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Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America


Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America is the most substantial exploration to date of tastemaker Wallace Nutting's (1861-1941) career as a photographer, author, collector and entrepreneur. The installation is accompanied by a richly illustrated book by Thomas A. Denenberg, the Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut and exhibition curator. Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America will be showing at the Allentown Art Museum through May 23, 2004.

Wallace Nutting has been dubbed the "Martha Stewart of 1915" for his promotion of whole-house design and country living and his ability to build a multifaceted business upon his name. Nutting was a Harvard-educated Congregational minister who stepped down from the pulpit in 1904 suffering from neurasthenia, a Victorian condition caused by the stress of modern life. He began taking photographs as a kind of therapy and soon transformed his hobby into a second career. These nostalgic, hand-tinted photographs depict colonial homes, often featuring vignettes of ladies by the hearth or at work, as well as countryside scenes. Offered by catalogue, Nutting sold more than five million photographs to middle-class homes nationwide. In this way, he extended the tradition of democratically available artwork established by Currier & Ives in the nineteenth century

During the first part of the twentieth century, Wallace Nutting avidly collected early American furniture, becoming a leading authority and authoring several books on the topic. A businessman, Nutting recognized the potential of reproducing his antiques for sale. These, too, were sold by catalogue, though the more substantial chests and cupboards were affordable only to a very small audience. To promote sales of his photographs and furniture, Nutting purchased and restored five colonial buildings in Connecticut and Massachusetts that he advertised as "The Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses." These homes provided settings for many of his photographs as well as sales rooms to further his business. The furnished rooms demonstrated to customers the beauty of decorating a home with his reproduction rugs, chairs, desks, dressers, and other forms.

Nutting was ingenious about promoting his various products and employed a Madison Avenue marketing firm to build brand recognition and advertise the idea of "Old America" to a modern audience.

In two installments in 1924 and 1926, Nutting sold his vast collection of American decorative arts to J.P. Morgan, Jr., who donated it to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, making it possible for the Atheneum to organize this exhibition.

Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America is organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, with financial support from The Henry Luce Foundation.

Also on exhibition through June 6, 2004 is Hooked Rugs: Americana Underfoot. This exhibition showcases nine hooked rugs, six recently donated to the Museum from the estate of Professor Edwin and Mrs. Rosalind Miller.

According to most historical accounts, rug hooking originated in New England and Canada's Maritime Provinces in the early 1800s. The traditional method of making hand-hooked rugs involves pulling strips of woolen fabric through an open-weave support made of burlap or linen. The most popular designs, which are quintessential American folk art, include pets, colorful flowers, and barnyard and maritime scenes.  Hooked rugs provided Americans with an intimate record of their lives and surroundings, in an accessible and utilitarian as well as visually pleasing art form. 

Two highlights of the exhibition are a late nineteenth-century rug from Albany, New York, depicting the 1807 maiden voyage of Robert Fulton's first steamboat up the Hudson River and a mid-twentieth-century rug of a pig crafted by the famous modernist artist Marguerite Zorach.

On exhibit from June 13 through August 29 is Animalia:  Small Paintings and Drawings by Patricia Traub. This exhibition features seventeen drawings and paintings of wild and domestic animals by Allentown native Patricia Traub. Traub studied at the York (Pennsylvania) Academy of Arts and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she has taught for sixteen years.

For decades, she has concerned herself with the situation of wild animals living in zoos or in their natural habitat. Ranging near and far in search of subjects, she has sketched at the Philadelphia Zoo as well as journeying to the Florida Everglades, Borneo, and Africa. Traub's art explores the age-old relationship between humans and animals.

She paints nude or partly clothed humans in intimate proximity with animals or animal body parts, prompting reflection on issues of wildlife conservation, the food chain, and the close bond between pets and their owners. In Traub's finely rendered drawings, we see tigers, peacocks, and the artist's own whippet as beautiful expressions of Nature's creation. These mysterious and sometimes disturbing images profoundly impress us.


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