Friday, November 06, 2015

19th Century Mourning Embroideries Currently on Display

Included in the new exhibition “Georgia’s Girlhood Embroidery: ‘Crowned with Glory and Immortality’” (on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through Feb. 28, 2016; co-organized by Kathleen Staples and Dale Couch) are three mourning samplers, which are somewhat unusual. Exhibited just outside the gallery is Mary Jane Smithey’s silk mourning embroidery picture, which combines watercolor painting with embroidery done in silk floss on a plain silk background. Smithey’s work is characteristic of the type of mourning embroideries done during the Federal period and the decades immediately following. Samplers, on the other hand, were preferred for instructional, rather than commemorative purposes, yet, as the three examples in our exhibition show, it was not unheard of for a schoolgirl or even an adult woman to make an embroidered record of her loss using counted thread techniques rather than the graceful couched satin stitches that filled out the drawn-on outlines of most mourning embroideries.

Smithey’s embroidery shows two neoclassical urns, graced by mourning women, in front of a church in a pastoral landscape. One urn, by which Mary Jane herself seems to be depicted, honors her father, Robert Scott Smithey; the other urn, beside which an unidentified women sits, honors her maternal grandparents, William and Mary Hewlett. Completed around 1825, Smithey’s embroidery is a typical example of schoolgirl mourning embroideries. Either she or her instructor would have drawn on the design and painted in the faces and other details, as well as the background, while Smithey would have embroidered the larger features in couching stitch, French knots and outline, single, and split stitches using silk thread for the majority of the design and silk chenille for the leaves. Smithey’s embroidery reflects both the neoclassical style and the “cult of mourning” popular in her day. Unlike the memorial embroideries on display as part of the exhibition, Smithey’s embroidery was made in Richmond, Virginia, and brought to Georgia by her daughter in 1860.

Mary Jane Smithey's memorial to her father and grandparents

Caroline Broughton Fabian, a wealthy planter’s daughter from St. Simons Island, Georgia, also followed popular fashion with her mourning sampler, dedicated to the memory of George Washington and dated October 8, 1803. After Washington’s death, it became popular for schoolgirls to commemorate him in mourning embroideries as an exercise in patriotism. What is unusual about Fabian’s embroidery is its format. Most Washington memorials were done in the style of Smithey’s embroidery, instead of as part of a counted thread instructional sampler. Fabian’s sampler begins with the alphabet, as is usual for instructional samplers, but then goes on to include the following verse:

Columbia’s fair daughters forever shall mourn
While Genius stands weeping at Washington’s Urn.
Let hope still support you, fair daughters arise
In faith that your Washington’s soar’d to the skies,
Where still as your guardian he’ll ever preside
To virtue and goodness the pole star and guide.

Davida Deutsch identified this verse as being first anonymously published on July 15, 1800, in the New Hampshire Gazette, and its appearance on a south Georgia sampler is evidence of the wide diffusion of ideas and literature in the Federal period. Fabian goes on to note proudly that it has been 28 years since American independence, and that the sampler was made in the “State of Georgia.”

Caroline Broughton Fabian's sampler

The combination instructional sampler/memorial to the deceased is also found in a sampler by an unidentified maker that combines the alphabet with an embroidered epitaph to Joseph Smith, who died in 1840 in Decatur County, located in southwest Georgia. His family’s names are also included on the sampler (his wife Nancy Ann Smith, his son Francis Marion Smith, and his daughter Martha Washington Smith) as well as the initials of some yet to be identified relatives, making this sampler a family record as well. Smith's epitaph is flanked by two cross-stitched weeping willows, which symbolize mourning. It is probable that either Smith’s wife or his daughter made this instructional/memorial/family record sampler.

Memorial to Joseph Smith

A more elaborate example of the memorial tribute sampler is the “Tribute to the Memory of Cosmo P. Richardsone,” made in 1852 in Savannah to honor the late Dr. Richardsone, who was known as the best doctor in Savannah. Upon his death, Henry Rootes Jackson, a politician and well-known poet, composed a poem in his honor. It is unknown who copied that poem onto this memorial sampler, but likely suspects are Richardsone’s widow, Elizabeth, or his daughter Margaret. The careful use of punctuation, unusual in samplers, suggests that it was copied directly from the original manuscript, and the use of brightly dyed wool thread instead of silk is typical of needlework done after 1850.

