Published: March 13, 2007
The Concord Museum has long been a magnet for antiquarians and other lovers of American history. Founded in 1886 as the Concord Antiquarian Society, it was well known to the earliest antiquers, from collector George Sheldon to the popular writers Esther Singleton and Elizabeth and Robert Shackleton.
Home to Paul Revere’s lantern, Henry David Thoreau’s desk and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, the museum was among the first to show American antiques in period-room settings. Wallace Nutting photographed the furniture-rich collection in 1912, pronouncing it “very notably good.”
David F. Wood, the Concord Museum’s curator for the past two decades, says he still marvels at the prescience with which Cummings Davis (1816‱896), a far from wealthy or highly educated man, amassed a first-rate assortment of artifacts made and used in Concord, a small town 19 miles northwest of Boston that has loomed large in American political and cultural life. A hatching ground for patriots in the 1770s, less than a century later Concord became a gathering spot for famous writers, from Emerson and Thoreau to Louisa May Alcott.
During his tenure, Wood has made important strides in documenting Concord’s cabinetmaking shops. To his knowledge, about seven were active in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. He has studied Concord clocks, an important local industry between 1795 and 1825, and investigated the career of Concord silversmith Samuel Bartlett (1752‱821).
In his recently published book, An Observant Eye: The Thoreau Collection at the Concord Museum, Wood credits Thoreau, best known for his back-to-earth paean Walden, with taking a material-culture approach to the study of objects a century before the discipline was formally defined by historians. Thoreau, the curator believes, directly influenced the collecting habits of his friend Cummings Davis.
Davis might have been surprised by the museum’s temporary exhibition, “A Splash of Blue,” which seems more akin to aesthete Henry Davis Sleeper’s intuitive explorations of color at Beauport, his house up the road in Gloucester, Mass.
On view through April 29, “A Splash of Blue” features 100 works of art in all media that share one common attribute: they are blue. The American Folk Art Museum in New York presented a similar show, “Blue,” in 2004′005. Both exhibitions draw on the research of the French scholar Michel Pastoureau, whose Blue: The History of A Color was published in Paris in 2000 and was reissued in English by Princeton University Press in 2001.
Pastoureau took a cross-disciplinary approach to his subject, looking at it from the multiple perspectives of science, technology, economics, politics and culture. In the end, the question partly comes down to linguistics. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “blue is blue is blue.” But what is blue? As the Concord Museum confirms, there are many answers, and none.
“Blue is not mentioned by the Greeks. Homer describes the sea as wine dark. Blue today is considered a ‘cool’ color, but in other times it has been viewed as ‘warm,'” Wood says on a recent tour of the two-room exhibit in the museum’s new wing, designed by Cambridge, Mass., architect Graham Gund and completed in 1991.
Because of imprecise language and the rarity of blue in Greek and Roman art, experts have even wondered if the ancients could see blue. In Europe, blue lacked status compared to white, black and red until the Twelfth Century, when the Virgin Mary began to be depicted wearing blue. Blue gained respect by the middle of the Fourteenth Century.
Blue’s symbolic value changed over time, from dignified to moral to royal to romantic and patriotic. By the 1740s, blue, gray and black were common clothing colors. Blue got a big boost from the German writer Goethe, whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther created a fashion for blue coats and made blue the official color of Romantic movement. In the West, blue has been associated with melancholy ever since. A component of the flags of France, England and the United States, blue is also identified with political liberty and military might.
Blue is a favorite color for antiques collectors, who prize Historical Blue Staffordshire, Flow Blue porcelain and Blue Willow china. In some distant way, these ceramics derive from Chinese blue and white porcelain, perfected in the Fourteenth Century.
Chinese blue and white porcelain was exported in quantity to the West by the Fifteenth Century and was a popular staple of New England homes by the Nineteenth Century.
“A Splash of Blue” includes covered tureens, probably made for export in Ching-te Chen around 1820. They are hard-paste porcelain with cobalt decoration. A miniature tureen for a child was made about the same time of cobalt-decorated earthenware.
Delft, here represented by an English or Dutch apothecary jar of about 1750, was one European answer to Chinese blue and white porcelain. Another pottery inspired by Chinese trade goods is a French tin glazed earthenware tureen. It was made in Rouen around 1755.
