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

October 10, 2001–January 6, 2002

Pioneer in the Textile Industry and Interior Design Profession

Candace Wheeler was a pioneering woman in the textile industry as well as in the interior design profession in the United States. At the age of forty-nine, Wheeler—a wife, mother, and amateur flower painter—visited the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where she saw an exhibition of embroideries made at London's Royal School of Art Needlework. The Royal School (which still exists) had been formed to teach women to create needleworks of professional quality, thereby providing them with a means of support. Inspired by the Royal School, Wheeler in 1877 founded the New York Society of Decorative Art, an organization devoted to helping American women artists and artisans gain training in the applied arts, and helped to start related societies in Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit, Troy (N.Y.), and Charleston (S.C.).

One year later, Wheeler also helped launch the New York Exchange for Women's Work (still extant), a center where a woman could sell any product that she could manufacture at home, including baked goods and household linens. Wheeler's early prizewinning embroideries are on view in this section of the exhibition, including a set of portieres—curtains that were hung in doorways for warmth and decoration—entitled "Consider the Lillies of the Field" (1879). Made of contrasting colored panels of cotton and wool with painted and embroidered renderings of wild orange lilies, the portieres, made for a Society of Decorative Art competition, are Wheeler's first known large-scale textiles. Also on view is a superb screen (ca. 1876) made by craftswomen at the Royal School of Art Needlework and based on a design of peacocks and flowers by the English artist Walter Crane (1845–1915).