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American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790-1840

December 4, 2004 - March 20, 2005



(above: Fireman's hat, ca.1850, probably Philadelphia, painted and gilt felt. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum)


The Maryland Historical Society hosts the groundbreaking exhibition American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790 - 1840 December 4, 2004 through March 20, 2005. Curated by Sumpter Priddy III, American Fancy brings together, for the first time, many of the finest objects of the 19th century artistic movement known as "Fancy" from some of the nation's leading museums and private collections, including the Maryland Historical Society. (right: Jug [cat's eye, England, ca. 1835], slip-cast and slip decorated earthenware. Private Collection)

American Fancy captivates audiences with more than 200 examples of the visually stimulating, ornately patterned, and engaging fine arts and domestic objects embodying the "Fancy" style. Characterized by light, color, motion, novelty, variety, and wit, the style identifies its relationship with important cultural developments and beliefs in early 19th-century America. Fancy objects in the exhibition include furniture, ceramics, textiles, metals, glass, paintings, and prints purposefully designed to stimulate the senses, stir the emotion, and please the eye.

Of the more than 60 pieces of Fancy furniture in the exhibition, visitors will find several brilliantly-colored painted furniture pieces produced by John and Hugh Finlay (Baltimore 1805-1820) from the Maryland Historical Society collection. The spirited textiles in the American Fancy exhibition also include an early 19th Kaleidoscope quilt from the Maryland Historical Society collection, further emphasizing the state's role in this new and exciting era of consumer culture.


History of Fancy

The early 19th century was an age in which the delights of the imagination held sway over popular taste. Young America was fascinated with the visual and its application to everyday objects. This fascination led to a dramatic and widespread aesthetic change-an outburst of creativity and desire to make the objects of everyday life visually and emotionally engaging and expressive."Fancy" objects, decorated with bold patterns, brilliant colors, and animated forms, were used in nearly every aspect of life -- from domestic baking tools to public parade uniforms and shop signs. While scholars have often categorized these colorful and playful artifacts as "folk art," American Fancy examines these goods as part of mainstream, urban, upper- and middle-class style and material culture. Furniture, ceramics, textiles, metals, glass and paintings, were purposefully designed to activate the senses and express distinct literary, philosophic, and political views. (left: Side chair, 1815, John and Hugh Finlay, Baltimore, painted poplar, maple and walnut. Lent by the MD Historical Society)


Exhibition Highlights

The exhibition's innovative design does more than display historic decorative arts; it captures the feeling of the era and allows the audience to experience the spirit of "Fancy". American Fancy begins with a presentation of the style's 18th-century philosophical origins, before the concepts were translated into goods in the 19th century, and follows the evolution of the movement as well as the reasons it ended. (right: Sumpter Priddy III, curator of American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840)

Additional topics covered include the surprising impact of the kaleidoscope on "Fancy"; the style's unparalleled role in the marketplace; and the range of decorative and sculptural techniques used by makers of "Fancy" goods. Utilizing the technology of today, the exhibition includes a specially constructed audio-visual theater and two media stations to provide an interactive experience for visitors.


Exhibition Background

Curated by Sumpter Priddy III and organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation, the project, including the exhibition and the accompanying publication, is the result of Priddy's 25-year study of "Fancy".

The exhibition is complemented by a 250-page, full-color book, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, by Sumpter Priddy III and published by the Chipstone Foundation, which is available at the Maryland Historical Society Museum Shop. The Maryland Historical Society is the last of three venues for the national traveling exhibition. (left: front cover, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, by Sumpter Priddy III)


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles on American Fancy:

and this article concerning the Chipstone Foundation:

American Furniture provides full text of articles for the years 1993-1996 from the Chipstone Foundation.

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