Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Mint Museum of Art

Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Charlotte, NC



On the Surface: Late 19th Century Decorative Arts

May 26 - August 12, 2001


The embellished surface was the defining element of late nineteenth century American decorative arts. Cabinetmakers covered their objects with inlays and marquetry that glowed like the walls of a Persian mosque. Silversmiths hammered delicate reliefs of sunflowers and chrysanthemums into the bodies of coffeepots and serving pieces. Walls appeared to bloom with paper gardens of wildflowers and floors were covered with woven images of acanthus leaves and intricate arabesque patterns. The bodies of ceramic wares became highly pictorial, much like a painted canvas, with their images of dazzling floral bouquets or scenes of a nation's natural beauty. Everything of visual beauty was literally and exuberantly reproduced "on the surface." (left: Tiffany & Company, Chrysanthenum Service, Right: detail of Tiffany & Company, Chrysanthenum Service)

The exquisite patterns and surface ornamentation that were an integral part of the aesthetics of the late Victorian era, the Aesthetic Movement and the early Arts and Crafts Movement, are featured in the exhibition On the Surface: Late Nineteenth Century Decorative Arts, May 26th through August 12th at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Art. The exhibition and catalogue present a unique opportunity to explore the artful, and oftentimes highly fanciful, treatment of surfaces created by late nineteenth century artists and craftsmen in response to social, cultural and aesthetic exchanges that developed across the globe between 1870 and 1900. (left: Pickard, China Pitcher, c. 1895-98)

It was an age of visual and sensory indulgences that embraced perceptions of the 'exotic' while promoting the beauty of a handcrafted and hand-finished object. In America, these developments were incorporated into the themes of national expositions and artistic movements as cottage industries grew and productivity in the decorative arts flourished.

"The exhibition explores the central issues and movements that contributed to a public passion for the highly embellished surfaces that invaded the late decades of the nineteenth century" stated Dr. Barbara Ferry, Mint curator of Decorative Arts. "On the Surface brings together outstanding examples of furniture, ceramics, glass, silver and textile design that demonstrate the great talent and entrepreneurial spirit of America's creative forces of this era."

Exhibition highlights include a previously undocumented Adelaide Alsop Robineau porcelain Covered Jar; a stunning (22.5"h x 15") Dragon Vase, created in l892 by Rookwood Pottery decorator Kataro Shirayamadani; a William Morris and Company wooven wool Panel from 1878-79; an electroplated silver Tilt-top Table designed by Frank Shaw for Tiffany and Company; a Herter Brothers Side Chair produced in 1881; and an exquisite cut lead glass Sultana Punch Bowl made by Blackmer Cut Glass Company in 1898. Loans to the exhibition come from outstanding private and public decorative arts collections, including the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Columbia (SC) Museum of Art, Corning Museum of Glass, Dallas Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Oakland Museum of Art, and the Toledo Museum of Art. (left: H. L. Blackmer Cut Glass Company, Sultana Punch Bowl, 1898)

"The late Victorian style was not so much one of form, but rather of decoration, ornamentation and embellishment," remarked Perry. "Surface ornamentation was the name of the game. During the last three decades of the 19th century, there was a change in sensibility that resulted in new stylistic approaches in American decorative arts, a departure from the previous era of Rococo and Renaissance Revival excess"

Shapes became more angular, smoother and less flamboyant. The popular carvings and deep modeling of earlier years disappeared as ornamentation became more linear and lighter in appearance. Decoration focused on the surface with rich and elegant patterns adorning furniture, objects of every sort, and architectural and interior decorations. An abundance of vines, chrysanthemums, rosettes, acanthus leaves, sunflowers, cherubs, eagles, lizards, fish, seashells, and insects all graced the surfaces of objects. Carpets, upholstery, draperies, and furnishings displayed a profusion of ornamentation. Nothing escaped the decorator's design or consideration. (left: Gorham Manufacturing Company, Travel Curling Iron)

Styles were just as prolific with more than a hint of the exotic. Attention shifted to Japanese, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and even Mesoamerican motifs while references to the classic, gothic, and renaissance eras remained popular, although under a new guise. These were freely intermingled, often creating something quite indescribable yet, more often than not, completely successful. The overall effect usually resulted in a sense of the exotic and the dramatic, albeit with much more restraint in comparison to the early years of the century. Colors were lighter and subtle. Decorative motifs shifted to flat, conventionalized (stylized) designs. The overall effect was a refreshing departure from the dark, heavy interiors that were so common around the mid-nineteenth century. (left: Adelaide Alsop Robineau, Covered Jar, 1928, porcelain)

This artistic reawakening was prompted by effects of the industrial revolution on contemporary design. When objects were mass-produced, the machine was often allowed to run amok, churning out overly decorated objects whose surface ornamentation camouflaged basic design flaws. And yet, lower-priced goods allowed the growing middle class to fill their homes with artful objects much like the wealthy upper class had done. These factors of over production and poor design contributed to a revolution in taste and aesthetic values.

This new attitude, with its focus on ornament and the decorative, is now referred to as the Aesthetic Movement, but also encompasses the early Arts and Crafts Movement as well. The purpose of this movement was to bring a refined sensibility and components of "good taste" (an important term by its adherents) to the domestic interior. This was an art of the home and signifier of good living that conveyed a certain moral undertone. Art and good taste not only denoted good character, but also could be used to induce proper moral conduct and actions. In other words, an acceptable aesthetic environment contributed to the moral betterment of society. This placed a heavy burden on the designers/decorators as well as on women as keepers of the home. (left: Herter Brothers, Side Chair, 1881)

Americans drew inspiration from the writing and work of English artists Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and especially William Morris (1834-1896). Morris advocated "nature and history" as design motifs. Another influence was Charles Locke Eastlake, whose directive on proper decoration entitled Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details, examined the entire house, giving opinions on matters of taste and design for everything from carpets and pottery to wallpaper and dining rooms.

It is obvious that this was a period of great eclecticism. Tastes ranged from the Modern Gothic through the Persian, Greek and Islamic to the Japanese, with more than a nod to Mother Nature and Uncle Sam. Yet regardless of the influence, surface pattern reigned supreme. In a single room setting, different but interrelated patterns would be found on dados, walls, in draperies (including portieres), carpets, upholstery, furniture, tea sets, vases, pianos and any other object deemed part of the coordinated design scheme. English reformers dictated that ornament should be derived from nature and pattern should be flat and stylized. Forms were accented by colored outlines, or often with touches of gold, with. the colors subdued. It was really a style of interior decoration, an attempt to bring unity and elegance to the contemporary home. The emphasis was on art and on the development of a refined sensibility. It was all a matter of taste. (left: Unknown Maker, Pedestal, c. 1875)


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