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Reflections: Furniture, Silver, and Paintings in Early America

October 11­December 28, 2003

From the collection of the Caxambas Foundation in Florida comes this wonderful selection of early American paintings, furniture, and silver. The exhibition suggests how Americans experienced these objects in dimly lit homes between about 1630 and 1830, through the reflections of light from candles in mirrors or sunlight on silver.

Period furniture in the exhibition includes chests, chairs, tables, and mirrors. Also featured are paintings, predominately portraits, by such renowned early American artists as John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, John Smibert, and Thomas Sully. Silver objects include candlesticks, tapersticks, tankards, bowls, pots, tea, coffee, and chocolate wares, and plates. These objects were produced mostly during the eighteenth century both domestically and in England and graced early American homes. Furniture, silver, and paintings are displayed to show how light and its reflection was at a premium. The groups of objects focus on greater issues of use and functionality, as well as, historical significance and technique. By looking at the objects from the American past and reading the wall labels, the viewer may learn more about this past, in particular how these objects signified taste, wealth, and prestige for their original owners.

The word reflection in the title suggests many meanings. People engage in reflection when they contemplate an idea or remember something or someone from the past. Objects literally create reflection through their physical interaction with light. Finally, objects-whether shiny or not-are a reflection of the status and tastes of the owners.

Scientists, philosophers, architects, and craftspeople all considered the problem of light and reflection in the eighteenth century. Lighting the darkness was expensive and messy. Throughout this time, people used reflective materials for glitter and reflection to enhance light in a room. Benjamin Franklin even proposed daylight savings time to make better use of natural sunlight, thus preventing the extraordinary expense of artificial lighting from candles and oil lamps. By the end of the eighteenth century, several important technologies were in place to improve light output from traditional fuel sources of candles and oil.

Professor Ann Smart Martin's and her students in a year-long art history seminar selected and researched the objects and the period. This museum-training course provided students invaluable experience in many facets of mounting an exhibition.


Educational Programs

Thursday, October 16, 5:30 p.m. Elvehjem room L140
Ann Smart Martin, Stanley and Polly Stone Professor, Department of Art History, UW­Madison, slide-lecture "Through the Scholar's Looking Glass: Interpreting a Collection" Ann Smart Martin, scholar/curator for Reflections, examines the collection through a broad social and cultural lens. She discussed the exhibition themes of "reflection"-in several of its disparate meanings and show furniture, mirrors, silver, and portraits in a new light.
Thursday, October 23, 5:30 p.m.
Thomas H. Broman, associate professor, Department of History of Science, UW­Madison, lecture "Publicity, Sociability, and the Cultivation of Virtue in the Enlightenment," Elvehjem room L140 During the eighteenth century, a new understanding of virtue appeared that displaced the idea of virtue from its traditional associations with political engagement and military service. Instead, virtue became both a product of social intercourse and a code of behavioral norms for life in society. This talk explored how the Enlightenment ideal of sociability was linked to virtue, and how that ideal was articulated in the public forum of the periodical press.
Thursday, November 13, 5:30 p.m. Elvehjem room L140
Anne Verplanck, curator of prints and paintings, Winterthur Museum, slide-lecture "Reading the Clues on Canvas: Early American Portraits" Anne Verplanck encouraged the audience to look closely at American paintings, "reading" the paintings for clues about the sitters' age, gender, social position, family position, and aspirations. Such portraits are likenesses of early Americans who owned furniture and decorative arts like those in Reflections: Furniture, Silver, and Paintings in Early America . They were striking and important furnishings in sparse colonial homes.
Thursday, November 20, 5:30 p.m. Elvehjem Room L140
David L. Barquist, associate curator of American decorative arts, Yale University Art Gallery, slide-lecture "Looking Glasses in American, 1640­1840" The talk examined the subject matter from a variety of perspectives, including the technology of glass production, frame construction and styles, marketing the looking glass, and how they were used in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.



Highlights from the Chipstone Foundation

Running concurrently with the Reflections: Furniture, Silver, and Paintings in Early America exhibition is Highlights from the Chipstone Foundation.

The Chipstone Foundation has generously made a loan of 17 choice pieces of early American furniture to be displayed on the Elvehjem mezzanine through February 29, 2004. Included are works by New England cabinetmakers including desks, clocks, chairs, chests, tables, and cupboards. The earliest work on view is a Boston court cupboard, dated from 1670 to 1680 and the latest is a Philadelphia side chair, dated from 1800 to 1810. Each piece of furniture represents an exquisite bit of handmade history from colonial and federal America.

The Chipstone Foundation was organized in 1965 by Stanley Stone and Polly Mariner Stone of Fox Point, Wisconsin. To represent the culmination of their shared experiences in collecting American furniture, American historical prints, and early English pottery, they created the foundation with the purpose of preserving, interpreting, and enlarging their collection, while also stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.

The Stones began collecting American decorative arts in 1946, and by 1964 they decided that their collection should be published and exhibited. To that end, the foundation now publishes two annual journals (American Furniture and Ceramics in America) and has many of its objects on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum. With this display of highlights from the collection, the foundation continues its ongoing relationship with the Elvehjem Museum of Art that began with the 1999 exhibition Makers and Users: American Decorative Arts, 1630­1820 from the Chipstone Collection.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Elvehjem Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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