Published: April 13, 2004
Sumpter Priddy III recalls the moment that he first experienced Fancy, a cultural phenomenon of such immense proportions that its dimensions have remained uncharted for more than 150 years. Exploring an abandoned Surrey County, Va., farmhouse built by an ancestor of his in 1836, the boy, who spent summers nearby with his grandparents, stood transfixed in a grain painted interior before a marbleized mantel embellished with gilt sunbursts.
Years passed before Priddy, by then earning his master’s degree in early American culture at Winterthur, understood what he had seen. The “aha!” moment came while sitting in a class taught by Kenneth Ames. The instructor projected a slide of an 1837 jacquard coverlet. Its dizzying pattern prototypically Op art, the coverlet was signed “J.M./DAVIDSON/FANCY WEAVER.”
“It was like a lightening bolt. Here was a man who considered himself not a ‘decorative’ weaver but an ‘imaginative’ one,” says Priddy, emphasizing the nonrational, purely visceral pleasure that early Nineteenth Century Americans derived from Fancy in all of its expressions, from music and literature to cuisine to decor.
Friends, including former colleagues from Colonial Williamsburg, where he was a curator between 1979 and 1983, began sending Priddy bits and quotes for the draft that was largely finished in 1985. It took Priddy until 2001 to find a museum to publish the work and mount an exhibition.
Support ultimately came from Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum, where Chipstone’s Executive Director and Chief Curator Jon Prown and Glenn Adamson, Chipstone curator and adjunct curator at MAM, have vigorously promoted progressive, cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of American decorative arts.
“I’d known of this project since my days at Colonial Williamsburg,” says Prown, also a former curator at the Virginia institution. He, and other members of the Chipstone/MAM team, worked closely with Priddy to edit the manuscript and produce the show.
“American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840,” which displays 200 vibrant and surprisingly varied examples of furniture, textiles, costume, ceramics, glass, metals, paintings and prints borrowed from 98 public and private sources, is open through June 20 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., before closing at the Maryland Historical Society in March 2005. Accompanying the exhibition is Priddy’s 250-page book of the same title, illustrated with 380 examples.
“American Fancy”is likely to fundamentally change the way we regard both the art and the era, prompting many to revise their views on Neoclassicism and its influences. Priddy’s research also calls into question the practice of lumping together, under the heading of “folk art,” a gamut of household decorations both meditated and mainstream, and causes us to see, for the first time, uncanny stylistic parallels among objects long thought unrelated.
The question is, why did no one see the importance of Fancy before?
“There are many reasons,” says Priddy, drawing a long breath. “The material has been misunderstood, both from an academic literary standpoint and from the perspective of decorative arts historians. The history of ideas and the history of things are so often divorced as a result of rational, Twentieth Century scholarship. If academics had connected literary concepts to the objects themselves, they would have understood that the material wasn’t eccentric, untutored genius, but absolutely mainstream. Another complicating factor is that words and concepts have evolved so dramatically that, even when we saw the word ‘Fancy’ attached to the objects, it didn’t register.”
Fancy, as Priddy explains, does not so much describe a style as a quality. “Fancy goods,” he writes, “invariably possess a character that catches the eye and awakens the mind. Some employ a dazzling variety of ornament to elicit a visceral but passing response; some operate principally by surprising the viewer; some allude to other places, ideas or things; and others leave open-ended possibilities for imaginative interpretation.”
Priddy sees contemporary parallels with the Post Modern movement, which playfully distorts convention. Adamson, for his part, relates Fancy to 1960s design. “The 1960s had a similar emphasis on patternmaking. People were also looking inward and thinking of imagination, synesthesia, of total environments,” he says.
Fancy’s roots were in an Eighteenth Century philosophy that viewed reason and imagination as opposites, and equated reason with Classicism or the “antique” taste. The first known American reference to Fancy objects is 1792, when Boston merchant Jonathan Harris advertised the arrival from Europe of a “large and extensive assortment of staple and fancy goods of the latest fashion.” The rage for Fancy faded by 1840.
“The term Fancy didn’t necessarily mean ‘fine’ or ‘decorated.’ If one thinks of Fancy as having a domain or realm – albeit within the soul or the mind – and imagines a chair designed there, the term takes on its proper meaning,” the scholar explains.
