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The Decorative Arts of New York 1700-1900: The Wunsch Collection from the New York State Museum

September 26 - December 6, 2002


A new exhibition opening at the UBS PaineWebber Art Gallery explores the cultural history of New York through stunning examples of antique home furnishings never before shown in New York City. The Decorative Arts of New York 1700-1900: The Wunsch Collection from the New York State Museum, on view from September 26 - December 6, 2002, features furniture, silver, ceramics and paintings produced by local craftsmen showing the aesthetic influence of European high style on urban and rural New York. Differing from most museum presentations of home furnishings, this exhibition also shows the domestic world of the average urban and rural New Yorker of the time.

The exhibition spans two centuries and features more than 135 pieces from the nation's leading collection of New York decorative arts from the New York State Museum in Albany. Supplementing sample furnishings from the Colonial, Federal, Classical Revival and Romantic Revival periods, The Decorative Arts of New York 1700-1900 will feature several period room vignettes, contrasting formal, urban designs with more rural, vernacular interpretations of similar pieces. In addition, exhibition highlights include Colonial Chippendale furnishings; a Federal-style chair owned by Alexander Hamilton; furniture pieces by noted New York Classical Revival cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe; and a Victorian bedroom set featuring painted scenes of the Hudson Valley. (left: Unknown Artist, Portrait of Dr. Joshua Webster, Fort Plain, Montgomery County, New York, c. 1830)

The exhibition is arranged chronologically by period, illustrating changing stylistic trends through the years and illuminating how New Yorkers once lived. The Decorative Arts of New York 1700-1900 not only celebrates the state history of design, but also the 30-year partnership of the museum and its benefactor, E. Martin Wunsch, a leading collector of decorative arts. This striking collection of the New York State Museum has been enhanced by the generosity of the Wunsch Americana Foundation, Inc. and the Wunsch Foundation, both of New York City. Through their assistance, the museum has built this noted and comprehensive collection of New York State decorative and fine arts.

Colonial Period, 1700-1790

A unique style, created from the mix of English and Dutch traditions, dominated the decorative arts of the New York Colonial period. Furniture was lined up around the walls of a room, and tables were made to fold or tilt to be placed out of the way when not in use. Formal examples of Chippendale drop-leaf and tilt-top tables will be on view, illustrating the importance of furniture portability to accommodate the varied uses of 18th-century rooms.

At this time, furniture was typically custom-made. The upper classes favored furniture woods like mahogany or walnut, and silver was used to create impressive utensils for tea service. Decorative ceramics were imported from China, Holland or England. In contrast, local craftsmen furnished the homes of rural New Yorkers with simpler interpretations of formal styles using cheaper materials like maple and painted pine woods, as well as pewter, the "poor man's silver." Juxtaposing these two different styles, the exhibition features examples of Colonial urban and country rooms, contrasting a formal Queen Anne style dining table, with elegant ridged, pointed pad "slipper feet" and drop-leaves, with a versatile maple and pine tilting hutch table from a country home.

Federal Period, 1790-1820

By the end of the 18th century, delicate forms and straight or elliptical lines, derived from neo-classical architectural designs championed by English cabinetmakers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Shearton, became popular in American decorative arts. In the Federal Period, New York City -- known as the "London of America" -- took the lead from the earlier cabinetmaking center of Philadelphia as the trendsetter for furniture design and production in America. The Port of New York became the nation's leading port, and the best furniture designs were produced in the growing commercial center and cosmopolitan city.

Reflecting the lightness of the new Federal style, chairs featured tapered or turned reeded legs and shield or square backs. Inlay was used to decorate flat surfaces and painted or decorated "fancy chairs" became popular. Federal chairs of note in the exhibition include a Hepplewhite Side Chair (c. 1800) with exotic wood inlay owned by Alexander Hamilton and used at his rural Manhattan home, The Grange; a square-backed Shearton Side Chair (c. 1810) with a carved urn in the splat owned by Martin Van Buren; and a Transitional Side Chair (c. 1785) used at George Washington's presidential inauguration in 1789 and showing both Chippendale and Hepplewhite styles.

Classical Revival Period, 1815-1850

In New York, warehouses were established for the purchase of ready-made furniture by renowned cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe. America was infatuated with classical civilization, comparing the new American republic with Rome and avidly following archeological excavations. Wealthy New Yorkers lived in replicas of Greek temples furnished with highly polished, elaborately carved mahogany versions of Greek and Roman furniture. Phyfe's Classical Side Chair (c. 1815) was copied from the Greek klismos chair illustrated on ancient vases, and features the Greco-Roman cornucopia motif symbolizing abundance and prosperity. The center table also made its debut in this era, with formal versions made of mahogany and marble. Its placement in the center of the room altered the traditional arrangement of lining up furniture along the walls.

Country farmhouses and rural homes in the Classical Revival period featured maple furniture, decorated with stenciled or grained detailing to imitate the carved motifs of more expensive pieces. In the evening, when farm chores were done, the family would gather around the center table to read, sew or play games. The exhibition features examples of two Classical Revival period rooms, contrasting a formal Marble-top Center Table (c. 1830) with a country pine Center Table (c. 1835) painted and grained to look like a more expensive mahogany version.

Romantic Revival Period, 1840-1890

Following the American interest in the classical past and European history, this era led to a revival of the styles of a romanticized past in the decorative arts, architecture and literature. The Gothic Revival, featuring pointed arches, appeared in the 1840s, followed by the spool-turned elements of the Elizabethan Revival. The Rococo Revival of the 1850s featured the floral carved furniture of 18th-century France, the 1860s revisited decorative motifs of the Renaissance, and the 1870s witnessed a revival of the styles of France's Louis XVI.

For craftsmen, the Romantic Revival period was a time of experimentation with form and ornament, creating objects that were both useful and pleasing to many tastes. The use of machines made even the most intricate objects affordable, and the middle class furnished their homes with manufactured furniture and decorative objects. The acanthus and vine, Rococo scrolls, waves and flowers, as well as Elizabethan strapwork, cartouches and Gothic motifs all appeared as decorative elements in this period, creating a variety of popular styles. Suites of furniture became fashionable at this time, and painted or decorated bedroom sets were the rage in the 1870s and 1880s. Although less expensive than a set made of walnut or mahogany, the Cottage Victorian Bedroom Set (c. 1870) of painted pine on view in the exhibition is still quite elaborate, featuring scenes of the Hudson Valley on the head and footboards of the bed, as well as on the crest of the dresser.

The New York State Museum

The New York State Museum, a cultural program of the New York State Department of Education, was founded on a tradition of scientific inquiry. Started in 1836, the museum has the longest continuously operating state natural history research and collection survey in the United States. The state museum is located on Madison Avenue in Albany. Further information about programs and events can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the Museum website at http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/.

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