Published: August 5, 2008
The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will present “House Proud: Nineteenth Century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection,” an exhibition that examines the evolution of the domestic interior in Nineteenth Century interior watercolors. On view in the first-floor galleries, “House Proud” features 71 watercolor drawings, alongside selected objects from the museum’s collection of wallpapers, textiles, ceramics and furniture. The exhibition is organized by Gail S. Davidson, curator and head of the drawings, prints and graphic design department, and associate curator Floramae McCarron-Cates.
“House Proud” explores the concept of the house and its interior spaces as a source of pride, convenience and personal status, which originated in the Nineteenth Century as a result of the rising bourgeoisie, the development of a consumer economy, the industrial revolution and the emergence of the woman as guardian of the house.
With this glorification of the home, the commissioning of watercolors to document newly constructed or renovated domestic interiors developed among European royalty, nobility and the upper-middle class. The drawings †executed by both amateur artists and professional watercolor painters †were collected in albums as heirlooms, presented as gifts to betrothed children or visiting royalty or displayed in drawing rooms to impress invited company.
The Thaw collection spans the entire Nineteenth Century and includes examples of English, German, Russian, French, Italian and Austrian domestic spaces, with work by such watercolor artists as Charlotte Bosanquet (1790‱852), Eduard Gaertner (1801‱877), Franz Xaver Nachtmann (1799‱846) and Rudolph von Alt (1812‱905).
Through these works, the exhibition reconstructs the evolution of interior design in the Nineteenth Century home and explores how the interior spaces reflected the impact of social, cultural, economic and political developments. A cross section of interior design styles will be represented, offering substantial documentation of contemporary taste and revealing new information about collecting patterns, style movements and the display an arrangement of objects, textiles and other furnishings.
“The watercolors are the most important gift to the museum’s drawings, prints and graphic design department in 30 years and will provide an invaluable reference for all four of the museum’s collecting departments,” said director Paul Warwick Thompson. “The drawings will allow a fuller reading of the Nineteenth Century objects in the museum’s collection, heighten interdepartmental connections and inform and stimulate new acquisitions across the museum.”
The watercolors meticulously detail the furnishings of the Nineteenth Century interior, providing a window into a range of settings, from palatial halls, salons and bedrooms to humble artist studios and university rooms. Visitors will be encouraged to study the watercolors with magnifying glasses, in order to peer into the domestic spaces and study the objects d’art, collectables and furnishings of the period. In each gallery, select objects from the permanent collection will be paired with corresponding objects depicted in the drawings.
Organized according to the development of the domestic interior, the exhibition will begin with formal salons in royal palaces and country homes, including some residences with Chinese wall coverings, ceramics and furniture, showing the influence of exotic cultures on Western European taste. Also on view will be salons reflecting the revival of period styles, including neoclassicism, gothic and rococo revival, which encouraged continual cycles of decorating and redecorating. These watercolor interiors were often reproduced in books and popular media, influencing middle-class consumers to take direction in their own furnishings from the aristocratic palaces and country estates.
The second gallery will focus on interior views of the drawing room, where the most money an attention was lavished in an effort to impress visitors, and the winter garden, which developed concurrently with the growing fascination with botany and the cultivation of plants.
The third gallery will feature watercolors demonstrating the rise of gender-specific rooms, including libraries, sitting rooms and bedrooms. A fourth gallery will feature such activity-based interiors as music rooms an artists’ studios.
A 192-page, full-color catalog, published by Cooper-Hewitt; accompanies the exhibition.
Cooper-Hewitt is at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-849-8300 or www.cooperhewitt.org .
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