Published: November 3, 2011
Bold graphics and subtle complexity, with every permutation between, distinguish American quilts produced in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. They span the arc between the purely functional and fine art, and speak much about their makers and their community.
A new exhibit at the Newark Museum, “Patchwork from Folk Art to Fine Art,” is drawn from the museum’s impressive collection of more than 150 quilts, including many exquisite examples that have never been displayed publicly. The exhibition remains on view through the end of December.
Of the examples on view, half have New Jersey associations; each is distinctive. The exhibit is compact, only 30 quilts, but is a comprehensive timeline of the American patchwork quilt and its influences. It affords a close look at the art of quilting, its social implications, history and contemporary interpretations. Moreover, “Patchwork” allows contemplation of whether distinction between needlewoman or needleworker and artist exists.
The quilts on view reveal much about the makers and about the museum that houses them. The exhibit incorporates the stories related to each quilt, emphasizing the human connection behind each one.
That the Newark Museum has such a collection is attributable to its far-sighted founder, John Cotton Dana, who arrived in Newark in 1902 to run the Newark Free Public Library, which he made a centerpiece of the city. He devoted space in the library to art exhibits, persuading citizens to loan art from their collections for public display. In a mere seven years he mounted more than 50 exhibits, drawing some 250,000 visitors.
His establishment of the museum in 1909 was with the aim of creating an institution that would be useful to the community †to promote the appreciation and understanding of the arts and sciences. He began collecting objects for the museum, adding quilts as early as 1918. Several of his purchases were made at the Woodstock Crafts Shop in his native Woodstock, Vt.
Dana gathered American art and established the museum’s Tibetan art collection. The museum, one of the first institutions to recognize folk art as fine art, opened its doors at its current location in 1926.
Beatrice Winser, Dana’s assistant and, like him, a social progressive, became director of the museum after his death in 1929 and continued his legacy until 1947.
“Patchwork from Folk Art to Fine Art” curator Ulysses Grant Dietz, the curator of decorative arts at Newark, has expanded on Dana’s traditions in his 31 years at the museum and has added 39 more quilts. Under Dana’s tenure, 34 quilts were added.
The first quilt to enter the museum collections was a pieced homespun wool example made between 1800 and 1830 that Dana purchased in 1918. The unknown maker worked it in a starkly graphic variation of the Wild Goose Chase pattern; its cutout corners indicate that it was used on a four-poster bed. The Wild Goose Chase pattern was used in the Eighteenth Century, although few examples survive, and it was most popular in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Dana purchased a Delectable Mountain patchwork quilt in 1919 that had been made between 1840 and 1860 by unknown crafters. The name refers to John Bunyan’s description of the quest in Pilgrim’s Progress , “They went then till they came to the Delectable Mountains&” a religious interpretation as well as a celebration of the glory of the land.
In putting the exhibit together, Dietz chose examples emblematic of the collection; he also selected others that he said embody the early Twentieth Century notion of what a quilt is or should be. He points to the Wild Goose Chase quilt and the Delectable Mountain as examples of what was thought to be an ideal quilt back when Dana purchased them.
The earliest quilt on view is a Hexagonal Patch quilt top sewn with tiny stitches between 1792 and 1803 by mother and daughter Catherine and Susan Springer of New Castle, Del. The hexagonal patches were cut from a pattern and basted to a second pattern cut from newspapers. The newspapers from area towns used in this quilt date from 1792 to 1803 and they remain inside the quilt. Why the quilt remained unfinished after 11 years of effort is an intriguing but untold story.
While often viewed as a utilitarian object, the quilt is labor-intensive, but a labor of love and an expression of its makers’ creative impulse and skill. Quilts were made to commemorate an event or occasion, like a marriage, and required many hands. Needlework was a highly desirable skill in a young woman in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries as it was thought to teach patience, attentiveness and discipline.
Quilting was an acceptable way for a woman to interact with other women and exchange news and ideas outside the home. It also provided a means of creative and communal expression in times when women had no public voice and few legal rights. For some, quilts represented an avenue of political expression.
As beautiful as they are †and despite the effort required to create them †quilts are essentially impractical. Their complex designs often impinge on the efficiency of the quilt to trap warm air in its layers.
Early examples were made by hand, but by the late 1850s the sewing machine was available and quilts took on even more complex geometry and elaborate appliqué. Still, most quilts made between 1850 and 1940 were machine-stitched in the top design or borders or bindings, while the actual designs continued to be hand sewn.
A quilt made by Catherine Fitzgerald of Newark, circa 1840‱850, combines two traditional patterns: Princess Feather and Rising Sun. The quilt descended in Fitzgerald’s family and was donated to the museum in 1926. The Princess Feather pattern is said to derive from the prince’s feather, the three feathers of the order of the Prince of Wales.
The Star of LeMoyne quilt, circa 1860, was made by Maria Washington Layfield Miller of Newark of more than 1,000 tiny diamond-shaped patches to form 38 eight pointed stars. The pattern requires meticulous needlework and great patience to make it work. Miller was the mother of an Episcopal minister in Newark. The pattern, known in New England as Lemon Star, refers to the two brothers Pierre and Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, who settled in Louisiana in 1699 and each later served as governor.
Album quilts began to appear in the mid-Nineteenth Century, most designed to commemorate important events. An 1867 appliqué cotton example memorializes the Hurley family of Wall, N.J. It may have been made as a tribute from the six Hurley children to their parents.
The late Nineteenth Century saw the appearance of the Crazy Quilt, a purely decorative patchwork of silk, satin and velvet with elaborate needlework. Its very name alludes to the freedom from Victorian convention it allowed. The Crazy Quilt was inspired by Japanese design and often celebrated sentimental aspects of America.
Dietz has included two quilts made in India by Siddi people descended from African immigrants to India and African slaves brought to Goa by Portuguese colonists in the Sixteenth Century. Only the Siddi maintain the tradition of patchwork quilting in India, and their quilts are carefully designed and vividly colored. These two are displayed near two African American quilts, and comparison of the four indicates some common textile tradition from the African continent.
The African American examples were made from wool in relatively subdued colors, while the Indian ones were made from discarded but brilliantly hued saris and other garments.
The Illinois Hired Man’s wool strip Crazy Quilt, circa 1940, is arranged in a design evocative of the jazz of its era. The African American Tied Center medallion quilt was made in Kansas City, Mo., circa 1925, also of wool, and bears African design elements.
A contemporary quilt commissioned by the museum is eminent artist Michael James’s 1985 “Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance,” an example of pure artistic expression. It is a prime example of the instinctive human need to make art.
The contemporary “Midtown Direct” by artist Teresa Barkley is a commentary of the effect on commuters of the introduction of direct railroad service from New Jersey to New York City. It reflects the views the artist experiences on her commute to and from her New Jersey home. Made between 1998 and 2006, the quilt incorporates strips cut from towels used aboard Pullman cars in the 1930s.
A smaller, complementary exhibit, “The Global Art of Patchwork: Asia and Africa” explores patchwork traditions outside the world of quilts, including works from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Japan, Korea, India, Nigeria, Sudan and Tibet. The objects are drawn from the Newark Museum’s collections and provide a global perspective for the art of patchwork textiles.
The Newark Museum is at 49 Washington Street. For information, www.newarkmuseum.org or 973-596-6550.
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