified African American gentleman attributed to James Martin. Is it a political commentary that he hangs next to a portrait of America’s first president, George Washington? That picture was painted by Rhode Island native Gilbert Stewart for Massachusetts senator Jonathan Mason. They hang above a Boston mahogany bombé chest of drawers with double serpentine curvature that came from the Pendleton collection.
A Chinese Export punch bowl, circa 1785–1800, provides a detailed view of the hongs at Canton and evinces the involvement of Rhode Island merchants in the China Trade. John Brown and his brothers, among the incorporators of the university that bears their name, were active China traders, and the bowl is among a number of objects donated to the RISD museum in 1909 by their descendant Hope Brown Russell.
Two mahogany card tables with lively maple inlay are attributed to Warren, R.I., maker Allie Burton. Such tables are thought to be associated with the Pawtuxet school and are illustrative of the fine skills of workers outside urban circles. Above the tables are the portraits of Captain Samuel Packard and his wife Abigail Congdon painted by James Earl in a manner reflective of their burgeoning prosperity and refinement. Abigail, along with other women whose artifacts and bequests are on view in “Making It in America,” was a founder in 1800 of the Providence Female Charitable Society.
Early technology appears in the bentwood lamination used to make a well-used and carefully reinforced elastic armchair made by Samuel Gregg, circa 1808, that retains decoratively painted peacock feathers. It is on view with an earlier, 1780–1800, Windsor armchair. Both were made of a variety of woods and painted one color to give each unity. Repurposing is on view in William B. Savage’s spinning wheel armchair, circa 1886, that made use of the relic of the textile business rendered irrelevant by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. Savage patented the chair in 1886 and they became wildly popular in a late century look back on more romantic times; they became popular gifts.
Since colonial days, silver has been a Rhode Island economic, social and design mainstay. Jabez Gorham and his partner Henry L. Webster established premier manufacturer Gorham Silver in 1831 in Providence, where they made coin silver spoons, thimbles and other small objects. For the next century and a half, Gorham dominated the market, supplying silver of every variety, many examples of which are on view. The most striking, however, is the splashy Art Nouveau writing table and chair made for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. It was made of ebony, mahogany, boxwood, redwood, thuya wood, ivory, mother of pearl, silver, mirrored glass and gilded tooled leather with craftsmanship by William Christmas Codman, designer; Franz Siegler, carver; Joseph Edward Straker, silversmith and Potter and Company, cabinetry.
The table and chair came to the RISD museum as the gift of Mr and Mrs Frederick B. Thayer, whose family owned Tilden Thurber, a longtime Providence retailer of Gorham silver.
Another Gorham gem is the lavish 740-piece table service for 24 made by Gorham in 1873 for Chicago insurance executive Henry Jewett Furber and his wife. The monumental silver and silver gilt Neptune epergne and plateau from the service designed by Thomas Pairpoint is on view. Furber’s son sold the service back to Gorham in 1927. It was among 2,000 some pieces donated to the RISD museum in 1991 by Textron, which bought Gorham in 1967.
Gorham also produced the circa 1885 Narragansett salad servers encrusted with shells, sand, crabs and seaweed and a tureen with a rolling wave design and silver handles made to simulate coral with a pair of crabs.
Rhode Island industry was not limited to silver. After the Civil War, the state was the most heavily industrialized, producing silverware and jewelry, machine tools, steam engines, files, screws and textiles. Manufacturers and civic leaders and jewelry company leaders saw the need for industrial arts and design education and the influence of fine arts. While the R.I. Art Association had voted to introduce an art museum and gallery of arts and design, nothing happened until 1877 when Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf led the Women’s Centennial Commission to allocate $1,675 left over from its fundraising for the Women’s Pavilion at the 1876 exposition to establish the Rhode Island School of Design. Their other choice was to erect a water fountain in Roger Williams Park. The rest is history.
“Making It in America” is on view through February 9. The Rhode Island School of Design Museum is at 224 Benefit Street, with another entrance at 20 North Main Street. For information, 401-454-6500 or www.risdmuseum.org.