Memorial to Cosmo Richardsone


Monday, October 26, 2015

Gio Ponti: Artist, Architect, Writer, Designer, and Visionary

The Georgia Museum of Art recently acquired four plates and a platter designed by Gio Ponti (1891–1979) a famous Milanese architect and designer. Ponti worked as the artistic director and designer for the Florentine firm Richard-Ginori, which manufactured ceramics, from 1923 to 1938: this served as the beginning of his long career designing other household and decorative items, such as furniture, glassware and silverware. He also designed apartment buildings, palazzos and public buildings of all types, including business towers and university buildings. He was the editor and founder of both Domus and Stile magazines, dedicated to Italian architecture and the decorative arts, and he served as professor of architecture at Politecnico di Milano University for 25 years.

Typical of Italian decorative arts in the 1920s and 1930s, Ponti appears to have been inspired by ancient classical artwork, in this case Etruscan. Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime encouraged a conscious return to Italy’s ancient roots, seeking to instill in all Italians a pride in their heritage and a belief that they were destined to rebuild the ancient Roman Empire. Although Ponti engaged with the Fascist regime and shared its appreciation for classical culture, he was essentially apolitical.

Ponti also appears to have been inspired by scenes from contemporary life, as the charming circus figures on these platters show. Later in his career, he became known for his sleek, modern designs, such as his Superleggera furniture and the Pirelli Tower. An artist and visionary of extraordinary versatility, Ponti’s life and work will be highlighted in an upcoming summer 2017 exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, which will focus on his furniture design.

For more information about Gio Ponti and his art: 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Exhibition: “Before the March King: 19th-Century American Bands”

"Grandfather of the March King", Patrick Gilmore (1829 - 1892)

The Georgia Museum of Art opened a new exhibition to the public last week, “Before the March King: 19th-Century American Bands.” The exhibition focuses on American bands in the era before the “March King,” John Philip Sousa, and is open until the beginning of the year (Jan. 3, 2016).

The exhibition features many portraits of famous band directors, woodwind and brass instruments, non-military local bands and artifacts such as broadsides advertising performances by local bands and national events. Famous band directors featured in this exhibition range from cornet player Alonzo Ford to the “Grandfather of the March King,” Patrick S. Gilmore, who was an inspiration to Sousa.

Stereoscopic view of a concert hall conducted by Patrick Gilmore in Brooklyn, NY.

Instruments displayed in the exhibition include bugles, cornets, euphoniums and over-the-shoulder horns. The exhibition has a variety of photographic portraits that show the many types of bands that played in the early to late 19th century, such as military, newsboy and all-female bands. Artifacts include souvenirs from the National Peace Jubilee in 1869 and the World Peace Jubilee of 1872 (conducted by Gilmore) and sheet music covers.

An All-Female Band in the 19th-Century

All the objects in the exhibition come from the collection of UGA Performing Arts Center director George C. Foreman, who will give a gallery tour of it this Thursday (October 22). The public is invited to attend this free event, with champagne, coffee and cake at 5 p.m. and the tour at 6 p.m.

Friday, October 16, 2015

"In Time We Shall Know Ourselves": The Photographs of Raymond Smith

On Oct. 24, Raymond Smith’s iconic photographs of his 1974 summer journey through the American South will go on display here at the Georgia Museum of Art. Smith is most certainly in the tradition of James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” with his honest portraits of southerners who look us at head-on, retaining their inherent dignity, yet his corpus is considerably more diverse than Agee’s.
Fotomat Girl, Louisville, Kentucky 

While Agee focused on the families of three white Alabama tenant farmers during the Great Depression, Smith’s subjects include both African American and white people of all ages and professions, in locations ranging from Boston, Massachusetts, to Orlando, Florida. In a way, Smith’s photographs display the New South as it was immediately following the civil rights movement, a world where blacks and whites now co-existed in the same spaces on a more equal footing, but also a world in which more insidious forms of racial divisions and inequalities remained.
                                                          Bourbon Street, New Orleans 
Smith chose the title of this exhibition from words he saw on a church marquee in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, that fateful summer. Smith points out that they are particularly relevant as it took 40 years from the year in which he took the photographs until their publication and exhibition. The people of his photographs and the social conditions of the American South seem clearer to him 40 years later, and he notes that the people themselves, if still alive, will have a better understanding of themselves that comes through years of experience and maturity.

