Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875–1900

October 10, 2001–January 6, 2002

Decorator of Interiors

During the late 1880s, as Wheeler started to become more involved with the decoration of entire interiors for clients, she became one of the first women to work professionally in a field dominated by male upholsterers, architects, and cabinetmakers. The highest honor of her career came in 1893, when, at the age of sixty-six, she was asked to serve as the interior decorator of the Woman's Building at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, and to organize the State of New York's applied arts exhibition there. In the section of the exhibition devoted to this project, a settee—the only piece of furniture that can be firmly attributed to Wheeler—is on view, along with period photographs of Wheeler's interiors. Wheeler designed the settee in the idiom of the newly emerging Arts and Crafts style; it was originally part of a large suite of furniture in the Library of the Woman's Building.

Two extraordinary textiles that represent the later work of Associated Artists are featured in the gallery about the Chicago Exposition—a hanging embroidered with garlands of pink silk roses, and the only surviving example of the large-scale embroideries that Wheeler called "needlewoven tapestries." Based on a drawing made by Dora Wheeler when she was studying painting at the Academy Julian in Paris, the tapestry depicts Penelope, wife of Odysseus, unraveling the fabric on her loom by lamplight. This four-foot by six-foot embroidery, now in fragile condition, exemplifies the high level of skill of the needleworkers in Wheeler's firm, and explains the accolades they received for bringing new sophistication, and indeed art, to the field of embroidery.

Throughout the 1880s, Wheeler and her firm designed a wide array of textiles. Included in the exhibition are velveteens in warm earth tones printed with swirling daffodils or trumpet vines and discharge-printed denims depicting Japanesque scenes of fish in bubbling water. Wheeler's most famous fabrics, the delicate warp-printed silks in shimmering hues—she called them "shadow silks" because of the way in which the patterns shifted with changing effects of light—are also being displayed. One such shadow silk portrays water lilies with a softness and luminosity reminiscent of Tiffany blown glass, and also resembles some Impressionist paintings.