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Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style

October 13, 2007 - February 24, 2008


Recognized as the architect who transformed Salem, Massachusetts, into one of the most beautiful towns in America, Samuel McIntire was also a woodcarver who established one of the first significant carving traditions in the new nation. The full breadth of this key aspect of his career is explored in Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style. The retrospective exhibition, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of McIntire's birth, features many of his masterful decorative carvings for furniture, as well as architectural carvings and freestanding sculpture -- a total of more than 200 objects from the Peabody Essex Museum and public and private collections. Carving an American Style is curated by Peabody Essex Museum's curator of American Decorative Art, Dean Lahikainen. He is a widely respected authority on Salem furniture and the decorative art and architecture of New England. He is also the author of an accompanying scholarly book, the first devoted to McIntire's carvings. The exhibition opens October13, 2007, and runs through February 24, 2008.

"Whether one is experiencing the work of Samuel McIntire for the first time or as a longtime devotee, Carving an American Style has much to tell us about Salem's renowned architect and woodcarver. Dean Lahikainen has organized an exhibition and book that give us an expanded vision of this highly inventive artist and underscores his role in shaping American art and culture," says Dan Monroe, executive director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) began his career as a carpenter. He taught himself the art of architectural drawing and went on to become a celebrated architect of public and private buildings. Lesser known is the fact that McIntire made most of his living as a woodcarver, providing ornamental decoration for many of the buildings he designed as well as for furniture and more than two dozen sailing vessels. He also carved portrait busts and other commissions that brought him into the realm of academic sculpture. McIntire interpreted the new British neoclassical style, which drew its primary inspiration from the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. He created a design vocabulary that was confident and ambitiously experimental for the time, and that has continued to inform American architecture and furniture design for more than 200 years.

Carving an American Style is organized thematically in five galleries to explore the origin and meaning of the patriotic (such as the American eagle and George Washington), pastoral (fruits, flowers and wheat) and classical motifs (such as drapery and urns) that distinguish McIntire's carving vocabulary.

The exhibition includes an introduction to the remarkable period of economic prosperity and cultural awakening that defined Salem after the Revolutionary War. During this period, McIntire designed more than 50 public buildings, churches and private residences in Salem, and he carved thousands of decorative details for the interiors and exteriors. To enter a McIntire home such as the Peirce-Nichols or the Gardiner-Pingree houses, now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, is to experience domestic architecture at its finest. His rooms are models of great design and proportion -- never extreme, an ideal blend of elegance, luxury and sensitivity to human comfort. The exhibition devotes an entire gallery to his work for the Derby family, his greatest patrons -- focusing on the Derby Mansion and on Oak Hill, the Derby country estate. The decorative elements and furniture carvings he made for these homes are his finest.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 304-page publication written by Dean T. Lahikainen, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. It is the first book to examine the full range of McIntire's carving career and to put it into a broader perspective in terms of the work of his contemporaries and other decorative traditions of the Federal period. Published by University Press of New England (fall 2007) with Funding from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation.

As part of the exhibition PEM will host a symposium, The Art of Woodcarving in America, on Nov. 3 and Nov. 4, 2007. A group of internationally distinguished speakers will share new research on all aspects of woodcarving in America - furniture, sculpture, architecture, ship carving and folk art. Call 866-745-1876 x3088.

The Gardner-Pingree House and the Peirce-Nichols House, which were designed by McIntire, are part of the Peabody Essex Museum's collections. The 1801 parlor of the Peirce-Nichols House was recently restored for the occasion of this exhibition and to celebrate the 250th anniversary of McIntire's birth. Both houses will be open to the public during the exhibition. Please note: the Peirce-Nichols House will reopen to the public in the fall to coincide with the start of the exhibition. For tour information, call 866-745-1876.

For architecture-related activities on the North Shore, visit www.escapes.north, a cultural tourism initiative led by the North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Peabody Essex Museum, with support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.


(above: Eagle from the cupola of Lynn Academy, 1804, Carved by Samuel McIntire, Lynn, Massachusetts, painted pine, Courtesy of Lynn Museum and Historical Society, Photograph by Dennis Helmar)


(above: Arm Chair, 1801, Unidentified maker Carving by Samuel McIntire, mahogany, Peabody Essex Museum, Photograph by Dennis Helmar)


(above: Derby Family chest-on-chest, 1806-1809, Unidentified maker, carving by Samuel McIntire, Mahogany, ebony, satinwood, white pine, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Photograph © 2007 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)


Symbols of the New Republic

McIntire was among the first to carve eagles in wood to ornament buildings, furniture and other decorative art objects. The familiar pose of the eagle's powerful talons grasping a ball, its wings partially open, came to signify the power of a nation. McIntire carved three-dimensional birds for the roofs of buildings and pediments of desks and bookcases, as well as low-relief versions for the crest rails of sofas and chairs. He also made an art of carving portraits of George Washington. He included a colossal profile portrait of him on the triumphal arch he designed for the main entrance to Washington Square in Salem. He carved smaller versions on signs used by homeowners to display on national holidays, including George Washington's birthday.


Celebrating Nature's Bounty

Samuel McIntire's favorite ornaments -- the festoon of flowers, sheaf of wheat, cornucopia and basket of fruit and flowers -- were drawn from the literary and artistic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Salem residents were familiar with ancient history and mythology and used images of Flora (Spring), Ceres (Summer), and Pomona (Fall) -- the nature goddesses, to decorate their homes and gardens. McIntire's earliest furniture decorations are carvings of baskets of flowers and garlands. Grain was a lucrative commodity for wealthy local merchants, and McIntire carved sheaves of wheat on their parlor mantels and used individual stalks of grain to accent many of his furniture carvings.


Classical Ornaments

McIntire's carving was rooted in his training as a carpenter. Using European architectural pattern books, he learned the key elements of ancient Greek architecture and mastered the proportions and ornamental vocabulary associated with the principal orders -- Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Starting in 1780 he used this knowledge to design buildings on paper, and learned to carve capitals, urns, classical leaves and draperies to evoke the wonders of the ancient world and to give his buildings an elegance and sophistication unrivaled in New England. In McIntire's hands, neoclassical motifs became works of art on fences, balustrades, church steeples, door caps, the sterns of ships and sofa rails.


The Derby Family

McIntire's most important patrons were members of the Derby family of Salem. The merchant Elias Hasket Derby, America's first millionaire, recognized and encouraged McIntire's talent early in his career. But it was ultimately his wife, Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, and their daughter, Elizabeth Derby West, who worked with McIntire to create two of his most important buildings -- the Derby Mansion and Oak Hill. These houses and many of the pieces of furniture made for them rank among the most celebrated expressions of American neoclassical design. Neither home survives, but many of McIntire's architectural drawings survive in PEM's collection, a selection of which is on view in this exhibition. The crowning achievement from this period, according to Lahikainen, is the Derby family chest-on-chest -- the "Rosetta stone" of McIntire's carving career. It is also on view. For this piece, he created his finest interpretation of traditional images and more whimsical carvings. As Lahikainen notes, this monumental work fully expressed McIntire's mature American style, a blend of traditional forms and decorative motifs, combined in new ways. It alone secures McIntire's place as one of America's greatest carvers.


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