The opening pages of American Fancyprovide a crystalline example. Next to an A.J. Davis watercolor sketch of a Grecian interior in a New York home of circa 1830, Priddy illustrates an 1836 Joseph H. Davis watercolor of the interior of a New Hampshire home. The chaste, sepulchral A.J. Davis salon may have been high fashion, but the J.H. Davis parlor – colorfully furnished with a busily patterned carpet, brightly painted furniture, pictures on the wall and flowers in a vase – overwhelmingly represents popular taste of the time.
“If Joseph Davis’s portrait is an accurate indicator, mainstream America was only partially touched by Classical style,” argues Priddy. Moreover, Fancy decoration, conceived and consumed by the middle class, was “the first democratic American style.”
“The fact that later generations overlooked Fancy in favor of Neoclassicism is tied up with the idea of the order of the young nation and its allegiance to the Classical ideals of Greece and Rome,” says Prown, who sees the polarity between order and chaos as the organizing principle in the art of any era.
Perhaps because emotion was associated with women, some of the earliest Fancy goods were articles made by and for females: enameled trifles and snuff boxes, scarves, perfume bottles, tortoiseshell combs, stomachers, patterned textiles and a whole realm of needlework referred to as Fancy work.
Priddy discusses artists such as Edward Hicks, trained in a diversity of ornamental techniques from sign painting to landscape painting, within the context of Fancy, and compares the dazzling surfaces of marbleized furniture with the swirling slip designs on mocha ware. (Coinciding with “American Fancy,” Milwaukee Art Museum is presenting “Slipware Traditions,” curated by Glenn Adamson, in its Decorative Arts Gallery through June 6.)
“Few individuals,” he writes, “have captured the spirit of Fancy better than the artist, inventor and ornamental painter Rufus Porter,” citing Porter’s recipe for “exhilarating gas,” a period term for laughing gas, as quintessentially in the spirit of the age.
“I intuitively knew when I started this project that Fancy explained all of this really wild Nineteenth Century stuff that we call folk art,” says Priddy, who believes that rational Twentieth Century thought prevented us from seeing these middle-class furnishings in proper perspective.
Adds Adamson, “Early in the Twentieth Century, collectors like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller made the connection between folk art and modern art. Specifically, what they saw was native American genius expressed in abstract pattern. That was not necessarily wrong, but the rest of the story got lost.”
Priddy handles the subject of Abstractionism with breathtaking originality, arguing that Fancy – which explored light, color and motion as visual stimulants – was America’s first foray into nonrepresentational art. Interest in abstract art began soon after 1816, when the Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster perfected the kaleidoscope, he says, citing the fractured patterns of patchwork quilts as evidence of the kaleidoscope’s dramatic influence on design.
“A kaleidoscope is a metaphor for the whole style,” Adamson observes. “It is a machine for producing abstraction. It is also an ephemeral experience because it shifts in front of you. When you look through a kaleidoscope you must close one eye, to shut out the world and experience a realm of pure imagination. The amazing thing is that people of the time thought about it that way. It wasn’t until the Twentieth Century that Kandinsky and others began saying similar things.”
“It’s like walking into Oz. This is as ambitious a decorative arts show as you will ever see. The key to understanding Fancy is to experience it. The exhibition is tremendously colorful and dynamic,” says Prown. At the push of a button, viewers can backlight a transparent shade or a pierced lantern, an example of the early Nineteenth Century love of random, ephemeral, abstract pattern.
Visitors proceed from a Fancy chamber to a gallery devoted to the kaleidoscope and its influences. A ten-foot, ever-changing kaleidoscopic image projected on the floor is related to ornamentation on early Nineteenth Century furniture, textiles and glass. A replica of a two-story brick Fancy store is stocked with the myriad Fancy goods that early Nineteenth Century consumers could buy ready-made. After a section on ornamental techniques in the classroom, home and shop, the exhibition closes with a brief farewell to Fancy.
By 1840, Fancy was passe. Priddy cites as causes the Panic of 1837, the introduction of photography in 1839 and a growing belief that Fancy was secondary to imagination in inspiring creativity.
The fashion may have passed, but Fancy’s appeal has not. Lively, playful, whimsical and arresting, the painted furniture and decorated fire buckets, lustreware jugs and blown glass of the early Nineteenth Century exert their same primal tug today.
American Fancy is available from the Milwaukee Art Museum Store for $75 ($67.50 for museum members). The Milwaukee Art Museum is at 700 North Art Museum Drive in Milwaukee. For information, 414-224-3200 or www.mam.org.
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