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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Colonial Life Seen Through ‘American Quilts’

Winterthur collection comes to Milwaukee Art Museum

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In the early 19th century, 23-year-old Mary Remington meticulously stitched samplers and an exquisite whitework quilt. Along with faithfully practicing her needlework, Remington also wrote 29 letters to her fiancé, who often worked on the open seas. Remington’s letters detailed culture, design, industry and politics in colonial America.

The whitework piece, which Remington crafted in 1815, remains the only known example of an American quilt designed with a coat of arms honoring the family’s heritage. This superb quilt as well as the couple’s correspondence impart heartfelt context to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “American Quilts: Selections from the Winterthur Collection.”

Forty selections from more than 300 quilts collected by Delaware’s Winterthur Museum travel to Milwaukee for the exhibit’s May 22 opening. The quilts demonstrate how decorative arts can provide insight into the cultures and events of their times—in this case, the early years of the United States. The exhibit runs through Sept. 6.

Among decorative arts, historical textiles remain one of the most difficult forms to display, especially the fragile quilts. Susceptible to deterioration and discoloration from handling and light, each quilt can be exhibited for only a short period of time. An exhibit featuring 40 quilts from the prestigious Winterthur collection presents a rare opportunity to appreciate handiwork documenting individual American stories.

Signs of the Times

The exhibition’s quilts exemplify the subjects that Remington wrote about in her letters, including the techniques she used in the quilts, from appliqué and crewel to piecing and stuffed work. All these delicate stitches, accomplished by the glow of candlelight, attest to the duties undertaken by 18th- and 19th-century women.

Some fashionable quilts—including Remington’s whitework, with its crest perfectly sewn in the middle of an oval medallion—even integrated patterns resembling the period’s prominent architecture and art. The patterns often reference Scottish architect Robert Adam, whose elegant neoclassicism defined our growing nation for decades.

Quilts also highlight America’s burgeoning textile industry. Luxurious silk and velvet suddenly replaced the bright-colored cotton and floral chintz once imported from England. Cotton became more affordable, and less desirable, when it was “Made in America.” So exotic fabrics, especially those printed in India, Flanders, France and Persia, became preferable to the homespun cotton used in these showpiece quilts.

One quilt from 1805, discovered in rural Maine, contains expensive dress silks from around the globe. How did this isolated seamstress access this splendor? Her father, a New England ship captain, brought them home from his extensive world travels. Even the backcountry was linked to the global economy.

The earliest quilt in the exhibition dates from the late-1600s, but most examples range from 1760 to 1850. These politically turbulent times find a voice in several of the exhibited quilts, one displaying pride in our struggling democracy by incorporating the Great Seal of the United States.

Many of the quilts recall times spent celebrating births, commemorating deaths or acknowledging marriages and other special events. Each quilt tells a story that can be enjoyed by observers of any age.

“American Quilts” weaves art with history, person and place, as seen through women’s eyes. As Catherine Sawinski, MAM’s assistant curator of earlier European art, says of the exhibit, it “demonstrates what women actually knew and felt, as opposed to what everyone’s preconceived notions were.”

Contemporary quilters have pushed the art form into abstract realms by using modern technologies such as digital sewing and photographic transfer. However, the inspiration and intent of the colonial traditions presented in this exhibit continue on, with stitchings that create memories to be passed along to future generations.

The exhibition’s curator, the Winterthur Museum’s Linda Eaton, will offer two gallery lectures (May 20 at 6:15 p.m. and May 21 at 1:30 p.m.). For more information on “American Quilts,” call (414) 224-3200 or visit www.mam.org.

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