Self-Portrait, Motel Room, Williamsburg, Virginia

“In Time We Shall Know Ourselves” will be on display through Jan. 3, 2016. Visitors are encouraged to drop by and reflect on the themes of knowing, memory and reflection present in Smith’s work. A book by the same title, including both the photographs and scholarly essays, is available for purchase in the Museum Shop. On Nov 19, Smith will give a presentation on his work from 5:30-6:30 pm here at the Museum. 


Friday, October 09, 2015

Eleanor Nut McCain's Homespun Coverlet

Detail of the overshot coverlet

The Georgia Museum of Art recently received as a proposed gift an overshot coverlet, woven out of wool and cotton and dyed with indigo and madder. Like all overshot coverlets, it has a simple geometric pattern. The red, white and blue yarns as well as the striped pattern suggest both the American and the Confederate flags. It was woven in three separate pieces on a four-harness loom, and then the pieces were sewn together. From the style and the genealogical information provided by the donors, direct descendants of the original weaver, we can confidently say that this coverlet dates from the middle decades of the 19th century.

Eleanor Nut McCain is identified by a piece of cloth sewn onto the coverlet as its original maker. Genealogical information provided by her family tells us that she was born on May 2, 1818, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and died on July 25, 1899, in Gadsden, Alabama. The descendants who inherited this coverlet remained in Etowah County, Alabama (the location of Gadsden), until the second half of the 20th century.

It is unknown if Eleanor’s descendants are correct about her being the weaver of this coverlet, as most coverlets were made by professional male weavers who traveled from town to town, taking commissions from individual families. It could be that Eleanor merely commissioned the coverlet, and her descendants, upon inheriting “Grandma Eleanor’s handwoven coverlet,” assumed that she was the one who wove it. Several factors, however, speak strongly in the favor of Eleanor being the weaver. The simple geometric style of the coverlet tells us that it was woven on a four-harness loom, without the fashionable Jacquard attachment that was invented in 1820, as opposed to the kind of loom owned by a professional weaver. We also know that many southern women took up spinning and weaving during the days of the Civil War, as the blockades limited the amount of new fabric that could be imported. Homespun became a patriotic statement.

It would make sense if Eleanor McCain wove this coverlet at that time, as she would have likely been unable to purchase a new coverlet in the bellum atmosphere of scarcity. The colors of the coverlet are also the colors of the Confederate flag, which raises the possibility of the coverlet being made as an explicitly patriotic gesture. Dale Couch, the museum’s curator of decorative arts, points out that it could have expressed either Confederate sympathies or covert Union sympathies. Support for the Confederate cause was not universal, and some counties, Couch says, tried to secede from Alabama (as Jones County attempted in Mississippi).

It would only be natural for her children and grandchildren to treasure, pass down, and publicly exhibit this coverlet, which in their time was unfashionable, if their grandmother made it as a gesture of self-sufficiency and patriotism.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Still Life With Apples (1890)

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), an African American artist, was known internationally for his paintings that focus on spirituality and imagination. The son of a minister, Tanner often depicted biblical scenes, utilizing both his academic training and what he saw on his visits to the Middle East and Africa.

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the American Civil War. He enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1879, where he studied under Thomas Eakins. After Tanner made his debut in New York and opened an art studio in Philadelphia, he moved to Atlanta in 1889, initially to open a photography studio. His business was unsuccessful, but he later taught a course in drawing at Clark College (Clark Atlanta University). He would move to Paris the next year, due to racial discrimination in the United States. Tanner enrolled in the Academie Julian in Paris in 1891, studying under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He developed a looser, more poetic painting style in 1900, with which he rendered his travels around the world (Egypt, Algiers, Morocco, Jerusalem, etc.). Tanner made these journeys so that he could portray biblical figures and settings accurately.

The artist’s involvement in World War I and his wife’s death, in 1925, led him toward depression and altered his perspective on art in his later years. He would create less work that focused on biblical themes and more paintings of the war and portraits of African Americans such as Booker T. Washington; these later paintings stayed in his private collection. Tanner’s influence on other artists, especially African Americans, was notable, and he received many awards over the course of his life.

The Georgia Museum of Art owns a painting by Tanner, “Still Life with Apples” (1890), donated to its collection by Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson (along with other works of art by African Americans). Created before Tanner left the United States, it uses dark colors in the background to emphasize the light on the apples in the foreground. Other works by Tanner are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Des Moines Art Center; the Cincinnati Art Museum; PAFA and many more.