Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian on View at the Portland Museum of Art
“Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” is on view at the Portland Museum of Art through June 6. The exhibition features 22 rare pieced and whole-cloth American quilts made before 1850, selected from the collection donated to the Smithsonian in 1999 by Patricia Smith Melton, a Washington playwright and quilt historian.
These heirloom quilts, dating from about 1810 to 1850, preserve a notable era in textile and quiltmaking artistry. Before the United States developed a textile industry in the 1840s, colonists and citizens imported quality printed cottons from Britain or France. These fabrics were used by affluent quiltmakers along the Eastern Seaboard and on Southern plantations for the sumptuous bedcovers that were an important decorative element in prosperous homes.
The cotton fabric used in these early American quilts incorporated vegetable and mineral colors – chemical aniline dyes did not arrive until the 1850s – and represented high standards of woodblock, copper plate and roller printing. The term “calico” comes from Calicut, a port on the Malabar Coast of India where European traders in the Seventeenth Century bought the colorful cottons that revolutionized Western taste in textiles. “Chintz” is derived from “chints,” a phonetic transliteration of the Hindi word meaning variegated.
While the terms calico and chintz were used interchange-ably to describe colorful cottons, calico properly describes unglazed fabric printed with prominent flowers, birds and other representational motifs. The exhibition also includes fragments of the kinds of imported period textiles used to construct the quilts in the collection.
Some of the quilts in this exhibition are the most intricate and complex of their kind. “Pieced Bedcover (Honeycomb),” about 1825, is composed of template-formed hexagons – each measuring only 5/8-inch – for a total of 442 rosettes of colorful cotton. Others are quite bold and expressionistic, including “Pieced Quilt (Nine Patch on Point),” about 1845. This New York quilt would have been appropriate with the interior décor of a middle-class bedroom of the early 1840s.
The textile fragment, “English Pillar Print Chintz,” circa 1825-1835, demonstrates a design that was extremely popular in the United States. Pillar prints depicted classical columns garlanded with ribbons, birds or wicker fruit baskets. This design was often used on America’s highest quality quilts as borders, as long stripes in bar-patterned designs and as tops for whole-cloth bedcovers.
Melton has collected American pre-1850 whole-cloth, pieced and appliquéd bedcovers for more than 20 years. She built the collection with the intent to have it viewed in its entirety as an educational experience and has taught classes on the history of quilts and quilt textiles.
A catalog accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by Jeremy Adamson, chief of the prints and photographs division at the Library of Congress. The catalog is available in the museum shop: $55 for the cloth edition, and $35 for paperback.
The remaining “Calico & Chintz” exhibition itinerary is as follows: The Heritage: Home of the President Andrew Jackson, Nashville, Tenn., June 26-August 29; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, September 19-November 21.
Related quilt exhibits include “Another Layer: Selected Maine Art Quilts,” on view through June 6. “Another Layer” celebrates Maine’s vibrant community of quilt artists with works by eight members of Maine Fiberarts, an arts service organization formed to promote the enjoyment and quality of Maine fiber work. The exhibition features the work of Mary Allen Chaisson, Kimberly Becker, Elizabeth Busch, Jo Diggs, Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade, Natatsha Kempers-Cullen, Stephanie Green Levy and Phyllis Loney.
The museum is also displaying three quilts made by second- and third-graders from Riverton Elementary School in Portland.
Quilt lectures include a lecture by Polly Ullrich on Friday, April 23, at 8:30 pm, at the museum auditorium, suggested donation $5, and a lecture on Saturday, April 24, at 1 pm, museum auditorium. Historic quilt specialist Betsey Telford will speak about some of the more extraordinary quilts in her extensive collection. Cost is $8, members; $12, nonmembers.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or portlandmuseumofart.org.