Monday, March 30, 2015

American Schoolgirl Embroideries: Part II

I've been on a bit of a tangent lately, researching the background for a few embroideries that I viewed at the Lessons Learned:  American Schoolgirl Embroideries exhibit currently showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art through May.

Of the twenty embroideries on exhibit, many of them were silk and chenille with classical, biblical or literary themes, a common approach in schools at the time.

Last post, I went into some detail on the Queen of Sheba embroidery.  Today, I'd like to share another embroidery which drew my attention...

Caroline, the Heroine of Lichtfield, 1817
silk ground, silk embroidery threads, silk chenille, paint, cotton lining
Unites States, possibly Maryland, Easton

The embroidery depicts the heroine of an eighteenth century best-selling novel, Caroline of Lichtfield or Memoirs of a Prussian Family, originally published in French (1786) by author Isabelle de Montolieu, later translated into English by William Holcroft and published in Britain, and eventually released in the United States in 1798.

The story pre-dates Jane Austen, yet deals with a familiar plot line of a young heiress eventually deciding to marry a man she had previously thwarted due to facial deformity, recognizing his virtue as   his most attractive and marriageable feature.

The embroidery is framed by a wonderfully painted mat with cornucopias full of flowers...



And fruit...


And butterflies flitting about...



It is dated and signed at the bottom, "Julia Ann Thomas's work" with the date 1817...



With the name Easton also included.  Easton happens to be a small town on the Eastern shore of Maryland where a woman named Julia Ann Thomas was known to have taught at the Easton Female Academy.


Elements of the design and stitching however are characteristic of the styles from the Moravian schools in Pennsylvania and North Carolina but no record of a Julia Ann Thomas has been found.

As I studied the pictures I had taken, I began to wonder about the main character of the embroidery, Caroline of Lichtfield (not Litchfield in England, but Licthfield, a fictitious Prussian estate); sitting at the edge of a lake, book set aside and lost in thought...



With mountains painted in the background...


And an anthropomorphic representation of her dog by her side...


It was this adorable rendering of Caroline's faithful companion that led me to start researching the story to find if this little guy had a name and why a young woman in 1817 would find the story worthy of memorializing in embroidery.  The text is available but quite expensive.  Luckily, I found this hardcover version on Amazon with a great deal of the novel available for preview.

I had to stop reading in order to write this so I still have not found any more information about the dog but I have learned that Mary Wollstonecraft read and admired the book calling it the 'prettiest thing she had ever read' and Jane Austen also read it and called it 'beautiful'.

From what I have read so far, it is a novel with a young and naive heroine, raised on a country estate, far from the sophistication of court and ready to marry a Prince Charming.  The "prince" suitor proposed by her father is hardly dashing and young but rather an older man with a facial deformity and an Ambassador to Petersburg...


What ensues is melodrama surrounding two suitors, one young, handsome and ardent; the other is older, wiser and of tested virtue.  You get the gist.  Thanks to Jane Austen, we know the type of story quite well even though Ms. Austen published some twenty years or so after this novel was written.

From what I can tell, it was the chick lit of the day and it was widely read and very popular.  The embroidery itself is as charming as the novel and I am grateful to Ms. Thomas for introducing me to Caroline.


Another embroidery that caught my eye was also inspired by popular literature of the day, in this case, James Thomson's epic poem, The Seasons (1730).  James Thomson was Scottish and one of the leading poets in 18th century literature; primarily known for The Seasons, a four-part poetic work about nature and its cyclical transformations.

The work was very popular and inspired mezzotints like the one by Laurie and Whittle (1794) entitled Spring...


It was the illustration above that provided the inspiration for the embroidery titled Spring below, embroidered by Maria Antoinette Dorsey, possibly in the Moravian Seminary for girls at Lititz or Bethlehem.
Spring, 1825-1830.  Stitched by Maria Antoinette Dorsey
silk ground, silk embroidery threads, watercolor, linen lining
United States, possibly Pennsylvania
Glare from overhead lights made pictures of this work nearly impossible.  In comparing the illustration with the embroidery, did you notice that the man was excluded from the needled version?

Now why do you think that was?

Speaking of women, did you happen to read this article in the Wall Street Journal reviewing Women After All by Melvin Connor, a professor of Anthropology at Emory University?  It was a triumph for women, IMHO, largely due to the fact that both the review and the book were written by men.  Check it out.  It's worth your time.

Happy Monday.  Happy Spring.

