Published: September 10, 2002
An American Vision:
By Stephen May
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Winterthur Museum, located on Henry Francis du Pont’s remarkable country estate in Delaware’s scenic Brandywine Valley, a first-ever traveling exhibition of the museum’s unparalleled collection of American decorative arts and paintings is on view at the National Gallery of Art through October 6. It is the only venue for the show.
Organized by Winterthur and the National Gallery, “An American Vision: ” was astutely curated by Wendy A. Cooper, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Senior Curator of Furniture at Winterthur. The exhibition is made possible by Louise and Robert Duemling and, in recognition of its 200th anniversary, it is sponsored by DuPont.
In mounting the show, Cooper had the daunting task of culling 300 masterpieces, dating 1640-1860, from her museum’s amazing trove of nearly 85,000 pieces. She chose well, displaying some of Winterthur’s rarest and most renowned objects, ranging from furniture, ceramics, textiles, glass and metalwork to paintings, prints and drawings. The result is a feast for the eyes of decorative arts aficionados.
It all started with one man on a mission. A descendant of Delaware’s fabulously wealthy du Ponts, a French émigré family that built a manufacturing empire starting with gunpowder, Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) thought of himself as a country gentleman living a traditional existence on a family estate. While operating a farm and developing gardens, he parlayed his wealth, passion for America’s past and appreciation for its aesthetic genius into a pioneering collection of early Americana.
Shy, taciturn and courteous, du Pont was an energetic collector with a keen understanding of quality. “An insatiable collector with an unerring eye,” is how Leslie Greene Bowman, director of Winterthur Museum, characterizes him. Du Pont made up his mind quickly and could buy what he wanted. He began acquiring early American decorative works and furniture in the late 1920s, when few others were interested in such objects.
“A culture,” du Pont once observed, “is fully known only as its art objects are studied in their rich variety and social context.” Concluding that the arts of the early days of the nation could best be appreciated in the context of the early American home, he acquired whole rooms from old houses and fragmented architectural elements that could be installed to serve as settings for the display of his Americana collection.
The resulting period rooms, carefully organized to emphasize design and quality, reflect du Pont’s genius for making the spaces look as if their occupants had just stepped out. Since visitors to Winterthur can view the rooms only on guided tours, the objects are shown freely, with few cordoned-off areas, thus retaining some of the ambiance of a private, albeit elegant, residence. Dazzling in this display and nearly numbing in their number, these are undoubtedly the finest period rooms in America. Large-scale photographs in the exhibition suggest the magnificence of these spaces.
A few years after he started collecting, du Pont tripled the size of the 1839 Winterthur mansion, adding a huge wing to house his growing trove. Opened as a museum in 1951, Winterthur has since expanded into a sprawling complex of buildings with 175 period rooms surrounded by nearly 1,000 acres of gardens, rolling lawns, streams and wooded areas. It has a large research library and offers a highly regarded educational program.
Today, Winterthur is generally considered, as Earl A. Powell III, director the National Gallery, put it, “America’s greatest collection of decorative arts.”
Du Pont acknowledged that his collecting was largely driven by personal interests, but he recognized the importance of building a representative collection. The works exhibited here reflect the founder’s preferences — and the greatest strengths — of Winterthur’s trove.
They are organized in both chronological and thematic groupings, starting with “Early Settlement and Sophistication.” Focused on possessions of early settlers of the American colonies, this section suggests that they acquired for their homes objects that reflected the aesthetic styles and material comforts of their counterparts in England and Europe.
Among the handsome silver pieces on view a standout is an elaborate sugar box, dating to 1702, made by Boston silversmith Edward Winslow for the Belcher family in honor of the birth of their son. Close examination reveals complex imagery representing courtly love, chivalry, marriage and fecundity — all appropriate subjects for the occasion. Curators report that only nine such American boxes survive today.
A two-handled silver bowl, circa 1735, made by Jacob Ten Eyck in Albany, N.Y., reflects a distinct Dutch influence. Such bowls in the Netherlands were traditionally filled with brandy and raisins and were passed from guest to guest on festive occasions. It was likely put to similar use in the colony, where it reflected the owner’s high standing and wealth.
Epitomizing the massive, highly ornamented carved furniture coveted by the wealthy in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts is a grand cupboard made in Essex County in 1680. Featuring a geometrically designed central door with applied moldings, flanked by arched panels and a prominent overhanging upper section with pendant drops, this piece must have cost a pretty penny. This elaborately fashioned, sophisticated cupboard proclaimed to all that its owner had both taste and money. At Winterthur it is given architectural context by being placed in a room from a house in Ipswich, Mass., built around 1670.
Another costly Essex County-made product is a sturdy armchair, 1640-85, of rail-and-stile construction held together with mortise and tenon joints secured by wooden pins. Elaborate carvings animate the back.
