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American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840

April 3 - June 20, 2004


Brilliant colors and wild patterns will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum April 3 - June 20, 2004. Organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 features more than 200 of the most ornamental and emotionally engaging artifacts ever produced in this country, including furniture, textiles, costume, ceramics, glass, metals, paintings and prints. (right: New England, Chest over Drawers, 1825-40. painted wood. Courtesy, Folk Art Museum, Gift of Jean Lipman in honor of Cyril Irwin Nelson. Photo: Gavin Ashworth)

Scholars in the field have long categorized these colorful and playful artifacts as "folk," but during the period they were actually called "Fancy" and were mainstream designs for the 19th century homes of the middle class.

"American Fancy will be the most invigorating and visually stimulating exhibition yet in the Museum's new galleries," said MAM Director and CEO David Gordon. "The exciting and active exhibition design will allow visitors to experience Fancy for themselves."

The exhibition begins with a presentation of Fancy's 18th-century philosophical origins, before the concepts took form as Fancy goods in the 19th century. Additional topics covered include the surprising impact of the kaleidoscope on Fancy; the style's unparalleled role in the marketplace; and the delightful range of decorative and sculptural techniques used by makers of Fancy goods.

The exhibition captures the spirit of Fancy in a specially constructed audio-visual theater. In another section, a 12-foot, ever-changing kaleidoscopic image is projected onto the floor, encouraging visitors to see the relationship between the kaleidoscope and the quilts, furniture and glass designs it inspired. Another exhibition highlight is a two-story replica of a Fancy Store, filled with Fancy goods from the period. The exhibition's ambitious and innovative design does more than display historic decorative arts; it captures the feeling of the era. (right: New Hampshire or Vermont, Painter's Sample Box, 1840-60. painted wood. Lent by a private collection. Photo: Gavin Ashworth)

This exhibition reveals Fancy's remarkably broad appeal and its sophisticated origins. American Fancy is more than a simple story about an influential fashion in the arts -- Fancy was as much a worldview as it was a style. Literary and philosophical trends, dramatic social changes and scientific inventions all contributed to the spirit of Fancy. American Fancy explores these larger cultural manifestations and the way they mirrored the youthful optimism of the new nation.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book published by the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to Jon Prown, the foundation's executive director and chief curator, guest curator Priddy's scholarly approach is both timely and innovative. "More than any other decorative arts work to date, American Fancy incorporates a wide range of scholarly perspectives to explain not only what things looked like, but also why these artifacts looked the way they did and how they were perceived by their original makers and users." Employing an approach that is increasingly used in contemporary scholarship, the book integrates the research methods and analytical tools of diverse academic fields -- including art history, material culture studies, literary, intellectual and scientific history, and psychology -- to gain insight into Fancy and its relationship to early 19th-century American life.


Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chipstone Foundation

In 2001, the Milwaukee Art Museum embarked on collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation, a local non-profit institution dedicated to promoting scholarship in the American decorative arts. The Museum and Chipstone staffs joined forces to create innovative displays in the American Collections galleries at the Museum, drawing on the collections of both institutions. The decorative arts team mounts three exhibitions per year in the Museum's Decorative Arts Gallery, and develops large-scale exhibitions such as American Fancy in the Museum's Baker/Rowland Galleries.

The Chipstone Foundation was founded in 1968 by Milwaukee department store magnate Stanley Stone and his wife Polly Mariner Stone. The Foundation continues to add to the Stones' collection of American furniture, British pottery, and American maps and prints. In addition, they publish two annual scholarly journals: American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite, and Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter. The foundation also promotes scholarship in the decorative arts by sponsoring a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and granting funds for research projects.


Organization and Tour

The exhibition is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation. American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 is guest curated by Sumpter T. Priddy III. A scholar and antiques dealer, Priddy lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The project, including the exhibition and the accompanying publication, is the result of his 25-year study of Fancy. The exhibition travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, July 14 - October 31, 2004 and the Maryland Historical Society, December 3, 2004 - March 20, 2005. The exhibition is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.



In conjunction with the exhibition, the Chipstone Foundation is publishing American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 by Sumpter T. Priddy, III. This 250-page book, with full color photography is available in the Milwaukee Art Museum Store.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Milwaukee Art Museum 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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