Bitter at the sickening boxed-chocolate sweetness of Valentine’s Day? Curious about how they said “I love you” before Hallmark? For a less sugar-coated approach to making love, check out the new love-themed exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery opening just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“Made for Love: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana,” which opens today, provides a refreshing look at tangible expressions of the personal bonds holding people together in 18th- and 19th-century America.
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The exhibition, located on the third floor of the Swartwout Building, features 39 works of folk and decorative art that express affection between friends, family and lovers. The wide variety of objects on display ranges from furniture and toys created for young children, to a tender portrait of a father and daughter, to delicate “friendship books” made by school-aged girls to preserve memories of their childhood friends.
“The selections [in the exhibit] revolve around the idea that material objects are often expressions of the relationships people have with each other,” said Erin Eisenbarth, a curatorial fellow at the YUAG who organized the exhibit.
The small special exhibition room, which previously housed “To Know the Dark: American Artists’ Visions of Night,” has brightened up with a coat of classic Valentine’s Day baby pink. But the sentiment in Made for Love strays far from anything you’ll find at Victoria’s Secret.
For intimate presents between lovers in early America, skimpy lingerie was completely out of the question. Although relationship practices were gradually evolving, history professor Cynthia Russett said, the culture of “courtship” during the 18th and 19th centuries was very formal.
“By the late 18th century, young people were beginning to have a little more say in their marriages, which, previously, to a large extent, had been arranged by parents,” Russett said. “But of course, when you were in any relationship, even in the 19th century … there was much more of an expectation that anything of the sort would turn into a marriage.”
The “intimate” gifts featured in “Made for Love” reflect this more rigidly structured courtship ritual. A large decorative fork and ladle hang on the exhibition wall near a dowry chest. Likely a husband’s gift to his new bride, these culinary tools, which were not meant to be used, represent a domestic tenderness between two new spouses.
Reflecting the bittersweet sentimentality of the time, “Made for Love” also features several pieces of miniature furniture made especially for children. Because of the high child mortality rate, Eisenbarth said, such items showed a parental tenderness toward children and their unique place in a difficult world.
“There was almost a ‘Cult of Dying Young’ in the 19th century,” Russett said. “Children were seen and valued as children, rather than assets, because many of them would not live on to become income-earning adults.”
The exhibit also features a small case of more familiar tokens that bear resemblance to today’s valentines. Small cards and books with pages decorated with colorful flowers were exchanged between girl friends. Many of these small items are embellished not only with ribbon, but also with real human hair. While this practice may seem unusual today, it was common during the time.
The objects in “Made for Love” also address the place of these historical crafts in the canon of art. While these objects may look out of place next to Hopper paintings, the attention given to them by the exhibit asks the viewer to reconsider his or her definition of art.
“This exhibit will be an interesting addition to a current hot topic in the art world: What is the role of craft items in the realm of high art?” said Alice Shyy ’08, a YUAG Gallery Guide. “From the YUAG’s inclusion of studio furniture and other decorative arts in its permanent collection, it seems that their answer is, ‘An important one.’”
“Made for Love,” which remains open through August 26, will be accompanied by the 15th Annual Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque Memorial Symposium, “Hand and Heart: Collecting, Curating and Creating American Folk Art,” which will be held on March 30 and 31 at the YUAG.