Published: March 14, 2006
The exhibition “White on White (and a little gray),” on view March 28-September 17, highlights America’s fascination with neoclassicism, which represented a dramatic shift in the decorative arts that was expressed in three distinct artforms – whitework textiles, print work embroideries and marble dust drawings. Dating from the Federal era through the end of the Nineteenth Century, this exhibition explores female responses to the classical aesthetic.
The American Folk Art Museum holds a collection of whitework textiles, executed in a variety of embroidery and stuff work techniques, that have never been shown together. Approximately ten bedcovers, selected by senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, are included – from the museum’s earliest example (dated 1796) to others made throughout the Nineteenth Century. They are augmented by elaborate monochromatic needleworks, known as print works, and 18 evocative marble dust drawings, often with classical references, from private and public collections. To accentuate the feminine participation in neoclassicism, there is also an intimate portrait by Ammi Phillips of a woman sitting at a table covered by an ornate embroidered whitework, a piece of hand stitched white lace wrapped around her finger.
Whitework bedcovers followed in a long tradition of whole-cloth quilts whose single-color top provided an opportunity to prominently display exquisite needlework. The term whitework describes several methods such as stuffing, cording and embroidered candlewicking, used to create elegant raised designs in white thread on white fabric. The range of dates found on whiteworks in the museum’s collection – 1796 to 1897 – indicates the enduring popularity of all-white bedcovers over the course of a century, and the persistence of classicism as an inspiration in the decorative arts.
Stuff work featured motifs that were outlined with quilting to create a cell and filled with batting inserted through the back. The raised motifs could be further accentuated by dense, flat quilting that emphasized the sculptural effects, “especially when viewed in the harsh and raking candlelight of the period,” notes Hollander.
Candlewicking referred to a whitework bedcover that wasembroidered with a thick, cotton roving of the type similar to thewicks of candles. The surface was embellished in a variety ofstitches, sometimes flat and others that left raised loops or knotson the surface. These loops might be cut and fluffed in a techniquecalled tufting.
At the turn of the Nineteenth Century, neoclassicism was also embraced in schoolgirl embroideries. A distinctive group of monochromatic memorials known as print work was executed exclusively in black or brown silk threads on white silk and satin fabrics. These embroideries were intended to imitate uncolored engravings using tiny seed stitches to simulate the stippling of the engraver’s tool. Underdrawings on the silk were often provided by professional artists and then embroidered by students.
In 1835, a new art known as Grecian painting (now referred to as marble dust or sandpaper drawing) was introduced in the book Artist, or Young Ladies’ Instructor in Ornamental Painting, Drawings, & c., by B.F. Gandee. The materials included sooty lampblack drawings on a board prepared with iridescent marble dust. By scratching through the charcoal with a sharp blade, forms emerged out of the darkness. Because they relied upon published images, multiple works have survived on such themes as Mount Vernon and Washington’s Tomb, Byron’s Dream, Ruins of Palmyra and The Magic Lake, examples of which are in the exhibition. Engravings after well-known works of art, notably Thomas Cole’s series “Voyage of Life,” also provided prototypes for marble dust interpretations.
The three artforms illustrate the enduring influence of vernacular interpretations of the classical ideal. The past remained the touchstone of aesthetic refinement throughout the Nineteenth Century and the female response was manifold. “The whiteness of white invoked the transcendence, purity and timelessness of classical antiquity. White became the perfect metaphor for the Age of Enlightenment,” comments Hollander.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53rd Street. For information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-265-1040.
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