Saint Louis Art Museum

St. Louis, MO



Useful Beauty: Early American Decorative Arts from St. Louis Collections


The Colonial period, and the 18th century in particular, is revered as the Golden Age of American craftsmanship. The decorative arts produced during the period were stylistically expressive and artistically charged. Although Colonial Americans seldom recorded their thoughts about these objects, the visual richness of materials, textures and surfaces show that aesthetic pleasure was an integral element in their making as well as their consumption.

Useful Beauty: Early American Decorative Arts from St. Louis Collections presents 50 superior examples of furniture, silver and needlework made in America between 1700 and 1800. The decorative arts of 18th-century America reflected new ideas and attitudes that set this period apart. By about 1700, furniture, silver and other household objects became more numerous and more responsive to stylistic change. Many new kinds of decorative arts were designed for increasingly socialized customs. Throughout the century, the growing assemblage of furniture and furnishings was accompanied by new modes of comportment and etiquette that were part of a larger trend in social refinement. The everyday lives of Americans were increasingly ordered by conventions of behavior and by objects such as formal chairs, tables and table wares that reinforced the public aspect of social rituals.

Tea drinking, dining and card playing exemplify everyday activities transformed into expressions of a cultivated lifestyle when accompanied by beautiful and useful objects. Consumption of tea played a central role in the lives of Colonial Americans, particularly women. The ritual fueled the development of an array of household goods, including ceramics, silver wares and furniture. This Philadelphia rococo-style tea table displays a boldly carved top and would have provided an ornamental surface for the display of fashionable tea wares. A similar tea table and chairs made by Eliphalet Chapin for the marriage of John and Anna Marsh illustrate the kind of goods the young couple would need to furnish a fashionable parlor in 18th-century Connecticut.

In the dining roam, long rectangular tables were common prior to the 18th century. The change from rectangular to round tables in the 18th century seems to mark a departure from the hierarchy based on proximity to the "chair man" at the head of the table to a more congenial arrangement of genteel diners seated in sets of chairs at a round table. Other objects intended for the dining room include sideboards for serving food and for the display of silver tankards, canns, sauceboats, candlesticks and other forms as well as imported glassware and ceramics.

Furnishings used in Colonial bedchambers include case furniture such as the high chest of drawers and chest on chest designed for the storage and safekeeping of clothing and other textiles and dressing and bureau tables for grooming rituals. The dressing tables in this exhibition illustrate formal and stylistic variations in the design of bedchamber furniture made in 18th-century New England, the mid-Atlantic region and the South. Bed chambers were characterized by extensive textile furnishings such as bedding and bed hangings, window curtains, chairs and easy chairs, couches or other seating furniture. Because of the expense of their upholstery, easy chairs were never commonplace in American homes and were rarely seen in the parlors of Colonial elites. Instead, they most often were used in bedchambers, where they provided warm, comfortable seating. In 18th-century households, the best bed, consisting of the bedstead, the bed hangings and the bed or mattress, was among the most valuable household goods an individual possessed.

Highlights of the exhibition include superb Queen Anne and Chippendale-style furniture made in Boston, Newport, New York and Philadelphia; silver wares by Myer Myers, Paul Revere and Jacob Hurd; and an exquisite rococo-style needlework coat of arms made in 1765 by Elizabeth Flower. All of the objects in the exhibition were lent by private collectors in St. Louis. The special exhibition Useful Beauty. Early American Decorative Arts from St. Louis Collections, curated by David Conradsen, curatorial assistant of decorative arts and design, opens June 19 and runs through August 15, 1999. The Museum has published a full catalogue of the exhibition. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue are made possible with the generous assistance of Mr. and Mrs. Paul R. Cahn, Dr. and Mrs. George R. Schoedinger III, Mr. and Mrs. Edward J. Nusrala, Dr. and Mrs. Matthew Newman, Mr. and Mrs. James F. Dierberg, the Acanthus Society and Sotheby's.

Images from top to bottom: William Hollingshead, working 1757-1785; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Coffeepot, 1775-85; silver, wood; 12 1/2 x 10 x 5 inches; 34 oz 9 dwt gross (1068g); Private Collection. Eliphalet Chapin, 1741-1807; East Windsor, Connecticut; Chair, 1775; cherry, pine; 38 1/2 x 23 3/4 x 22 inches; Private Collection. Newport, Rhode Island; Bureau Table, 1765-90; mahogany, chestnut, maple, pine; 33 1/4 x 36 3/4 x 21 inches; Private Collection. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Bedstead, 1760-80; mahogany, hickory; 93 1/2 x 77 x 57 inches; Private Collection. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Tea Table, 1755-75; mahogany, iron; 27 3/4 x 33 3/4 x 23 inches; Private Collection

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