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With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley

October 2, 2010 - January 30, 2011


From October 2, 2010 through January 30, 2011 the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, presents With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley. The Connecticut River Valley was one of the most important centers in America for the teaching and production of embroidered pictures by girls and young women in private academies during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the first exhibition to examine the subject of Connecticut River Valley needlework in depth, With Needle and Brush contributes to the understanding of the traditions of needlework and provides insight into the nature of women's schooling before the advent of widespread public education. Guest-curated by needlework experts Carol and Stephen Huber, this exhibition of approximately sixty embroideries, watercolor sketches, and portraits will draw extensively on works from private collections, many never before shown publicly. (right: Unidentified artist, Needlework picture Jeptha's Rash Vow, ca. 1810. Silk, 21 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches. Private Collection; photo courtesy of Stephen and Carol Huber, Old Saybrook, CT)

Over the course of their education, girls undertook progressively more complex and difficult needlework. Before the age of ten, they began with elementary samplers worked on linen and gradually developed a repertory of stitching techniques. During their studies, they executed canvaswork pieces, samplers, memorials, and silk pictures as evidence of the skills and accomplishments that would demonstrate their suitability as wives capable of managing a household and educating children. Proudly displayed in a family's home as an enticement to potential suitors, these pictures and memorials affirmed a young lady's mastery of the principles of "politeness" -- a concept that encompassed knowledge of religious and literary themes as well as an appreciation for art and music.

The exhibition illuminates the evolution of needleworking techniques as well as tracing the distinctive styles and subjects associated with the mistresses of various girls' schools throughout the Connecticut River Valley. At the academy run by Lydia Royse in Hartford, pupils specialized in allegorical or historical subjects based on print sources, which they replicated in gleaming silk thread. One such piece is Jeptha's Rash Vow (ca. 1810), which presents the Biblical tale of a father obligated to sacrifice his only daughter to fulfill his pledge to God that, in exchange for a military victory, he would kill the first thing he sees upon returning home.

"Needleworks like this one are truly extraordinary in their aesthetic and intellectual sophistication, and as windows into early American values" says Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing. "The unknown girl who stitched this picture is affirming the religious tenet of subservience to God, and doing so through a subject that was also explored around this time in poems, prints, and even an oratorio by Handel. Through their needlework, girls from even small towns were introduced to and participated in wider cultural currents."

Girls at the Misses Pattens' School, also in Hartford, worked lavish heraldic and allegorical compositions, often accented with gold filaments. Schoolgirl needleworkers throughout the Connecticut River Valley -- including those at Abby Wright's school in Massachusetts -- drew inspiration from the magnificent examples produced in Boston, where many of the teachers in more provincial areas had trained. Each piece of needlework unifies the combined talents and aspirations of the girl, her family, her instructress, and the visual artists often called upon to paint in portrait heads that would complete each piece.

The exhibition will be followed by a fully-illustrated book with essays and entries by the Hubers, an essay by independent scholar Susan Schoelwer, and an introduction by Amy Kurtz Lansing. The book will be published in 2011 in conjunction with Wesleyan University Press.

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