Yale University Art Gallery’s most recent exhibition — “Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830” — will be the subject of a Wednesday gallery talk on French connections in Rhode Island furniture.
The collection embodies the aesthetic diversity of New England’s furniture production from the 17th to the 19th century, according to a press release by the YUAG . Patricia Kane GRD ’87, the Friends of American Arts curator of American decorative arts responsible for organizing the exhibition, said the exhibition features pieces from the first Rhode Island settlements in the 1650s to those of 1830, when the “small-shop industry” declined, giving way to the wholesale furniture market. In addition to showcasing 106 pieces of furniture such as cabinets, bureaus, chairs and clocks, the exhibition will include paintings and symbolic items.
“The show is a chronological survey that brings to light the aspects of Rhode Island furniture that are otherwise little understood,” Kane said.
Kane said that since many visitors are not versed in American furniture history, the exhibition includes supplementary items, such as a silver chalice owned by the Yale collection that addresses religious diversity and that serves to provide historical context to viewers.
Items in the exhibition are chiefly drawn from private collections or are on loan from other museums. Sixty-four lenders contributed to the exhibition, and the University owns only five of the furniture pieces on display, Kane said.
Integrated within the display are robust technological reinforcements: IPads provide additional information about the show’s five featured objects — one of which is a 1740s high chest attributed to Newport furniture maker Christopher Townsend — and three instructional videos show contemporary furniture makers constructing modern replicas of the furniture on display.
“The innovative combination of historic objects, hands-on reproductions, and digital media explaining construction and manufacture is excellent,” said Philippe Halbert GRD ’21, who is giving this Wednesday’s gallery talk at the YUAG.
Xiao Situ DIV ’17, a Wurtele Gallery Teacher who uses the exhibition for teaching K-12 and adult groups, said she thinks it is important for people to watch the process that links raw materials for furniture to a final product. Situ added that the exhibition of furniture-making in Rhode Island provides an avenue into early American history.
Halbert highlighted the Townsend chest as an example of the objects’ grounding in history. He said the mahogany used in the chest’s construction came from the Caribbean Basin, which is indicative of developed trade networks in the colonial Americas. Halbert also noted that the timing of the exhibition coincides with a History of Art course on global decorative arts taught by Edward Cooke this semester.
In her classes, Situ said she uses an over-mantle painting by an anonymous artist depicting a family portrait with a black servant to examine the reason furniture was able to exist: the availability of slave labor.
“It is an opportunity to open up a conversation about how beautiful objects always have a different perspective to the story,” Situ said. “I don’t know how many past exhibitions of American furniture have discussed the role of the slave trade, so it’s a small intervention that I can include in my tour.”
Kane spent most of 2014 travelling to 23 institutions — both museums and private collections — to speak to museum curators and further research the exhibition. These travels, Kane said, were opportunities for her to uncover other important pieces to include in the collection.
Caryne Eskridge, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts, said a more comprehensive understanding of the furniture emerges when historical court and town-hall records and physical evidence are combined.
Halbert said the exhibit’s “versatile and dynamic approach” to studying Rhode Island furniture serves as a model for interdisciplinary research at Yale.
But despite over a decade of research, conceptualization and sourcing, Kane maintains that the exhibition is not exhaustive and that there are still gaps in her knowledge.
“In 1756, five cabinet makers in Providence signed a price-fixing agreement regarding the prices they’d agree to charge for different types of furniture,” Kane explained. “There is no evidence of signed pieces by any of the five, and we had hoped to identify what they were making.”
Additionally, after analyzing the genealogy of a Newport family and attempting to trace a married couple with the corresponding initials that were engraved in a table, Kane said she and her colleagues were never able to pin down the table’s original owners.
Although the exhibition brings the academic understanding of Rhode Island furniture to a new level, Kane insists that surprises continually emerge as she endeavors to piece together the historical narrative that informs these increasingly valuable relics.
Kane described the current challenge facing furniture historians: the ability to distinguish between the different kinds of mahogany in the Caribbean and Central America.
The exhibition is on display until Jan. 8, 2017.