Grisaille (French for gray tones) painting, which flourished in the Netherlands, was on occasion utilized in New York City in early Colonial days. The standout example here is a kas, 1700-35, that features varieties of hanging fruit painted in a bold, trompe l’oeil manner. It is a fascinating piece, worthy of careful examination.
Grouped under the heading “A Passion for Rococo” in the exhibition are works by artists and craftspeople working in the rococo or Chippendale style in Boston, Philadelphia or Charleston in the mid to late Eighteenth Century. The name rococo is derived from the French word referring to rocklike creations that ornamented fanciful grottoes. This style was so successfully popularized by London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale that nowadays it is often referred to in his name.
Fascinated by its sturdiness, practicality and many variations in decorations, du Pont avidly collected such pieces. He assembled a number of these objects at Winterthur in the Stamper-Blackwell Parlor, which originally graced a 1760s house in Philadelphia.
Notable in the rococo display is a high chest, 1760-70, owned by Michael and Miriam Gratz of Philadelphia, which curator Cooper calls “the boldest and most monumental high chest at Winterthur.” The elaborately carved cartouche, tympanum, skirt and cabriole legs and extensive brass work testify to the skills of its maker — and his grasp of rococo design — and suggest its hefty cost. The Winterthur collection also includes side chairs commissioned by the Gratz family.
Another standout is a Philadelphia highchair, 1770, attributed to the shop of Thomas Affleck, which was part of the expansive rococo furnishings of the Philadelphia townhouse of the Cadwalader family. This ribboned back piece, with a saddle seat, upholstered half over the rails and fully carved, hairy paw feet, was probably inspired by a design in Chippendale’s widely disseminated book, The Gentlemen and Cabinetmaker’s Director. According to Cooper, “Cadwalader’s side chairs are among the most coveted prizes for American collectors of Eighteenth Century Philadelphia furniture.”
An arabesque brass sconce, 1760-70, made in England, represents the kind of imported luxury rdf_Descriptions that helped popularize the rococo style on this side of the Atlantic and added elegance to urban homes, especially in Philadelphia. Such objects were ordered by retailers from catalogs of British manufacturers.
For some, the most intriguing section is “East Meets West,” which documents the influence of American trade with the Orient in the Eighteenth Century. The exotic and luxurious products of the East have long fascinated Westerners. American colonists were no exception, nor was du Pont. “[He] was quite taken with a variety of objects made in or inspired by the East,” writes Cooper in the exhibition catalog and this portion showcases the wealth of his acquisitions.
Chinese export porcelains and ceramics made in Europe but imitating Eastern wares were displayed, along with luxurious textiles hand painted or printed in India for export to Europe, England and, eventually, the colonies.
Chinese lacquered furniture inspired American craftsmen to produce japanned objects with pictorial scenes derived from the Orient. A number of how-to books written for the Western market helped encourage Eastern ornament and design on American-made objects.
Borrowed from the lovely Readbourne Parlor at Winterthur (based on a 1773 house on Maryland’s eastern shore) is a brilliantly japanned high chest made by Boston cabinetmaker John Pimm around 1750. Japanning, a process in which decorative motifs are applied to wood in a style akin to Chinese and Japanese lacquerwork, was eagerly embraced by American craftsmen, principally in Boston, with impressive results.
The decorative japanning, by an unknown artisan, on this grand pedimented high chest, runs the gamut from Oriental figures in outdoor landscapes with fences and pavilions to fantastic animals, exotic birds and diverse floral sprays. Some of the motifs have been raised by building up the wood surface with gesso, then coating it with gold to create an appealing, shimmery effect. This lavish, showy piece must have impressed Eighteenth Century viewers; it has a similar impact today.
Hand painted and printed cottons from India, often simply referred to as India chintz, competed with manufacturers in England and France. Because they were banned in those countries in the Eighteenth Century, they found an important market in America. Most of this fabric took the form of yardage for dress goods, although some may have been printed with borders suitable for bed and window hangings.
A popular design, known as a “tree-of-life” pattern because of its large central trunk with branches featuring bright blossoms, buds and foliage, apparently inspired a young Philadelphia craftsperson, Mary King. Her fascinating needlework picture, made of silk and metallic yarns and glass beads embroidered on silk, combines Indian and British influences. The central tree, its branches festooned with colorful blossoms and foliage, set against a strong yellow background, echoes Indian textile designs and colors. The leopard, lion, rabbit and strawberries in the foreground owe much to English needlework sources. It is a lovely piece, worthy of close scrutiny.
The ubiquitous image of the Far East, the pagoda (a place of worship usually housed in a towering, tapered, multi-tiered structure) found its way into many forms of decorative arts in the West. Winterthur boasts of two spectacular porcelain pagodas, 1785-1830, standing five feet tall. Standout features include intricate detail work in the blue underglaze decoration, finely defined fretwork doors on all six levels, and fancifully ornamented railings. They are eye-popping sights.
