"America is the greatest poem there ever was," wrote Walt Whitman. And with those words, one exhibition attempts to illustrate the "grand sweep of American Art."
When Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curators Emily Neff and Christine Gervais began collaborating on American Made: 250 Years of American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, they sought to tell the story of America through paintings, sculptures and decorative arts — all from the museum's own collection.
In this photo audio essay, I walk alongside Gervais as she chats about American Made while uncovering the many secrets hidden within each decorative piece.
Click on the audio player below the text of each photo to join in this adventure.
John Steuart Curry, The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne, 1928–40, tempera and oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase with funds provided by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund.
An American precursor to the modern day home office? This portable chair has purpose beyond comfort.
It holds two drawers: One below the seat and another hidden below the round table top or writing surface, which is covered with the same type of green baize used today for pool tables. These storage compartments would be ideal to tuck away pens and ink bottles.
Ebenezer Tracy, Writing-arm Chair, 1770–1803, eastern white pine, yellow poplar, soft maple, white oak, chestnut and butternut, The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Mrs. Ima Hogg
Without reading the caption for this exquisitely ornate butterfly accoutrement, care to guess what it could possibly be used for?
You may be inclined to say the sterling silver, gilt and enamel adornment is a brooch. Though that's what makers Tiffany & Co. wanted to achieve in crafting this monogrammed piece, it's actually an over-the-top napkin ring. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston owns eight of these.
The accessory is part of the most famous silver service made in the U.S. in the 19th century. This exotic-style set — dubbed "Indian" not because of its provenance, but because of the fantasy the term implied — took two years and more than 200 men to craft from a ton of silver found at the Comstock Lode silver ore in what is now Virginia City, Nev., by John "The Silver King" Mackay and his wife Marie-Louise.
Listen to Gervais tell the pseudo-apocryphal tale of the origins of this fabulous service.
Tiffany & Co., American, established 1837, Butterfly Napkin Clip, 1878, sterling silver, gilt and enamel, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase with funds provided by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund
In quilts from the 1840s, colors often do not retain their vibrancy as the tints are made from vegetable and very early aniline dyes. Gervais calls these tints "fugitive" — they tend to fade away with time.
What renders this piece special, quilt scholars suggest, is that it was crafted to commemorate Texas statehood. In the middle, find two eagles holding American flags. On the top right, a Texas star is engulfed by leafs and the word Texas appears on one side.
When the quilt was initially purchased by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1926 from the collection of Elie Nadelman, it was showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as an example of folk art bridging into fine art.
Though Rockefeller's collection would go on to Colonial Williamsburg, this quilt found its home in Houston.
How did this quilt end up at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston? Hear Gervais trace its travels.
Unknown makers, (including S.R. Carroll, M.A. Humphreys, Sophia Osborne, Ellen Ehlies, T.S. and M.D.), "Baltimore Album” Quilt, 1840s, cotton, cotton appliqué, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr.
The trophies depicted in relief nod to the wonders of nature in the U.S. and what can be harvested from the American wilderness. This sideboard is decorated with birds, fish, crustaceans and a stag, and the tools used to gather them, including a rifle, hunting horn and hunting bag.
It's the type of piece that could have been exhibited as part of a world fair to laud the glory of the terrain. And as such, it's unusual that it was left unsigned by the artist.
This sideboard is showcased in Kenneth L. Ames' book Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, which is considered an authority on trends and influences of the period.
American, Sideboard, c. 1855, American tulipwood, northeast white pine, black walnut and marble, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Anaruth and Aron S. Gordon
The ebonized glaze, asymmetrical flower blossoming in the back and upholstery point to the Aesthetic Movement, a time of Oscar Wilde and of Japanese prints, gorgeous interiors and themed fashions.
Hailing from New York City, the Herter Brothers weren't only furniture makers. They were interior designers who would decorate rooms from top to bottom for wealthy families across the country, like the Vanderbilts.
Authored by Rienzi's director Katherine S. Howe, the 1994 tome, Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age, catalogs their work, which was on view in a featured exhibition at MFAH in 1954 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1995.
Herter Brothers, Chair, cherry, other woods, gilt, upholstery not original, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Arch and Stella Rowan Foundation Inc.
Many of the artists on view at American Made were immigrants, which is why this chair reflets German furniture-making traditions even though it appears to be a quintessential example of Texas-inspired decorative arts.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert melded the Germanic hunting lodge manner with Scottish influences in their castles, the style became a 19th-century standard.
And when the maker of this piece, Wenzel Friedrich, moved from Bohemia to the U.S., settling in San Antonio, he brought the style with him.
This fancy rocking chair is upholstered in Jaguar skin, possibly sourced from South America.
Attributed to Wenzel Friedrich, Rocking Chair, c. 1885–95, steer horn, horn veneer, jaguar hide, iron, chrome plated iron and wood, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of William J. Hill
When you think of lamp shades that were crafted in the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany, this piece is what comes to mind. The shimmering colors, the undulating textures and the irregularity of the glass is just what the aesthetic is supposed to achieve.
But this isn't a Tiffany. It's a Clara Driscoll.
Though Tiffany didn't allow the women working in his glass-cutting atelier to sign their work, Driscoll managed to pen her name in her own piece. When she won a competition for her attention to detail, her name was published and she emerged from the anonimity of Tiffay's workshop.
Designed by Clara Driscoll, Dragonfly Hanging Lamp, c. 1906, stained glass, lead and bronze, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Mecom Jr.
Picture this waste paper basket fitting within a room where everything is just like it — over-the-top, gradiose, geometric. That's how one would find this silver leaf accessory: As part of a series of objects that create an all-encompassing design.
The hard lines and scalloped edges are influenced by the rise of the skyscraper in New York City, where Donald Deskey worked. When such an approach was mixed with the era of movie theaters and the glam of Hollywood, the outcome was American Art Deco.
Donald Deskey, Waste Basket, c. 1928, wood, paint and silver leaf, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase with funds provided by the Design Council, 2002