Published: July 16, 2002
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – Discover examples of superb Eighteenth Century American craftsmanship in silver and gold and learn about the political, economic, social and religious life in New York around the time of the Revolutionary War with a visit to the exhibition “Myer Myers: ,” on view at Winterthur.
More than 100 works in silver and gold crafted by Myer Myers (1723-95), an early American patriot, artisan and Jewish community leader, are on view through September 8. In addition to pieces created by Myers, the exhibition features nearly 50 other objects that help place him in context of the times in which he lived. Winterthur is the final venue for “Myer Myers,” which was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery.
Like Paul Revere, Myers was one of the most highly respected merchant-artisans of his time. The exhibition traces Myers’s development as an artist, examines the influence of important patrons, explores his role in the Jewish community and presents a history of the silver trade in Eighteenth Century America.
Myers was the most productive silversmith working in New York in the mid-to-late 1700s, and his ritual and secular silver is the largest body of existing work by a Jewish silversmith from anywhere in Europe or America prior to the Nineteenth Century.
Myers became the dominant figure in a large, well established community of silversmiths that included native craftsmen of Dutch, Huguenot and English ancestry as well as European immigrants. His renown as an artisan came from his ability to execute superb custom-order work for the wealthiest patrons, as well as generate a steady income by with more modest forms of hollowware and flatware for a larger, less affluent clientele.
Between 1750 and 1775, Myers’s New York workshop was one of the few that supplied such labor-intensive, richly ornamented forms as candlesticks, pierced bread baskets, covered jugs and cruet stands. But Myers alone produced specialized work such as Torah finials or rimonim, removable ornaments placed over the upper end of the rollers of the Torah scroll. These elaborate religious objects signify the importance of the Torah, or scripture, reading in Jewish services. Since ancient times, pierced pomegranate shaped globes, tiers of gilded bells and crowns are typical elements of Torah finials.
“Myers’s Torah finials are unique examples of Eighteenth Century American Jewish silver,” writes David L. Barquist, associate curator of American decorative arts at Yale University Art Gallery and curator of the exhibition. “They are also among the most extraordinary precious metal objects produced in Colonial America.
“Myers’s success as a silversmith,” Barquist continues, “was the result of his talents not only as a craftsman but also as an entrepreneur who marshaled the skills of other craftsmen and specialists. As a Jew, and thus an outsider in the craft, he may also have been more inclined than his Christian competitors to seek out new business opportunities and explore innovative strategies.”
The main section of this exhibition explores Myers’s stylistic development and the ways his patrons, represented by their portraits, influenced his choices. Another section addresses the Jewish communities of New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I., to which Myers was connected through the kinship network of his own family.
Myers had strong Philadelphia connections through his marriage, as well as religious and business ties. His first wife’s sister married Bernard Gratz, founding trustee of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. One pair of Torah finials on display is believed to have been commissioned by members of that congregation in the late 1700s for their newly formed synagogue.
The third section examines the organization of the silversmith’s trade in New York in the 1700s. It highlights issues such as apprenticeship, specialist artisans working in Myers’s shop, his competitors, the retailing of products and the differences between objects made in England and America.
A fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. Included are essays by David L. Barquist, “That Noted and Proficient Mechanic’: The Life and Career of Myer Myers”; Jon Butler, William Robertson Coe Professor of American History and professor of religious studies and history at Yale University, “The New York World of Myer Myers”; and Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University, “Colonial Judaism.” The catalog is available in soft cover ($35) and hardcover ($60) at the Winterthur Museum Stores or by calling 800-448-3883, extension 4741.
Drawing from objects in the Winterthur’s collection, Donald L. Fennimore, senior curator of metals at the museum, has organized a small supplementary exhibition of Myer Myers pieces, on view during this period. The display includes two Twentieth Century fakes — a cream pot and Torah pointer with maker’s marks falsely attributed to Myer Myers — that show how desirable early American silver has become.
Winterthur is on Route 52. For information, 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org.
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