Staffordshire was more common than Canton in early American homes. “A Splash of Blue” serves up an appealing selection of English pottery, from motto-inscribed children’s mugs to a Liverpool jug. Made for the American market, the vessel is transfer-printed with a portrait of George Washington and Masonic symbols.
Sandwich glass, an F.B. Norton & Company cobalt-decorated salt glazed stoneware jar of 1860‸0 and a Colonial Revival-era plate with a duck-egg blue border round out the assortment. The plate is from a service commissioned by Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar to commemorate the centennial of the most famous date in Concord history: April 19, 1775, when the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought. Worcester Porcelain Manufactory created the service, used at a dinner for President Ulysses S. Grant at Hoar’s home, now part of Concord Academy.
What cobalt is to ceramics, indigo is to textiles. Colorfast and resistant to fading, indigo-colored Calimanco and jacquard coverlets, homespun slipcovers and militia uniforms are all shown in “A Splash of Blue.”
A Masonic apron dating to 1798 belonged to Samuel Barrett Jr (1773‱825), who joined Concord’s Lodge in 1798. Its blue border symbolizes Freemasonry’s first three degrees, or stages, of initiation and knowledge. Bringing “A Splash of Blue” nearly up to the present is a circa 1969 beaded silk dress by Florentine designer Emilio Pucci.
Blue pigment was expensive in mid-Eighteenth Century America and typically used only for beams, doors and window surrounds. A rough-hewn door from Hampton, N.H., survives in the Concord Museum’s collection, its appealing powder blue surface is ornamented with hand-forged iron hardware.
The architectural fragment stands in understated contrast to an elegant tambour desk of circa 1795‱800. Based on its construction details, the desk is attributed to Boston cabinetmakers John Seymour (1738‱818) and Thomas Seymour (1771‱848). It has eggshell blue cubbyholes, as did many desks made by the Seymours, who were also fond of blue baize writing surfaces and blue drawer-lining paper.
Ruth Henshaw Bascom used pastels to create the luminously blue backgrounds of her profile portraits on paper, completed in the Concord area in the 1830s and 1840s. Likenesses of John White, Abraham Edwards and John Noyes Morse join landscapes, seascapes and interior views in the show.
In “Grandfather Emerson’s Bedroom,” Edward Waldo Forbes (1873‱969) used both cobalt and ultramarine pigments to depict the tranquil retreat of his grandfather, Concord writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forbes, who founded Harvard’s conservation laboratory, assembled a study collection of pigment samples that is among the most complete in existence.
Attributed to John Wesson, “The Old Middlesex Hotel,” an oil on canvas, shows the hotel, a former center of town life in Concord, as it appeared in 1840. The hotel was demolished in 1900.
“A Splash of Blue” would not be complete without a nod to the military. “The Battle of Gettysburg,” a lithograph on paper of 1881, salutes the Blue and the Gray, as Union and Confederate troops were known.
Button-up boots, fancifully decorated fans and paper-covered hat boxes round out this pretty presentation, which startles viewers with its sheer number of shades. Above all, “A Splash of Blue” reminds us that choosing a color has not always been as easy as selecting a paint chip. Science and technology dictated availability of dyes and pigments. Availability dictated price. Price dictated prestige.
From semiprecious lapis lazuli to the synthetic indigo of everyman’s Levi’s jeans, blue is a cultural construct formed by the intersection of science and commerce.
Visitors to “A Splash of Blue” should leave time to explore the Concord Museum’s period rooms, installed by collector and author Russell Kettell in 1930. The mid-Eighteenth Century chamber has period paneling painted a startling shade of blue. The six-gallery permanent exhibition “Why Concord?” explores the town’s history, from its earliest Native American settlements to its role in the Revolutionary War. Also considered are Concord’s cabinetmaking and clockmaking industries and its literary heritage.
In conjunction with “A Splash of Blue,” the Concord Museum plans a variety of programs. On March 18, from 2 to 3 pm, reenactor Guy Morin will explain the uniform, equipment and weaponry of a typical Massachusetts soldier in the 28th Massachusetts Infantry. “Indigo Blues,” a dyeing workshop conducted by museum educator and craftsperson Marilynn Raleigh, is scheduled for March 31 from 10 to 11:30 am.
The Concord Museum is at 200 Lexington Road. For information, 978-369-9763 or www.concordmuseum.org.
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