Chinese porcelain bowls, such as the 1785-1810 example displayed in the show, often depicted hongs — the trading posts and residences of Western merchants in Canton. They were costly and hard-to-come-by “souvenirs” brought home by American traders. This large porcelain punch bowl shows the rail fence enclosing trading posts along the Pearl River, surmounted by flags of various nations, including the United States, trading at Canton.
Adding context is “View of Foreign Factories in Canton, China,” 1800-15, a wonderfully detailed painting by an unknown Chinese artist that offers a view of the hongs and their lively surroundings; Westerners are depicted on second-floor balconies observing the bustling square below, where a trial is about to begin.
When du Pont launched his collecting crusade in the 1920s, he devoted a lot of attention to distinctive objects associated with craftsmen of the Winterthur area. “The Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans” showcases boldly decorated works created by German and Swiss settlers in the eastern part of the state. Reflecting aesthetic and craft traditions brought from the old country, these objects include ornately painted furniture, pottery, woven coverlets and quilts, and frakturs.
More often than not these craftsmen sought to enliven rdf_Descriptions used in their everyday lives with colorful ornamentation, often marking important events such as betrothals, marriages, births and baptisms.
Chests, an essential piece of household furniture, were often decorated with a variety of painted images, like flowers of the unicorns adorning the white pine facade of a chest, 1765-1810, from Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Nonutilitarian wares produced by potters frequently reflected a more whimsical aesthetic, as exemplified by a squat, toothy lion, 1840-65, probably made in Waynesboro, Penn. Also on view are numerous examples of Sgrafitto wares, earthenwares with elaborately incised decorative motifs, often commemorating special occasions. Arrayed on a walnut dresser, these yellow-backed objects contribute to the kind of eye-pleasing installation that du Pont sought throughout Winterthur.
Du Pont was fascinated by the work of both known and unknown Pennsylvania Dutch woodcarvers, including one Wilhelm Schimmel, who created birds and other objects around Carlisle in Cumberland County. Schimmel’s “Eagle,” 1865-90, modeled after a Germanic version rather than an American example, is among the many carved objects acquired in the 1920s and 30s.
The great collector was also drawn to frakturs — documents commemorating important family events and featuring such decorative motifs as birds, hearts and tulips. These paper records were often affixed inside the lids of chests, such as in the Berks County example, although today most have been removed for better viewing.
In the highly ornamented Fraktur Room, moved from the Hottenstein House in Kutztown to Winterthur, du Pont displayed an array of Pennsylvania fraktur, pottery and furniture amid elaborately painted and grained woodwork. It is another example of his skill as decorator as well as collector.
The concluding section, “American Classicism,” explores how craftsmen, toward the middle and end of the Eighteenth Century, modeled their styles on recently discovered Greek and Roman artifacts. Treasures unearthed at archeological sites, including Pompeii, in the 1740s sparked a revival of classical designs and ideals in the decorative arts in Europe and Britain that came to the colonies before independence.
During the early years of the American republic, classical motifs that became known as the Federal style served as models for such national emblems as the Roman eagle in the great seal of the United States, and early national heroes such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were portrayed draped in classical garb. Cooper says du Pont’s “intense interest in the Federal style was … integrally tied to an intense sense of nationalism and reverence for Revolutionary heroes and leaders of America’s early republic.”
Baltimore, which flourished following the American Revolution, boasted a plethora of talented artisans steeped in English style and taste and the new classicism. An example of their fine work is a decidedly elegant and finely crafted lady’s dressing cabinet and writing desk, 1790-1810. It features five oval glass panels in the upper section with painted, classically garbed figures and painted glass panels depicting urns and twisted vine motifs flanking the drawers in the lower section. It is complemented by a delicately proportioned heart-back side chair, 1790-1810, embellished with an eagle inlay that was particularly popular with wealthy Baltimoreans.
Washington, as Father of the Country, was immortalized in paintings and all manner of decorative objects. A gleaming brass, steel and glass mantel clock, 1804-17, crafted in France by Jean-Baptiste Dubuc, a distinguished artisan, reflects efforts by French manufacturers to respond to American demand for pieces honoring our nation’s hero.
The symbol laden timepiece pays tribute to Washington with everything from an American eagle to the great man’s early surveying instruments to the figure of the general himself bearing his sword in one hand and his resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the other. The drapery beneath the clock bears the famous quotation from Major General Henry Lee’s funeral oration: “Washington: First in War, First in Peace and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”
Also popular in Baltimore were Grecian “Klimos” chairs, a pair of which, from around 1815-25, survive as rare treasures at Winterthur. The example on view at the National Gallery, fashioned of maple and tulipwood, features painted, paired griffins and foliate scrolls across the tablet top and decorative elements on side supports and legs. It is a beauty.
