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Exhibitions/ Candace Wheeler

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

October 10, 2001–January 6, 2002

Exhibition Overview

Candace Wheeler (1827–1924) was America's first important woman textile and interior designer. Through approximately 105 textiles, wallpapers, paintings, photographs, and objects, this exhibition surveys Wheeler's long life and the highlights of her career. The main focus of the exhibition is the period between 1877, when Wheeler founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York, and 1893, when she served as the interior decorator of the Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her textile designs, many based upon American plants and flowers drawn in sinuously flowing patterns, are central to the exhibition. Also included are paintings, graphics, and furniture by her associates, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Lockwood de Forest.

A selection of fifty luxurious textiles in a variety of fibers, such as silk, cotton, linen, and metallic blends designed by Wheeler and the members of her textile and interior design firm, Associated Artists, are among the highlights of the exhibition. These textiles range from beautifully appliquéd and embroidered hangings to flowing yardage of warp-printed silk. An ornately carved and inlaid armchair (1879) by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) and two examples of teakwood furniture, made in India, by Lockwood de Forest (1850–1932) are also featured. Wheeler worked with both American design luminaries prior to creating her own firm in 1883.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.
Additional support for the catalogue has been provided by the William Cullen Bryant Fellows.
The symposium is supported by the Clara Lloyd-Smith Weber Fund.

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).

In 1879, Wheeler, then fifty-two years of age, co-founded the interior-decorating firm of Tiffany & Wheeler with legendary designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Wheeler served as the partner specializing in textiles. This firm and the firm that grew out of it in 1880—Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Associated Artists—decorated some of New York City's most important houses and public buildings. These include the Veterans' Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City (still extant), the Madison Square Theatre, The Union League Club, the George Kemp house, and the drawing room of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II house. The interiors of Mark Twain's Hartford home—today a house museum open to the public—were also designed by Tiffany, Wheeler, and other members of Associated Artists.

Period photographs and prints of these projects, and a rare surviving "Arabian-style" armchair (attributed to Tiffany, ca. 1879) are on view in this section of "Candace Wheeler." The chair, from the parlor of the Kemp house, is made of pale holly wood with inlays of darker wood, and was inspired by furniture from Egypt and the Near East. It typifies the exotic sensibility of Tiffany's earliest interiors. An example of one of the first manufactured textiles that can be attributed to Tiffany and Wheeler, an opulent piece of gold and pale blue silk damask in a thistle pattern (1881), custom-made for the main salon of a yacht, is also being shown in this section of the exhibition.

After splitting with Tiffany in 1883, Wheeler went on to form her own textile design firm, also named Associated Artists. At a time when the country usually looked abroad to discover the latest in sophisticated style, Wheeler sought to develop a new aesthetic for American design. Her firm aimed at creating fabrics for all levels of the market, with works ranging from special-order, hand-embroidered silk wall hangings to yard goods of printed cotton denim. Convinced that there was a market for authentically American design, Wheeler collaborated with the domestic textile industry, most notably the silk manufacturer Cheney Brothers of South Manchester, Connecticut, to produce innovative and beautiful textiles.

Many of Wheeler's designs were sinuous depictions of native flowers, woven in colors that suggested the brilliant quality of American light. Textiles by Associated Artists are among the highlights of "Candace Wheeler." One gallery is devoted to specially commissioned works the firm created for their wealthiest clients. The Tulip Portiere (ca. 1884), appliquéd with full-blown, pink silk velvet flowers on a metallic gold cloth, and the Iris Portiere (1884), in which beadwork dragonflies alight upon a lush bed of irises embroidered in purple, gold, and green silk floss, are stellar pieces on view. Another gallery displays the work of the young associates that Wheeler brought into her firm, including her daughter Dora Wheeler (1856–1940), Rosina Emmet (1854–1948), Ida Clark (1858–?), and Caroline Townsend (1854–89). In addition to creating textiles, these younger women were graphic designers and illustrators as well as painters. Early works by Dora Wheeler and Rosina Emmet, who had studied under William Merritt Chase, are highlights of this section of the exhibition. Chase's extraordinary portrait of Dora (1883)—in a vibrant blue dress, portraying the confident "new" woman, looking boldly out upon a world full of opportunities—is also featured.

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.

Wheeler's later life, including the years she spent at her beloved Onteora—the artists' colony she founded in New York State's Catskill Mountains—is the focus of the gallery that concludes the exhibition. Wheeler was a prolific writer, and she spent much of her "retirement" writing books and articles on decorating and the textile arts, as well as fiction. Photographs, drawings, and paintings of Onteora are on view, in addition to a selection of some of her best-known books. A highlight of this section is a charming pastel portrait of the eighty-three-year-old Wheeler, drawn by her daughter Dora in 1910. Wheeler published her last book in 1921, and died in 1923, at the age of ninety-six.