WASHINGTON, D.C. – The language of flowers developed by American quiltmakers during the Nineteenth Century is in full bloom with the exhibition “Fanciful Flowers: ,” on display through June 3 at The Textile Museum. The exhibition, curated by Carolyn Ducey of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, features more than 20 quilts drawn from the center’s renowned Ardis and Robert James Collection. After the Washington venue, the exhibition will travel to Cornell University.
All of the quilts featured in “Fanciful Flowers” have botanical motifs and include flowers, garden styles, and color palettes popularized during the Nineteenth Century. Quilt designs included in the exhibition vary from appliqued and pieced quilts, to intricately embroidered and embellished crazy quilts. Many of the quilts are from states in the mid-Atlantic region, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland.
The advent of the machine age and a shift in population from rural to urban areas left Nineteenth Century middle-class American women with new social expectations. Of particular importance was the responsibility of guiding a family’s moral, spiritual, and educational growth. An appreciation of nature and its beauty was believed to be an important component of understanding and teaching moral integrity and also a manner of displaying cultivated taste. As such, the planting of lush gardens, and the incorporation of floral imagery in home furnishings and quilts, acted as both a reflection of a woman’s effort to guide her family’s ethical development and as an example of industrious activity in the pursuit of beauty.
Interest in the study of botany grew throughout the Nineteenth Century. The burgeoning middle-class society felt that botany was particularly appropriate for females as it afforded women a genteel way to develop their intellect while at the same time providing them with fresh air and exercise. Amateur botanists collected, catalogued, and illustrated plant specimens. In fact, botany became the science of women and by the end of the Nineteenth Century women could study at universities and become professional botanists.
The introduction of new plants for use in American gardens contributed to the increased popularity of gardening and botany. “Tropical” plants such as nasturtiums and zinnias were imported from South American and Mexico. Roses, azaleas, lilies, primroses, and rhododendrons were imported from Asia and, along with bulbs and tuberous flowers, particularly dahlias, tulips, and narcissus, quickly became favorites of American gardeners. New plants also became available with the development of the mail-order business. Soon after the first mail order seed company developed in 1806, cockscomb, impatiens, and four-o’clocks began filling flowerbeds. As these exotic flowers became popular in gardens, they also began to appear in the quilts of the time.
Various European gardening styles influenced Nineteenth Century American gardens and quilts. Gardeners strove to duplicate Italian, French, Dutch, and English gardens throughout the Nineteenth Century. Floral quilts of the period also contain striking similarities to the preferred design formats of Nineteenth Century gardens. For example, during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, a parterre de broderie garden, composed of serpentine flowerbeds cut into an expanse of lawn and filled with shrubs or flowers, was a popular garden style.
At the same time, broderie perse quilts – those constructed from cut-out chintz motifs appliqued to a white background – flourished. The spaces filled with floral imagery in these quilts are clearly defined against a large expanse of ground fabric, much like the parterre de broderie gardens. The name broderie perse refers to a style of Persian embroidery and is believed to be a Twentieth Century name for this style of quilt, but it is interesting to note that a related term was used in the Nineteenth Century to describe a garden style.
In 1841, author A.J. Downing described and commended a new English garden style called the gardenesque. Downing described the style as one in which “Every tree and shrub should stand singly… in regular lines.” More important, however, according to Downing, each part must work together in the landscape to create a unified whole. This style parallels that of album quilts, in which the quiltmaker strives to provide a harmonious whole from quilt blocks of dissimilar design. Album quilts rose to the height of popularity between 1840 and 1860, and, just as gardenesque style gardens represent some of the liveliest gardens of the period, album quilts exemplify some of the most exquisite needlework of the period.
In the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century naturalistic designs replaced formal arrangements as the preferred garden style. Many scholars attribute the impetus for this change to the Japanese exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where many Americans were exposed to Japanese aesthetics for the first time. Japanese art illustrated the culture’s appreciation of natural beauty, expressed through realistically portrayed images of nature.
The Japanese also preferred an asymmetrical perspective and symbolic imagery. In quilts, the influence of Japanese style may be seen in the asymmetrical, randomly sized pieces of crazy quilts and in the realistically rendered floral embellishments used to decorate their surface. Crazy quilts often featured plants that were popular in both American gardens and quilts: roses, goldenrod, daisies, cattails, and cockscomb. Amidst the lush embroidered gardens, quilters added Japanese-inspired forms like fans, butterflies, and peacocks.
General design theories of the time could also be found in both gardens and quilts. In 1827, R.R. Reinagle published an essay entitled “Original Beauty of Lines and Forms” that states that a beautiful object is characterized as “something that is a well-ordered whole, in opposition to something that is in a state of chaos or confusion.” To illustrate one point of his theory, Reinagle explains that straight lines radiating from a center point or object form a pleasing shape. Even more visually pleasing are curving lines radiating from a center point. Appliqued quilts estimated to have been made between 1860 and 1880 often feature both types of radiating lines in their patterns. The balanced blocks are repeated across the quilt’s surface, like rows of blossoming flowers.
It is evident from the number of surviving Nineteenth Century floral quilts that many women chose to demonstrate their love of nature through quiltmaking. As a result, the quilts act as both tangible evidence of women’s creative expressions and as a glimpse of society’s values and aesthetic preferences.
The above essay was excerpted from A Flowering of Quilts, by Margaret Bolick, Susan Curtis, and edited by Patricia Cox Crews (Lincoln, Neb.; University of Nebraska Press, 2001).
Founded in 1925 by George Hewitt Myers, The Textile Museum is at 2320 S Street, NW. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. Telephone, 202/667-0441, or visit www.textilemuseum.org.