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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Saturday

Saturday began with a tour of the Heurich House Museum, one of the often overlooked gems in DC.  Built after Christian Heurich's visit to the Columbian Exposition the house is a marvel of late Victorian design and modern technological conveniences.  Built to be fireproof, the house included full indoor plumbing, a central vacuum, elevator shaft, and pneumatic and electric communication systems.  The house is a somewhat riotous look backward at late Victorian wealth and exuberance, reflecting Heurich's efforts to demonstrate his wealth, celebrate his German heritage, and acquire art and furniture in the latest styles.  It's a great house, well interpreted and worth a visit.  My only regret is that we didn't have more time.

The Kaufman Collection

One of the most significant additions to the National Gallery (really to any museum) was the acquisition of the Kaufman collection and the decision to put it on permanent display on the ground floor.  Spread out over three rooms and spanning the 18th century through the early 19th, the collection will undoubtedly expose many visitors to American arts by virtue of its central location and the high quality of the examples.  Like most collections formed in the twentieth century (and even those today) the collection is heaviest on the Northeast: Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia dominate the Queen Anne and Chippendale holdings while New York and Baltimore emerge in the Federal period.  A notable exception to this general trend is the exquisite Virginia Tea Table and a federal period Clothes Press from Charleston, and its always heartening to see more attention being paid to Southern furniture, the collection of which has long been neglected by our Nationally known museums. 

Perhaps the nicest part of the exhibition is that it rewards close looking—there are details that emerge from furniture when it is considered, re-engaged, and patiently examined.  For example, the spectacular japanned high chest from Boston with gilt finials and shell is at first overwhelming—it’s a rare example of japanning and gilding in the period and an exceptionally graceful form.  It took a second visit back to the piece for me to notice the hand tooled designs on the brasses and the evidence of saw or file marks still present.  

A number of the early Boston pieces on display shared similar working, but each had a slightly different design.  On the japanned chest (I think that's what the photo is from, it might be the japanned William and Mary dressing table too), you really get a sense of each individual strike of the tool, the shape of the instrument used to create it, and the varying force behind each impact.  It seems to me that the brasses, more so than an inventory taken upon death, yields specific clues about the workbench and the tools that workmen used.  Just on this brass alone, you see a small circle used in the background, a middle sized circular tool used and a larger circle surrounding that.  A straight-edged tool (likely the width of the lines in the central gridded square) formed the border and straight lines of the piece, and a larger circle still must have been used for the larger, open curves.  The changing thickness of the curves seems to indicate that the maker used a fully circular tool to make these arcs, but struck the tool at an angle so that only a half circle appeared in the brass.  Carefully using a vocabulary of just five shapes, the artist creates a variety of forms and texture.  Although the well-lit gallery makes close looking like this rewarding, I couldn’t help but think about how theses details in the chest would have shimmered differently in the flickering light of candles.

Some other details I noticed were the extent of separation between the ball and claw on this piece of Newport Furniture.

My students were easy to spot throughout the day as they were usually on or near the floor, trying to better see the details of construction and carving like they are here with a Philadelphia Table.

Another item of note is a late classical Philadelphia table whose inlaid stone top was imported from Italy.  (As an aside, I have a new phone, hence the preponderance of panoramic shots) 

The base and frame were made by Anthony Quervelle but there’s another signature on the top that seems significant “N. Fish [Fash?].”  A little research (perhaps it has already been done?) might shed some additional light on the top including where it was made and what sort of operation this was.  Were these custom ordered?  Pre-designed? 

From furniture we moved to paintings, and as always the National Gallery does not disappoint.  From Stuart’s Skater to Copley’s Watson and the Shark, to still life, portrait, and what I have always found to be Bellow’s best painting (the Last tenement) there is always more to see.  I was kind of delighted that one of the paintings I really like seemed to show its age—Winthrop Chandler’s Mrs. Samuel Chandler—because for the first time I noticed that there’s a painting underneath this painting.  

Evident in raking light and close examination (somewhat close, the guards remain unamused by really close looking) there is evidence of a different dress, a different chair height, what appears to be a bouquet or ball of yarn on the table with trailing ribbons and numerous other changes.  This is covered briefly in the National Gallery’s American Naïve Paintings catalog but I wondered if this was even the same sitter?  

Was it a correction requested by the sitter at the time she saw the painting, or a later addition like the Elizabeth Freake’s dress?  I think a number of us came out of the visit with new questions, and this perhaps is the best thing a museum can do: foster new inquiry.

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