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Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art from April 8, 2004 through June 6, 2004. The exhibition features 22 rare pieced and whole-cloth American quilts made before 1850, selected from the collection donated to the Smithsonian in 1999 by Patricia Smith Melton, a Washington playwright and quilt historian.  These heirloom quilts, dating from about 1810 to 1850, preserve a notable era in textile and quiltmaking artistry. Before the United States developed a textile industry in the 1840s, colonists and citizens imported quality printed cottons from Britain or France. These fabrics were used by affluent quiltmakers along the Eastern Seaboard and on Southern plantations for the sumptuous bedcovers that were an important decorative element in prosperous homes. (right: Unknown Maker, "Pieced Quilt (Bricks)," circa 1835, Maryland, calico and "fondu" printed cotton (quilted in diagonal crosshatch with border in chevrons), 93 3/4 x 83 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia Smith Melton, 1998.149.21.)

"These rare and beautiful quilts will come as a revelation to all quilt lovers," said Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. "The pre-1850s textiles demonstrate this earlier society's embrace of vivid color, rich pattern, and exuberant beauty."

The cotton fabric used in these early American quilts incorporated vegetable and mineral colors -- chemical aniline dyes did not arrive until the 1850s -- and represented high standards of woodblock, copperplate, and roller printing. The term "calico" comes from Calicut, a port on the Malabar Coast of India where European traders in the 17th century bought the colorful cottons that revolutionized Western taste in textiles. "Chintz" is derived from "chints," a phonetic transliteration of the Hindi word meaning variegated. While the terms calico and chintz were used interchangeably to describe colorful cottons, calico properly describes unglazed fabric printed with repeat patterns of small floral or abstract shapes. Chintz refers to fine glazed cotton printed with prominent flowers, birds, and other representational motifs. The exhibition also includes fragments of the kinds of imported period textiles used to construct the quilts in the collection.

Some of the quilts in this exhibition are the most intricate and complex of their kind. Pieced Bedcover (Honeycomb), about 1825, is composed of template-formed hexagons -- each measuring only 5/8 inch -- for a total of 442 rosettes of colorful cotton. Others are quite bold and expressionistic, including Pieced Quilt (Nine Patch on Point), about 1845. This New York quilt would have been appropriate with the interior decor of a middle-class bedroom of the early 1840s. (right: Unknown Maker, New England, "Pieced Quilt (Honeycomb)," ca. 1830, Chintzes, calicoes, and white cotton; quilted in concentric hexagons and diagonal lines, 58 x 57 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Patricia Smith Melton.)

The textile fragment, English Pillar Print Chintz, about 1825-1835, demonstrates a design that was extremely popular in the United States. Pillar prints depicted classical columns garlanded with ribbons, birds, or wicker fruit baskets. This design was often used on America's highest quality quilts as borders, as long stripes in bar-patterned designs, and as tops for whole-cloth bedcovers. 

Patricia Smith Melton has collected American pre-1850 hole-cloth, pieced, and appliquéd bedcovers for more than 20 years. She built the collection with the intent to have it viewed in its entirety as an educational experience and has taught classes on the history of quilts and quilt textiles. 

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by Jeremy Adamson, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. The catalogue will be available in the Museum Shop.

The Calico & Chintz exhibition itinerary is as follows: The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (December 16, 2003-March 14, 2004); Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine (April 8, 2004-June 7, 2004); The Hermitage: Home of the President Andrew Jackson, Nashville, Tennessee (June 26, 2004-August 29, 2004); Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio (September 19, 2004-November 21, 2004). (right: Unknown Maker, "Pieced and Appliqued Friendship Quilt Top (Hickory Leaf Variation)," 1843-45, New England, calicoes, white cotton, and moire-printed furnishing fabric (unquilted), 86 3/4 x 87 1/2 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia Smith Melton, 1998.149.29.)

Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of five exhibitions featuring the Museum's collections, touring the nation through 2005.  The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund.                                  

 

RELATED QUILT EXHIBITS 

Another Layer: Selected Maine Art Quilts, April 8, 2004 through June 6, 2004 
 
This spring, when the main exhibition galleries are hung with early 19th-century quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum's Great Hall will feature their contemporary counterparts in works by quilt artists currently living and working in Maine. In recent years, quiltmaking has transcended its historical role and traditional methods to become a vocation and a primary artistic medium for many artists in this state. Another Layer celebrates Maine's vibrant community of quilt artists with works by eight members of Maine Fiberarts, an arts service organization formed to promote the enjoyment and quality of Maine fiber work. The exhibition features the work of Kimberly Becker, Elizabeth Busch, Mary Allen Chaisson, Jo Diggs, Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade, Natatsha Kempers-Cullen, Stephanie Green Levy, and Phyllis Harper Loney.
 
Another Layer is a collaborative effort among the Portland Museum of Art, Maine Fiberarts, and June Fitzpatrick Gallery. It is presented in conjunction with Maine Fiberarts's statewide initiative, The State of Fiber 2004: Exhibits & Events Celebrating Maine Fiber. This exciting, year-long celebration of the fiber arts in Maine will be kicked off with a keynote lecture by nationally known writer and art critic Polly Ullrich at the Portland Museum of Art on April 23 at 8:30 p.m. For more information about this event or about The State of Fiber 2004, please contact Maine Fiberarts at (207) 721-0678, or visit them on the internet at www.mainefiberarts.org.

 

QUILT LECTURES

Lecture: Polly Ullrich, Friday, April 23 at 8:30 p.m., Museum Auditorium
 
The Maine Fiberarts' statewide initiative, The State of Fiber 2004: Exhibits & Events Celebrating Maine Fiber, an exciting, year-long celebration of the fiber arts in Maine, will kicked off with a keynote lecture by nationally known writer and art critic Polly Ullrich. For more information about this event or about The State of Fiber 2004, please contact Maine Fiberarts at (207) 721-0678, or visit them at www.mainefiberarts.org.
 
Lecture: Betsey Telford, Saturday, April 24 at 1 p.m., Museum Auditorium
 
Historic quilt specialist Betsey Telford will speak about some of the more extraordinary quilts in her extensive collection. Owner of Rocky Mountain Quilts in York, Maine, Telford will explain how she is able to date a quilt and what elements to look for in hunting for antique quilts. As a result of her extensive knowledge, Telford has been featured on the Discovery Channel, and in Country Living, Early American Homes, the Boston Globe, Quilt Mania of France, and New England Antiques Journal. This special event is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Collection at the Portland Museum of Art. Visitors are encouraged to bring a quilt for Telford to examine, however, advance reservations are required. Please call (207) 775-6148 ext. 3227 to purchase tickets.

 

Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

 

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