Published: July 20, 2004
The Peabody Essex Museum pays tribute to one of the most spirited and vibrant periods in American art with “American Fancy, Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840.”
This traveling exhibition, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chipstone Foundation, opens July 17 and runs through October 24 at the Peabody Essex. It is guest curated by Sumpter T. Priddy III, who spent 25 years studying the Fancy style.
“American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts” brings together more than 200 works of art from the nation’s leading private collections and museums, including the Peabody Essex Museum.
Today, the word “fancy” is typically used to refer to things that are highly ornate or expensive. Two centuries ago, however, most Americans used the word to describe Fancy furnishings and decorative arts with exciting patterns and bright colors. The style flourished between 1790 and 1840, a time when the nation was imbued with a growing sense of progress and modernity.
Advances in science, and the spread of democracy, commerce and industry, helped shape Fancy as an artistic style. Improved transportation networks extended its appeal into all parts of the nation. Fancy, once reserved for the affluent, became the first truly widespread American style in the arts. Its bold designs, abstracted forms and colorful surfaces have spontaneity and freshness that has made Fancy works favorites with American art and design collectors to the present day.
The kaleidoscope had a powerful influence during the Fancy period. More than a design tool and a fun toy, the kaleidoscope was known for its Greek meaning, “beautiful image viewer.” The device inspired novel designs and expanded the boundaries of creative expression. The kaleidoscope’s array of colors and tumbling geometric patterns influenced painting, furniture, textiles, quilts, ceramics, glass and metalware in Europe and America. Though the first kaleidoscopes were made from solid brass and mahogany, inexpensive versions made of tinware and cardboard were soon available on the mass market.
Americans flocked to specialized Fancy stores, which offered an unparalleled selection of useful and decorative objects. Manufacturers and retailers exploited the consumer’s fascination with Fancy objects and used the term “fancy” as a catch phrase in advertisements. Coinciding with the advent of the industrial revolution, this rich commercial environment was just as important as the domestic sphere in defining the world of popular Fancy.
“American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts” reveals the period’s remarkably broad appeal and its sophisticated origins. Fancy was as much a world view as it was a style. Artists and intellectuals believed that the five senses fed the imagination in myriad ways, and fancy goods reflected this belief. “American Fancy” mirrors the youthful optimism of the new nation, and contributes to the understanding of one of the most lively and dynamic periods in American art and design.
“American Fancy” is accompanied by Priddy’s lavishly illustrated book, published by the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee. Priddy will give illustrated lectures on “American Fancy” on Saturday, July 17, at 2 pm, and Sunday, July 18, at 3 pm.
Related programs include Spectacular ‘Scopes, a family art workshop on Saturday, July 17, 2 pm, for ages 7 and up with accompanying adult, free with museum admission.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square. For information, 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org.
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