- Makers and Users: American Decorative Arts, 1630–1820, from the Chipstone Collection
When, in 1946, Stanley and Polly Mariner Stone of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, purchased a secretary and bookcase made in Salem, Massachusetts, they unknowingly launched enduring personal commitments to collecting American decorative arts dated principally from 1630 to 1820. Although their expansive definition of “American” included objects both made in and imported to the English mainland colonies and the early Republic, their acquisitions focused almost entirely on Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. Over several decades the Stones amassed one of the finest private collections of its kind, which today includes well over five hundred items and evinces particular strengths in American furniture, English ceramics, historical prints, and needlework. To house—and live amidst—their treasures, the Stones built a large Georgian estate that overlooks Lake Michigan. To conserve and enhance the collection, as well as foster scholarship in the decorative arts, they established the Chipstone Foundation in 1965. The Foundation pursues several agendas intended to advance the study of decorative arts. It publishes the specialized journal American Furniture, will soon launch a new journal dedicated to ceramics and their social contexts, and supports book publications and museum exhibits. It plans to create a national center for the study of American decorative arts (to be located at the estate, where the Stones lived until their deaths).
“Makers and Users: American Decorative Arts, 1630–1820, from the Chipstone Collection,” at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, constitutes the first major public exhibit of objects from the collection. Organized by Ann Smart Martin, the exhibit and accompanying catalog also present leading questions and interpretations in the field of material culture. In two spacious galleries whose blue walls suggest the vibrancy of decorative colors popular in the colonial and early national periods, ninety-three objects are intimately grouped in ways that situate them within a dynamic trans-Atlantic world, a “world in motion” with people, ideas, and consumer goods. [End Page 286] Eschewing conventional, chronologically ordered displays of style development, “Makers and Users” presents objects in social contexts: as commodities produced and purchased, artifacts of daily life, and signifiers of evolving concepts of utility and social meaning.
The overall effect is kaleidoscopic. Distinctive local and artisanal styles range, for example, from a gracefully austere card table produced in Newport, Rhode Island (1755–75) to an exquisitely carved example made in Philadelphia (ca. 1765). Artisans’ skills as well as customers’ preferences and financial means determined the quality and style of objects. Cultural meanings encoded in them reflect changing conceptions of family, sociability, and status. Hence a magnificent great chair exudes the patriarchal authority characteristic of seventeenth-century New England, while a delicately carved, richly upholstered Philadelphia chair evokes a late-eighteenth-century elite culture that valued sociability and refinement. By then a cascade of locally produced and imported goods, represented in the exhibit by English ceramics and prints and Chinese porcelain, swept Americans who could afford them into the so-called consumer revolution, marked by the availability of an expanding variety of readily available household items. Despite warnings, especially at the time of the American Revolution, that the influx of “luxury” goods would corrupt virtues like frugality and industriousness, a culture of spending and consumption was here to stay.
With the coming of the Revolution, the decorative arts were put to overt political purposes, most famously in Paul Revere’s highly partisan engraving of the Boston “Massacre.” With Independence, Americans suddenly required images and symbols through which they could identify with the nation they were creating and, secondly, which helped them remember and celebrate a revolution widely regarded as a glorious turning point in human history. Amos Doolittle’s engraving of the ship Columbus (1800), complete with American flags billowing in the breeze and a guardian eagle, as well as several American- and English-made prints and ceramics depicting George...