Published: May 15, 2001
Painted with Thread:
Perhaps the artist was a woman. Perhaps she worked at her composition in the evening, her head bent over a piece of cloth while her family slept, her brilliantly hued image and message blossoming in a flurry of small, skilled stitches. It may have been a statement about beauty, romance, or an idealized view of the world. Or she may have used embroidery to explore deeper subjects such as world events, memories, and encounters with other places and times. Her artistic expression took form in the flickering light, betraying remarkable skill, a need to be heard, and a wish to incorporate beauty into her world.
Or maybe the artist was a Rhode Island sailor on a voyage through the Pacific Ocean, whose style of embroidery actually suggests tattooing. He used a running stitch and wool thread to embroider stars, flowers, human figures, and palm leaves onto a pair of wool pants so worn they’d been patched and re-stitched. Here was a man – an artist – thoroughly familiar with shipboard skills such as stitching sails and knotting. Freed from social constrictions of his counterparts on land, he explored artistic expression using the implements at hand.
Embroidery’s broad and complex tradition, spanning generations of stitchers and a vast range of purposes, defies easy classification. “Painted with Thread: The Art of American Embroidery,” running from April 13 through September 30 at the Peabody Essex Museum, is as intensely thought provoking as it is beautiful. This is the first major exhibition highlighting the works in the museum’s extensive American embroidery collection. The exhibition spans 380 years, and features works of embroidery art, stories about embroidery artists, their tools and processes and the historical and cultural settings in which embroidery artists worked. One notable feature of the museum’s embroidery collection is the fact that artist biographies have been uncovered in 70 to 80 percent of the pieces.
“This exhibition considers embroidery as art,” says Paula Richter, Curator for Textiles and Costumes at the Peabody Essex Museum. “It looks at individual pieces, delves into their artistic and cultural context, and decodes their deeper meanings.” There is a tantalizing aspect of storytelling incorporated into this rich and expressive exhibition. It is a process of discovery, she says. “Just when you think you know what embroidery is, it surprises you with new ideas.”
In early American education, schoolgirl samplers combined lessons in functional stitchery with ornamental motifs and imagery. Although sampler-making taught utilitarian skills, sewing and mending, it also provided a childhood encounter with art education. The patterns children copied or interpreted usually paralleled current cultural and artistic movements. Beyond the stitched letters of the alphabet, religions and moral verses reinforced a code of values and ways by which to interpret a complicated world.
Embroidery has experienced, in its long tradition both here and in Europe, periods of high esteem. At other times it has been regarded more as embellishment, the emphasis resting on its functionality rather than its art. In the late Middle Ages in England, embroidery arts were as important as sculptures and painting, demanding comparable training. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, an embroidery guild structure still functioned for embroidery, featuring male artists prominently, though women, too, practiced the art.
Though embroidery and sewing were considered a vocation for women, some women took them beyond the norm and used embroidery as an opportunity for artistic self-expression.
“There were few expressive mediums for women,” says Richter, who has also produced an illustrated catalogue to accompany the show. “Embroidery became a powerful aesthetic and personal means of expression.” By the Nineteenth Century, women were covering their homes with their aesthetic expressions.
The oldest piece in the exhibit is an intricate Seventeenth Century needle lace sampler stitched by Anne Gower in England around 1610-1620. Demonstrating advanced needlework techniques, this sampler indicates status and affluence. She and her husband John Endicott, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sailed to Salem in 1628, the valued sampler among the few belongings they selected to accompany them.
This sampler is significant in that it is the only one known to have been transported in what is called The Great Migration, the period of British settlement in the Seventeenth Century. When considering the dearth of space on the ten-week voyage aboard the Abigail, the value Anne Gower attributed to the sampler becomes quite apparent.
Another noteworthy sampler is the one made by Mary Holingworth, accused along with her husband Phillip English of witchcraft in 1692. With the help of ministers and government officials, they escaped to New York, returning to Salem two years later. The renowned Salem diarist the Reverend William Bentley wrote about Holingworth’s sampler and her outstanding education in his journals.
In the Eighteenth Century, elaborate needlepoint (called tent stitching at the time) pastoral landscapes depict bucolic outdoor scenes. In one pastoral canvas-work picture, a beautifully dressed woman is seen reaching into a tree to pluck a ripe, red apple. Stitched by Sarah Chamberlain, circa 1765, the work is wool on linen canvas. Some silk thread and some metallic thread (metal foil wrapped around a silk core) were used in the piece.
Also called Boston Fishing Lady pictures after a motif of a female angler, this Eighteenth Century genre features men, women, and sometimes children pictured in idyllic settings. Animals are tame, couples are genteel, and the landscape is sunny and lush – all elements carefully selected to evoke an Anglo-American identity that hearkens back to the country estate of English gentry. By the Nineteenth Century, the embroidered pictures resembled paintings. For example, Sarah Dole Poor of Somerville, Mass., stitched a large portrait of George Washington adapted from a painting by the American artist John Trumbull.
Also in the exhibition are embroidered clothing and furniture, as well as sewing tools. Contemporary works, often making statements both personal and social, are also exhibited.
Embroidery, while always popular, has experienced renewed interest among artists and practitioners. An expanded embroidery arts symposium accompanies this exhibition, featuring numerous historians, artists, designers, curators, and embroidery teachers. Among the prominent guest speakers is contemporary artist Judy Chicago. It will take place June 21 to 23.
The Peabody Essex Museum offers a blend of art, architecture, and culture. It is one of New England’s largest museums, with renowned collections of maritime art and history; American decorative art, folk art, portraits, costumes and furniture; Native American art; art from Africa; and art from China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Pacific Islands. It also displays one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Asian decorative arts produced for the West.
These exceptional collections are set amid one of the nation’s premier ensembles of early American architecture. The Peabody Essex Museum owns four National Historic Landmarks and several properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Three of these homes are open to daily tours, offering a unique look at life, decorative art, and culture in Colonial and Federal-era America. Also, the museum’s Phillips Library is one of New England’s most important research libraries and features galleries and early American portraits.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For information, 800/745-4054.
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