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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century American Silver

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, American silversmiths exchanged the refined, elegant aesthetic of the late 1780s and ’90s for a bolder, more substantial style. The attenuated urns, engraved swags, and geometric plinths associated with the early Federal period gave way to heavier forms, sculptural ornament, and a more confident classicism. By the 1810s, Egyptian and Imperial Roman forms were joining the artistic vocabulary, inspired by the published drawings of Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, who had accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign. French Empire styling became fashionable, particularly for dining silver. Skillfully sculpted and cast ornament, such as serpent handles or winged lion’s feet (59.152.2), reflect French influence as well. Elaborate die-stamped borders (1993.167) replaced the delicate beading or bright-cut engraving characteristic of late eighteenth-century ornament.

Silver had long been associated with ceremony and achievement, but during the nineteenth century the preponderance of presentation vessels became even greater. Political and civic successes were celebrated with monumental gifts of silver. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, for example, which set the stage for the commercial and artistic growth of New York City, prompted the creation of the extraordinary pair of vases presented to Governor DeWitt Clinton (1982.4a, b). Although inspired formally by a colossal antique marble urn, the vases are ornamented with American iconography and surmounted by American eagle finials.

The Rococo Revival style emerged during the 1830s as silversmiths and patrons rediscovered mid-eighteenth-century design. Shells and scrolls once again adorned dinnerwares (2003.382a–c), and flowers chased in high relief, called repoussé, appeared on pitchers and tea services (69.141.1a–d). American silver manufactories were established—Gorham Manufacturing Company in 1831, for instance, and Tiffany & Co. in 1837—as the industry moved from small workshops to larger factories. The Tariff of 1842 imposed a 40 percent duty on many imported goods, including silver, spurring an expansion of American production. With their love of innovation, Americans quickly embraced new technologies and modern factory practices. Presentation silver celebrated such technological achievements as the development of the telegraph (69.141.1a–d). Following the Civil War, the country’s economy burgeoned as well, increasing the demand for elaborate dining, drinking, and personal silver. It was a period of rampant eclecticism, reflected by styles such as Naturalism, japonisme (1982.349; 66.52.2), Persian (97.1.1), Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Viking Revival. The role of the designer became more central, coincident with the greater division of factory labor. Tiffany’s design department was directed by a succession of skilled and influential artists, including John C. Moore, Edward C. Moore, John T. Curran, and Paulding Farnham. Sometimes design competitions were held, as in the case of the vase presented to William Cullen Bryant on the occasion of his eightieth birthday (77.9a, b). International expositions and fairs also inspired creative designers and manufactories, who submitted their finest achievements for public display and recognition. At the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Tiffany & Co. exhibited such magnificent objects as the Museum’s Magnolia Vase (99.2) and Viking Revival punch bowl (69.4). The jewel-studded Adams Vase (04.1) was exhibited in Paris at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a new wave of interest in handcraftsmanship swayed European and American designers, tired perhaps of ornamental excess and production-line technology. This trend influenced not only individual artists, but also firms such as Gorham, which developed a new line of handwrought silver called Martelé, meaning “hammered” in French. The undulating, sensuous lines of Martelé (1974.214.26a, b) reflect the Art Nouveau style developed in Europe during the 1880s. Art Nouveau, which was at once revivalist and forward-looking, held sway until the 1910s, when changes in the economic, social, and political climate of the country caused the artistic pendulum to swing once again.