Worthy of close study is an unusual combination pier table and collector’s cabinet, 1810-20, made in Philadelphia of mahogany, maplewood and glass. Likely a special commission from a collector of natural specimens, its weighty, veneered and rayed top lifts to reveal an interior space intricately divided into compartments for various sized shells or minerals. A mirror on the underside of the lid reflects the contents when the top is raised even slightly. The pair of inlaid eagles spreading their wings across the front and sides of the console must have appealed to du Pont’s interest in acquiring objects symbolizing national pride and patriotism.
Particularly adept at turning forms from antiquity into popular wares was the legendary Josiah Wedgwood in England. A splendid example of his work is a large jasperware vase, 1790-1800, with applied relief decoration depicting Apollo and the Muses, and fascinating snake handles. Wedgwood products and imported British and French silver inspired American silversmiths to replicate their late classical designs; a silver ewer, made in Philadelphia, 1812-20, is among the objects on view.
An appropriate coda to the exhibition, underscoring du Pont’s astute eye and veneration for American artisans, heroes and patriots, is an assemblage of superb Federal masterworks. This is usually part of the grand du Pont Dining Room at Winterthur. It is comprised of a magnificent New York sideboard, 1795-1805, on which rests six silver tankards by celebrated patriot/silversmith Paul Revere; a pair of British-made mahogany, urn-shaped knife boxes (with knives), 1790-1800, originally owned by a New England merchant, and several superb Chinese porcelain pieces, circa 1785-1810, made for the American market.
Completing this impressive homage to the new classical style and America’s independence, is Benjamin West’s unfinished painting, 1783-84, of the American commissioners who met in Paris in November 1783 for initial peace negotiations with the British. West (1738-1820) grew up outside Philadelphia but settled in England in 1763. He became America’s leading expatriate painter and a leader in the British art establishment.
West’s desire to commemorate the Revolutionary War led to “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain.” The ambitious historical canvas was never completed because, as West wrote John Quincy Adams, the British representative refused to sit for his portrait.
Based on sittings in London, 1783-84, West was able to delineate four of the American negotiators and based Benjamin Franklin’s likeness on a portrait by a French painter. Standing on the far left is John Jay and, seated, John Adams. Sitting in the middle is Benjamin Franklin. Standing on the right is Henry Laurens and, seated, William Temple Franklin, Benjamin’s grandson, secretary to the delegation and a George Washington look-alike.
Owned at one time by J.P. Morgan, Jr, the unfinished canvas was acquired by du Pont in 1944 from Knoedler Galleries in New York. The vignette of masterpieces from the collector’s dining room is the “quintessential Winterthur image,” according to Cooper.
Rewarding as this excellent exhibition is, it can only hint at the treasures in the Winterthur collection. It should stimulate visits to that unusual museum complex where works can be seen in the room-by-room displays du Pont envisioned.
Situated in the historic Brandywine Valley, just outside Wilmington, Del., Winterthur is an amazing place to visit. Be prepared to be awed by room after room, beautifully organized to show our finest fine art and decorative arts at their best — and to stay for several days if you want to do justice to the collection.
At the official opening of his beloved Winterthur as a museum in 1951, founder du Pont called it “an occasion to stimulate interest in America’s arts and skills as they were developed over the years by a people divinely inspired, a body of pioneers, who learned to combine beauty and utility in fashioning a way of life that has become a symbol of all mankind.” Prophetic words that accurately reflect the admiration Winterthur has evoked and the influence it has exerted since then.
As might be expected, the 216-page exhibition catalog, with 169 color illustrations, is a beauty. It was written largely by Cooper, whose expertise, insights and knowledge contribute to focused, informative and enlightening chapters on each section of the show, as well as commentary on du Pont’s collection predilections and design skills. Published by the National Gallery and Winterthur, in association with Lund Humphrise, and selling for $60 (hardcover) and $35 (softcover), it will be coveted by all interested in American art, decorative arts and, indeed, history.
‘The American past and its aesthetic genius were the passion of Henry Francis du Pont, whose taste shaped the world of American collecting and decorating throughout the Twentieth Century.’ -Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art
‘Unquestionably a born collector, whether of trees, plants, pottery, fabrics or furniture, Henry Francis du Pont, through his legacy, will for all time continue to inspire and enlighten those who encounter his wondrous American vision, Winterthur.’ -Wendy A. Cooper, senior curator of furniture, Winterthur
‘The vast scope of the collection gives a new understanding to and respect for the integrity of American craftsmanship … The general goal is to promote the broadest possible understanding of the American people through an integrated study of the culture of early America.’ -Henry Francis du Pont, founder of Winterthur
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C. For information, 202-737-4215. Winterthur is on Route 52, six miles northeast of Wilmington, Del., off I-95. For information, 800-448-3883.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm