Monthly Archives: October 2013

Eastern Carpets on Western Tables

I’m off to New York City tomorrow for a big wedding, and although time is limited, I’ve got to go to at least one exhibition while I am there. I’m torn between the Morgan Library & Museum’s Edgar Allen PoeThe Terror of the Soul  and an equally new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:  Interwoven Globe:  the Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800.  I think the latter is going to win out for two reasons: 1) the early modern period is my teaching specialization and; 2) it features textiles–materials, stuff–which is going to win out over literature any and every time. Anybody that has ever studied–or even casually glanced at–European paintings over this long period can see the increasingly liberal display of eastern textiles throughout the era, and most especially in the art of the Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age: this is material evidence of the “interwoven globe”.  The value that was placed on eastern textiles, most prominently carpets, is indicated not only by their appearance but also by their placement; I use a lot of art in my classes, and inevitably my students always ask: why is that oriental rug on the table?

Carpets 1 The Ambassadors

This famous painting, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533; National Gallery of Art) is a perfect case in point. I use it to illustrate the ideal of the Renaissance Man: these two young French ambassadors, amidst the symbols of their expertise, with an anamorphic skull lurking in the foreground to warn the viewer against excessive worldliness, create quite the composition. There’s a lot to see and discuss, but inevitably my students ask why is that oriental rug on the table? Before they notice the skull.

Carpets from the Middle East appear in European works of art as far back as the thirteenth century, after the Crusades opened up this exchange, but they become a much more common decorative element several centuries later. Renaissance artists like Carlo Crivelli and Lorenzo Lotto used carpets frequently in their works, so much so that they even have distinct carpet patterns named after them. The presence of the carpet in these paintings immediately conveyed an image of wealth, education and achievement to the onlooker; it was a decorative (but certainly not unsubtle) way of conveying status in this aspirational age.


Carpet 2 Lotto

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Giovanni Della Volta with his Wife and Children, 1547, National Gallery of Art & Husband and Wife, c. 1523, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia (the carpet is easily understood, but what about the letter and SLEEPING squirrel?)

Jumping  forward to another aspirational era, the Dutch “golden age” in the seventeenth century, and carpets seem to be on every painted table, particularly those of Johannes Vermeer and Gabriel Mëtsu. They appear so often they start to look common, rather than like possessions of the privileged; Vermeer in particular is rather egalitarian with his carpets, which appear in the close proximity of several maids and even a prostitute. Before long, they’ll end up on the floor.



Johannes Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, 1658-1660, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Gabriel Mëtsu, Man Writing a Letter, c 1662-1665; National Gallery of Ireland.

PicMonkey Collage

PS. In terms of exhibition souvenirs, I think I prefer the Interwoven Globe tee shirt to the Poe magnet. That clinches it.

Hue Histories

I had a million things to do yesterday: write a new course proposal, rework an old book proposal, write memos and evaluations (the endless activities of a department chair), work on my digital exhibition of the Great Salem Fire of 1914,  finish my seasonal closet turnover (alway a huge project, unfortunately), laundry, cleaning, etc…but for some reason I lay on the couch and read a book about purple—a color I don’t even like—for a good part of the day. To be more precise, the book was about mauve, the first artificial dye, invented quite by accident in 1856 by a teenaged chemical student named William Perkin. I’ve had Simon Garfield‘s Mauve:  How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World in my library for quite a while, but I never really opened it up until yesterday.

Hue Histories Mauve

And once I did, much of the day slipped away, as Garfield drew me into the story of Perkin’s accidental discovery and its colorful consequences. While working on a malaria treatment derived from the synthesis of quinine from coal tar, Perkin wound up with an appealing purplish sediment in the bottom of his beaker: this became mauveine, the first chemically-produced dye. Mauveine, and the process by which it was produced, led to a world of industrial applications:  more standardized and intense colors for the textile industry, and advances in the diverse fields of medicine, perfumery, explosive, food and photography.  Even before the color made its formal debut at the London International Exhibition in 1862 it caught the eyes of two extremely influential ladies, Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie, the fashionable wife of Napoleon III. The Queen wore a gown of “rich mauve velvet” (according to the London Illustrated News) to her daughter Victoria’s wedding to Prince Fredrick William in 1858 and later judged it appropriate for “half-mourning”, while the Empress (apparently the Elizabeth Taylor of her day) wore “Perkin’s purple” often, as it was said to match her eyes. The decade of the 1860s was deemed the “mauve decade” by the popular press, characterized and colored by an outbreak of what Punch called “mauve measles”.

PicMonkey Collage

Mauve gowns and upholstery fringe, 1860s-1870s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Garfield’s book got me thinking about other hue histories: I read Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red. Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire a few years ago while prepping for my Expansion of Europe seminar: its focus on the American cochineal is a perfect illustration of early modern colonial competition. There are several books on indigo, also a sought-after commodity (the one below looks good), and apparently you can read about the histories of all the colors in Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Pallette, including ochre, black and brown, white, orange, yellow and green.

Hue Histories Red

Hue Histories blue

Hue Histories Finaly

I might use one of these books in a class one day (when I am relieved of my administrative obligations): commodities are a good way to focus in history surveys:  students like things that are tangible, material, and accessible–and they also like narratives. Commodity history has been dominated by food and drink in the past few decades (COD and the making of the modern world, the POTATO and the making of the modern world, RUM and the making of the modern world, SALT and the making of the modern world, PEPPER and the making of the modern world, BANANAS and the making of the modern world, etc…..) but now I think we can add some color.

Italianate Influences in Salem

Here’s another entry in my intermittent, impressionistic, and amateurish survey of architectural styles in Salem:  Italianate, yet another Victorian revival style. As Salem is a city that is more Federal (classical) than Victorian, I think the Italianate influences are limited and a bit restrained, but they are still there. There is a beautiful early Italianate house right next door to us on Chestnut Street, and it happens that one of my favorite houses in Salem (actually it’s everybody’s favorite house) is both Italianate and for sale:  the Samuel P. Andrews house on Flint Street.

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Italianate 008


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A beautiful house in a beautiful setting, as you can see. This house shares one distinct Italianate feature with the Maria Ropes house, right around the corner on Chestnut Street:  third-floor “Siamese-twin” windows with semi-circular headings. Both houses were built in the 1850s, which seems to be the decade for Italianate construction in America. Bryant Tolles refers to the Ropes house as “Italian Revival” in his definitive guide to Salem architecture (Architecture in Salem. An Illustrated Guide):  I’m not precisely sure what the distinction is between this and “Italianate”, and then there is also Renaissance Revival to consider!  Tolles’ Guide is widely-available; unfortunately another essential, more practical, guide to Salem architecture is not:  The Salem Handbook: a Renovation Guide for Homeowners, which was published by Historic Salem, Inc. in 1977–though you can find detail drawings of the major architectural styles in Salem here.

Italianate 2 006

Salem Handbook

With my untrained eye, I cannot find a house with all of the decorative elements featured in the Salem Handbook’s “Italianate” illustration: no cupolas and very few arches appear on Salem houses of this era. Tolles identifies the William Ives House on Essex Street (built in 1850-51) as “one of the best examples of the Italian Revival style surviving locally” and this immense house (difficult to photograph as it has two huge trees in front of it–just the entrance is below) certainly casts an Italianesque image for me. But so too do several other houses which are more difficult to stereotype:  For Tolles, the gabled and balconied (if that is a word)  Richardson House on Broad Street “defies normal stylistic classification”, but I see Italian influences.

Italianate 3 005

Italianate 2 018

And then there is this last house in North Salem, of which I have become quite enamored. The James Dugan house on Dearborn Street was built a little later (1872) than the rest of Salem’s Italianate houses, but its dramatic facade and slim, hooded windows really conjure of the Renaissance for me. It was built by a prosperous leather manufacturer (who unfortunately killed himself in 1893 after experiencing some “reverses” and  purchasing multiple life insurance policies valued at $410,000) in the midst of a once-vast estate; its lot is much smaller today but still beautifully-designed, like the house.

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Olde Salem on Silk

I never tire of expressions of “olde Salem”: books about colonial furniture, furnishings and architecture, old-fashioned gardens, and photographs and drawings of Salem buildings and scenes, real or imagined, from the first few decades of the twentieth century. There appears to have been an entire generation of authors, photographers, architects, and preservationists who either emerged from or descended upon Salem to capture its fiber before it was lost to modernity:  Frank Cousins, Mary Northend, Arthur Little, William Rantoul. I’m sure the Great Fire of 1914 intensified their pursuit, and they are also representatives of a national Colonial Revival, of which Salem was a singular inspiration. I’ve covered a lot of Salem stuff in this blog, but I don’t think I’ve focused on fabric before, so I thought I’d take a first stab.

I’m inspired by some drawings I found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Walter Mitschke, a German-born textile designer for H.R. Mallinson & Company, which specialized in the production of silk fabrics in the early twentieth century. Their most productive and profitable period was in the 1920s, when they offered a series of American prints, many designed by Mitschke:  American National Parks, Wonder Caves of America, American Indians, and Early America.  His preparatory drawings for the latter series include several “Olde Salem” vignettes.

Early American Salem

Early American

Mallinson MFA

Walter Mitschke, Drawings for the”Early American” Series of Designs by H. R. Mallinson & Co., 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Robert and Joan Brancale.

As you can see, the House of the Seven Gables, perhaps Salem’s most iconic “olde” building and image, is front and center in Mitschke’s emerging design. And Olde Salem is most definitely maritime Salem, not industrial Salem or witchy Salem. A large collection of his drawings and fabric samples was donated to the MFA, and you can see several portfolios of his work via the museum’s Interactive Tours. The Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design has some of Mitschke’s finished fabrics, including the very patriotic (and dynamic) Betsy Ross-Liberty Bell print.

Mallinson MFA Betsy Ross

Mallinson fabric

Mallinson Print 2

Walter Mitschke, Drawing for the “Early American” Mallinson Series, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Fabric Samples, 1927-28, Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design.

I wish I could find the finished product for the Salem drawings; I’m struck by Mitschke’s modernization of “ye olde” images and would love to see the old Gables in such a striking setting. In any case, comparing drawings to finished fabrics is a lesson in how textile designers plotted out the repeat–no small consideration for them. I tried my hand at an old Salem silk print on Spoonflower, and as you can see, I’m no Walter Mitschke!

Salem Spoonflower Fabric

Two more sources for information on Mitschke and Mallinson:  this post on the blog On Pins and Needles, and the current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center: An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915–1928.

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