National Museum of American Art

and its Renwick Gallery

Washington, D.C.

(202) 633-8998


Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life


"Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life," an exhibition featuring furniture and decorative arts from Mount Lebanon, the first and most prominent Shaker community, will be on view March 19 through July 25, 1999 at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This exhibition offers an opportunity to see objects created by Mount Lebanon residents for their own use and for sale "in the World," illustrating the principles of fine craftsmanship, order and simplicity embraced by the Shakers. The 57 objects, grouped into several sections including Workshops, Industry and School, are presented as they relate to the community's daily activities. Founded in New Lebanon, N. Y., in 1787, the settlement was the spiritual center of the sect, which at its height in 1840 boasted of 6,000 members living in 18 communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Kentucky and Florida.

"This Shaker exhibition is unusual in that it presents the Shaker aesthetic within the context of the vibrant community that created it," said Director Elizabeth Broun. The show assembles objects to reflect their relationships to the utopian "simple life" of the Shakers. A sister's retiring room displays a bed, hooked rug, high chest of drawers, footstool, rocker and dress. Saws, tools and a cabinet are shown in a section on Shaker workshops. Innovative and successful tradespeople, Shakers marketed products through Shaker stores and mail-order catalogs to the outside world, including chairs, sewing kits, herbal remedies, and seeds. Examples of these goods, in addition to textiles, boxes, and baskets, are presented to illustrate their role in the community and beyond.

Shakers were celebrated for their extremely functional, plain and well-crafted furniture, which reduces the elements of a piece to its essentials. Shakers themselves did not consider the products of their craftsmanship to be art, but a palpable expression of their faith. In the words of one Shaker sister, "It was religion that produced the good tables and chairs."

In a communal settlement where time ordered all aspects of life, clocks were prominent features. A tall clock from the Church Family dwellinghouse dates from 1806 and was created by one of the first generations of Shaker craftsmen. While design influences from the outside world are evident, the elimination of superfluous ornamentation on the tall case reveals the essence of the new Shaker aesthetic, where simplicity was key.

A massive tool cupboard made around 1840, when Shaker design was at its purest and most abstract, carefully fits form to function. This shallow cupboard, designed to store woodworking tools, is unusual for its size, asymmetrical layout, arrangement of doors, and use of contrasting colored finishes.

A cloak of a design standardized in the 1890s illustrates how simplicity pervaded all Shaker products. Widely referred to as "Dorothy cloaks" after their originator, Sister Dorothy Durgin of Canterbury, N.H., the hooded garments were a specialty of Mount Lebanon seamstresses. Available in several colors, cloaks were standard dress for Shaker sisters and fashionable with "non-believers" also; Mrs. Grover Cleveland wore a gray Shaker cloak to her husband's second presidential inaugural in 1893.

The Shaker movement began in England and moved to the United States in 1774. Led by Mother Ann Lee, the group was called the Shakers because of their early ecstatic worship practices, which included shaking, frenzied dancing, shouting and singing.

Although they separated themselves from "the World," Shakers embraced the latest technology in their attempts to create, as they put it, "heaven on earth." Shaker communities such as Mount Lebanon are considered among the most progressive and successful of modern attempts at communal living. Their numbers dwindled rapidly by the close of the 19th century, however, and only a handful of Shakers are living today.

Focusing on the Mount Lebanon Collection, a soft-cover book, "Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship," complements the show and is available in the museum shop. The 179-page book includes essays by Timothy Rieman and Susan Buck and numerous color plates.

The exhibition is supported in part by the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.

The Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art is dedicated to exhibiting American crafts of all periods and to collecting 20th-century American crafts. The Renwick is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, near the Farragut Metrorail stations. Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, closed December 25. Admission is free.

From top to bottom: Rocking chair, c. 1840; Round storage boxes and measures, c. 1830-80; Rocking chairs, c. 1880; Tall clock, 1806; oval box, c. 1850; Cupboard over drawers, c. 1840; Doll, c. 1920; Dress, c. 1870; Case of drawers, c. 1830; Tripod stand, c. 1830

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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