The history of visual art in Connecticut usually is traced to the first professional painter, William Johnston of Boston, who began working in the region around 1762.
But, as Susan P. Schoelwer notes in the introduction to a new scholarly catalog, "at least two decades earlier, … talented and skillful Connecticut women had begun creating pictures on canvas — assembling color, line and iconography into visual compositions intended for display."
The key words may be that they were women and that the pieces were meant to be decorative displays of their needlework skills. And though the works were handed down over the generations, they weren't considered objects of art until the rise of women's studies and fabric arts in the 1970s.
Because of their delicacy and sensitivity to light, needleworks done in the late 18th century and early 19th century rarely are seen. But two new exhibits that opened in the state this week show the wealth of creativity and craft in needlework of the era, depicing domestic surroundings, classical tableaus, family coats of arms, samplers, memorials and phrases to live by. Both shows feature many works never before publicly displayed.
"With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley" at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme makes a case for specific approaches to stitching techniques by town and private school. Hartford, site of two major private girls' schools, The Royse School and the Misses Pattens' School, and Wethersfield, Norwich, South Hadley, Mass., and Deerfield each had its own distinctive style.
Schoolgirl work also is represented in "Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art and Family, 1740-1840," which opened this week at the Connecticut Historical Society, with 82 pieces representing 32 Connecticut towns, almost entirely drawn from the society's own collection. The exhibition also includes some spectacular examples of early bed rugs, samplers dating back to 1762, with notations that make them easy to trace ("Mary Bidwell is my name, English is my nation, Hartford is my dweling [sic] pl[ace], and Christ is my salvation") and most notably the work of Prudence Punderson Rossiter, who created remarkable scenes of allegory and life.
The Hartford exhibit also includes "Pictures of Twelve Apostles," in which the religious figures are all wearing contemporary (18th-century) clothes, most also accompanied by a descriptions of their lurid deaths (St. Simon "sawed in two alive"; St. James "beheaded at Jerusalem"; St. Philip "first cruficied, then stoned to death"; St. Thomas, "thrust through with a lance").
The tour de force is a tiny panel by Prudence Punderson Rossiter titled "The First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality" that not only reflected a woman's life in those days, but represents a whole allegory from cradle to coffin. The historical society has not only the work itself, which inspired a recent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, but also the table and mirror depicted in the piece, dated to 1758-84.
Life wasn't easy for the Pundersons. Loyalists, they had to flee to Long Island at one point, where threads and textiles were more difficult to obtain. But the family had a needlework tradition, seen in both a full floral family bed hanging made by Prudence's mother, Prudence Geer Punderson, and a sampler made by her sister, Hannah.
Names And Dates
Scholarship was made easier for historians, says historical society executive director Kate Steinway, not only by families who held onto heirlooms, but by women who often prominently signed and dated their works.
Even the bold floral bed rugs that begin the exhibit are marked with initials or prominently display names and dates.
Things are even more explicit in the samplers and especially the family registers, which mark the birth and death dates of families. Along these lines, embroidery of fancy memorials depicting gravestones under weeping willow trees and flanked by mourning family members became very popular.
John Trumbull may have been the most famous artist in the family of the state's first governor, with his famous official portraits of George Washington. But he was inspired by his older sister Faith Trumbull, whose pastoral scenes are part of the historical society show. "These wonders were hung in my mother's parlor and were among the first objects that caught my infant eye," John Trumbull is quoted as saying in the "Connecticut Needlework" catalog. "I endeavored to imitate them."
Faith Trumbull went to private schools to learn her craft, at a cost much greater than sending a male to boarding school. The girls' schools are celebrated in the show at the Griswold, itself once the sight of such a school.
Carol and Stephen Huber of Old Saybrook curated the Griswold show, which is notable not only in the quality of the works but the youth of the women who produced them. Buildings were depicted so faithfully one can tell they are of early Wethersfield, Norwich or Middletown, and the renderings of trees, flowers and birds display the depth of the girls' skills. Signatures tell of their precociousness, as one by Alice Mather of Lyme, who signs "her sampler made in the twelvth year of her age, July 8th, 1774."
Before reform in 1930 brought education to American girls, private schools were almost exclusively, except for music, dedicated to learning embroidery arts. The students' finished work was meant to show, with their classical themes and poetic quotes, that the young women were erudite and educated and thus very eligible for marriage.
The Griswold exhibit does a good job exacting the precise details that identify samplers by their region. Those with black backgrounds often reflect works made in Norwich; those with certain white doves identify a Deerfield origin.
Although both exhibitions were planned separately, the two institutions have shared scholarship.
Schoelwer — the former director of museum collections at the historical society, who is now curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens — curated the exhibit and authored "Connecticut Needlework: Women Art and Family, 1740-1840" (Connecticut Historical Society/Wesleyan University Press, $65 hardcover, $30 softcover). She also wrote an essay for the book the Griswold Museum will produce, "With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley" ( Florence Griswold Museum/Wesleyan University Press, $45 and $30).
And the Hubers, who curated the Griswold Museum exhibit, are among the sponsors of the exhibit at Connecticut Historical Society.
Both museums also helped promote the other's exhibit, hoping to bring needlework aficionados from out of state to take in both shows. "We think of it as a plus," Steinway says.
"Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art and Family: 1740-1840" is on display at the Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth St., Hartford, through March 26, 2011. Hours are Thursday through Friday noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6, $3 for seniors and students. In addition, the Connecticut Historical Society hosts a one-day conference on "Connecticut Needlework" Oct. 30 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Information: 860-236-5621 or http://www.chs.org.
"With Needle & Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley" continues at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, through Jan. 30, 2011. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $9, $8 for seniors, $7 for students and free for 12 and younger. Information: 860-434-5542 or http://www.flogris.org.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times