Published: December 26, 2017
NEW CANAAN, CONN. – The New Canaan Historical Society will present “Orientalism in American Art and the Silvermine Art Colony,” January 7-March 30. This exhibit features the works of American artists who traveled, painted and often lived for extended periods in the vast, mostly Islamic region that became known as “The Orient,” which stretched from Morocco across North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land and Persia to India. Beginning in the 1840s, the European and American artists who ventured into this often-forbidden world were called “Orientalists.”
The show includes paintings and etchings by 20 American artists, as well as rugs, furnishings and brass decorative objects.
The show was conceived by art historian Edward Vollmer, who co-curated it with museum consultant Susan Gunn-Bromley and local collector Tom Davies. “We look at Orientalism in the context of art, largely paintings and design, and how it was part of American culture,” Vollmer explained. Nonfigurative Islamic designs, motifs and furnishings have played an important role in European and American art and design.
“The Western artists were attracted to the differences, the sophisticated designs and architecture dating back centuries. They captured the patterns, designs, techniques and materials of the Islamic world through the Western styles of Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism,” Gunn-Bromley adds.
This exhibit includes the works of four members of the Silvermine Art Colony, who traveled to Spain and North Africa and painted Orientalist-inspired works between 1908 and 1922. The Silvermine community, still an art center, is located at the intersections of the towns of New Canaan, Wilton and Norwalk.
“Upon entering the Orient, Americans artists quickly realized that there was no Islamic tradition of figural, realistic or pictorial interpretations of their society. Essentially, Western artists created the only surviving images of what these diverse cultures and parts of the world looked like prior to the broad use of color photography,” says Davies. Frank Waller (1842-1923) spent close to two years in France before departing for Egypt in 1872. His extraordinary scenes along the Nile, depictions of ancient architecture and expansive desert images were eagerly sought back home and became what the artist was known for. His painting “Desert Oasis,” created in 1873, represents the quintessential image of the Orient.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was a significant leader in the field of American Orientalism. Departing the United States at the age of 19, he remained a lifelong expatriate. Although most of his work was done in Algeria, Bridgman’s only extended trip to Egypt was from 1873 to 1874. It was during this trip when he painted “Bab-El-Nasre,” which is one of the three remaining gates into the Old City of Cairo. Bridgman enjoyed great popularity and success from the 1870s through 1890s, but changing tastes and styles of painting rendered him virtually forgotten by the time of his death.
Addison T. Millar (1860-1913) was a student of William Merritt Chase and had a studio in New York in 1906, where he painted pictures of the Orient and created etchings from his earlier travels in Spain and Algiers. He made several hundred sketches and studies of Spanish, Moorish and colorful Oriental types, but specialized in Algerian street scenes, often of merchants selling rugs, pottery, brassware and arms. A quintessential work by Millar featured here is a street scene in Algiers titled “The Café Bau Sarda,” showing a brightly colored figure serving refreshments to a seated group of men
The exhibition also includes a brilliantly colored work that depicts the harbor in Algiers. Millar became a prominent Silvermine artist, joining Solon Borglum and the Silvermine Art Colony in 1908. Seven of his works are in the exhibition. Other Silvermine artists included in this exhibition are Frank Hutchens, Bernard Gutmann and Frederick Yohn.
The show also explores the significant impact Orientalism had on American popular culture, as exemplified by movies such as The Sheik with Rudolph Valentino, music such as “In My Harem,” by Irving Berlin, the design work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the wallpaper of William Morris, the fashion of harem trousers and even Camel cigarettes.
“I saw this show as a wonderful opportunity to educate the public about this moment in art history. I hope our visitors will share my sense of awe at the artists who depicted a vibrant and beautiful part of the world,” says Nancy Geary, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society.
A reception and talk by both Vollmer and Gunn-Bromley will be held on January 7, followed by a “Taste of Orientalism”-themed dinner at the Roger Sherman Inn. Tom Davies will lead a gallery talk on February 1, at 6 pm. The reception is free; the dinner is $35 per person and dinner reservations are required by January 4
The New Canaan Historical Society is at 13 Oenoke Ridge. For additional information or reservations, 203-966-1776 or www.nchistory.org.
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