Last night there was a “scholarly soirée” here in Salem, during which the amazing pictorial woodblock-printed wallpapers of the French manufacturer Zuber et Cie were presented from a variety of perspectives. I learned a lot: certainly too much to put in one blog post! So consider this a mere synopsis. The event, which was co-sponsored by the French American Intercultural Relations and Exchanges (FAIRE), The Bowditch Institute, and Salem Maritime National Historic Site and held at the latter’s Visitors’ Center, featured an array of speakers, who introduced the large audience to Zuber et Cie wallpapers in general and the “Views of North America” (1834) in particular. There were actually lots of introductions, including a very succinct survey of the potential market for these expensive French wallpapers in mid-nineteenth century Salem by SMNHS Historian Emily Murphy and the charming observation of the French Consul General for Boston that the panoramic Zuber wallpaper installed in the dining room of his official residence in Cambridge facilitated conversation (and I suppose diplomacy). Then the soirée was turned over to three panelists, Isabelle Dubois–Brinkmann, Curator of the Musée du Papier Peint, Joanna Gohmann, Doctoral Candidate in Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and James A. Abbott, Curator of the Johns Hopkins University Evergreen Museum & Library , who examined, in succession, the early history of the Zuber firm and its manufacturing processes, the idealized images they produced, and the revitalized interest in their panoramic designs sparked by Jackie Kennedy’s redecoration of the White House in the early 1960s. This last topic is obviously the most accessible: most people would recognize at least the general image of these landscapes from official White House pictures of the Diplomatic Reception Room, in which antique panels (rescued from a doomed Maryland house) of Zuber’s idealized North American panorama were hung with great care.
All of the panelists had very interesting things to say, but I was particularly impressed by Ms. Gohmann’s analysis of the idealized images of these manufactured “views” of North America in the 1830s. She pointed out that they were created for the French market more so than the American one, and crafted to portray a perfect American Republic–characterized by the equality, prosperity, and inter-connectivity of all of its citizens–just as French Liberals were trying to create their own ideal Republic. America had to be the model, the way forward, and so things that weren’t so perfect, like SLAVERY, were “whitewashed”, as African-Americans are shown freely intermingling with European-Americans, even in depictions of the South. You see American prosperity in the depiction of Boston Harbor above, and equality and inter-connectivity in the detail from “West Point” below.
Detail from Zuber et Cie’s “West Point”, Myers Fine Art & Antiques Auction Gallery.
Just fascinating. It’s almost Utopian wallpaper, but still projecting a “historical” image. I must brush up on my July Monarchy. And then we jumped forward a century and more to the Kennedy White House, Mrs. Kennedy’s aspirational redecoration, and the key role played by Zuber wallpaper, which was installed not only in the Diplomatic Reception Room but also in the First Family’s private dining room. What was designed as a French galvanizing image become an American one.
The Zuber firm is alive and well, still manufacturing its pictorial and panoramic wallpapers. It’s interesting to see them in a modern setting, emphasizing their timeless style. And for other designs, there is a large digitized collection at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum (including the very popular “El Dorado”, if you want to see an idealized image of South America) and the Down East Dilettante has a nicely-illustrated post on the “Decor Chinois” pattern. There is at least one Salem dining room papered with Zuber panels: the White Silsbee House (1811) at 33 Washington Square, which just happens to be for sale at the moment (so we can take a peek inside).
A more recent print of “Views of North America” in a bedroom, Elle Decor, 2005; The dining room at 33 Washington Square with its Zuber “Les Zones Terrestres” paper, and a detail.