Monday, March 23, 2015

American Schoolgirl Embroideries: Part I

A week or so ago I had the pleasure of attending Lessons Learned: American Schoolgirl Embroideries at the Baltimore Museum of Art; an exhibition of samplers and silk embroideries made by American girls from schools in Maryland and the East Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Detail from the Queen of Sheba embroidery, 1819, Baltimore Museum of Art
With just over 20 pieces, the exhibition has significant breadth, including works that were not only varied in subject matter but used a wide-range of materials as well.   There were quite a number of silk embroideries, many of which included metal and hand-painting.  If you live nearby, it runs through May 2015 and is well worth the trip.  Admission to the museum and exhibition is free of charge.

There was one embroidery that just knocked my socks off and it was quite large (approx. 3'x5');  a rendering of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon...

Queen of Sheba, 1819, Baltimore Museum of Art.
Embroiderer:  M.B. (American, dates unknown) at Ann Elizabeth Gebler Folwell's School, United States, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  Silk ground; silk chenille, silk and wool embroidery threads; metallic purl and sequins; glass beads and gems; paint.  
I did a little research on the Queen of Sheba tale since I was curious as to why a girl or her teacher might have chosen this subject to embroider.

I didn't really know too much about the story other than that it appears in the Old Testament.   Depending on which version you consult, the short narrative goes something like this:

And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.(I Kings 10 v.1-13)

The historical popularity of the tale seems an enigma of sorts with various differences and meanings attributed to Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Ethiopian traditions.

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Giovanni Demin, 1789-1859
It does seem that Sheba came from the ancient area of Saba which is modern-day Yemen; Sheba is thought to have been Ethiopian (That would make her skin brown which is not how she is portrayed in the examples set forth here today.  hmmm.).  In Christian tradition, some say that the tale presaged the adoration of Christ since Sheba brought to Solomon the same gifts as the Magi.

I didn't find any solid answers but I think if I were a young girl, I might be attracted to stitching the tale because of all the references to gold, gems and royalty.  After all, she got to use gold threads, glass "gems", beads, silk and chenille to stitch her picture.



In the 18th and 19th century, even girls of modest means were taught sewing and simple embroidery stitches on samplers.  Families that could afford it could pay an additional fee over and above the cost of academics for their daughters to receive advanced needlework instruction at boarding or day schools.  After completing their coursework, girls would return home with an elaborate sampler or elegant picture to present to their parents as proof of their accomplishment.  

This Queen of Sheba scene was drawn by Ann Elizabeth Gebler Folwell's husband, Samuel, who was a professional artist.  After his death, their son Godfrey, painted the faces, sky and other details.



One Jewish version of the story says that the Queen mistook the shiny marble floor as a pool of water and lifted her dress, showing off her legs.  Evidently she was reprimanded, not for the immodest display of her gams but for the fact that they were overly hairy.

I checked the embroidery to perhaps find some proof of this...



But alas, found none.

The plush, silk chenille carpet beneath the Queen's feet...



Contrasted beautifully with the flat silk embroidery of the black and white tile...


The lions resting at the foot of the stairs are wonderfully wrought with their padded paws, bushy eyebrows, and manes of chenille.  


Even the stairs were opulent with goldwork swirls amidst lines of clear glass beads...


This is the first piece I've seen that contained so much chenille thread.  It must have come on huge spools for use at the school.  The chenille threads were much finer than any that I have found commercially available today.

Note the use of the chenille thread in stitching the column below...



Changing the direction of the stitches changes the way that the light reflects off the thread which gives the column its dimension.

Despite the allure of all the Queen's riches, my favorite part of the embroidery is this urn which stand atop the trompe l'oeil marble column...



Something about the muted roses, the hint of blue and the dust green garland set against the silver gray of the urn...


Manifests a faded elegance worthy of a Queen.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lucky Stitcher

Good luck!  



It's an almost automatic response when you encounter someone who is getting ready to take a test, perform a song, give a speech or attempt to complete three phases of Japanese Embroidery in order to graduate by October.

Wishing someone luck implies bestowing upon them all good forces that can be mustered from the cosmos to support them in their journey.  As if luck is just sprinkled down upon us like manna from heaven and success resulting from luck is accidental or the result of divine providence.

Conversely, the standard phrase used in Japanese culture when someone is facing a challenge has nothing to do with luck.

For the Japanese, the standard no-thinking-about-it reply is

ganbatte! or 頑張って!or がんばって


Gonbatte comes from the verb form gonbaru (頑張る, がんばる) which means to strive, to try one's best.

In other words, luck only comes through effort and working hard. 


At the end of embroidery class in Japan, my sensei would say: Gonbatte kudasai!

And the students would answer: gonbarimasu (がんばります) or  "I will work hard."

Today, I'm happy to take the luck of the Irish if it's being offered.

But I'll count on the wisdom of the Japanese and just plain get to work.

I've got class this Saturday and I'm trying to finish as much of the gold honeysuckle vine that I can by then.

Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat and gonbatte!

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