Published: October 28, 2008
Family has long been the single most significant element of the American social structure. From November 1 through December 31, the Bennington Museum examines the American family through historic art and artifacts that provide insight into how relatives were commemorated and remembered long ago. The exhibition, “For the Record: Art and Artifacts of the American Family,” looks at how family lines were traced with a focus on family records, mourning art and family portraiture; the exhibition also looks at how these various forms of genealogical art were intimately interconnected.
Works by folk artists such as Justus Dalee, who created portraits, family records and mourning pictures, exemplify the malleability of these closely related family art forms. Other objects on view, such as furniture and silver, will provide insight into how American families used material objects to construct and perpetuate family identity.
One of the central pieces on view is a watercolor portrait of the Hill family of Peterborough, N.H., executed in 1837 by Caroline Hill. In it there is a rare depiction of a family record as it would have originally been displayed in the family’s home with one of the predeceased family members clearly noted. Here the link between family portraiture, family records and mourning art is clearly manifested.
Jamie Franklin, curator, said, “During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries one of most common manners of conveying one’s family ties was through the use of a coat of arms. New York silversmith Jacobus Van der Spiegel created a tankard that descended in his family bearing a beautifully engraved family coat of arms. The use of coats of arms waned in popularity after the Revolution, as Americans wanted to distance themselves from Old World traditions.”
Yet silver continued to be used as a means of conveying family identity and connections through the use of engraved initials. A ladle bearing the initials of Laura Van der Spiegel, a direct descendant of Jacobus, was created around 1820 from silver melted down from the tankard’s cover, thus making visible and concrete a family link of 120 years.
Also on view are Hadley chests, distinctive furniture made along the Connecticut River Valley from northern Connecticut to central Massachusetts during the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries, frequently made as dowry objects. Interesting from a genealogical perspective is the fact that they almost always bear the carved maiden initials of the wife, perpetuating matrilineal connections in a predominantly patrilineal society.
A Hadley chest from the museum’s collection bearing the initials of Abigail Warriner will be on exhibit. Warriner married into the Ely family in 1722, and the chest was still owned by Ely family descendants when it was discovered in Vermont in 1875.
Decorative family records, either embroidered or executed in watercolor, were the most popular means of “keeping sacred the memory of our ancestors.” The work of Vermont folk artist David Augur, such as the record he created for Olive Bashaba Weatherhead of Guilford, Vt., around 1840, is an excellent example.
The Bennington Museum is at 75 Main Street (Route 9). Visit the museum at www.benningtonmuseum.org or call 802-447-1571 for more information.
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