Nineteenth Century Watercolor Interiors Exhibition

The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is presenting “House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection,” a special exhibition that examines the evolution of the domestic interior in 19th-century Europe. Cooper-Hewitt explores the origins of the modern home through Eugene and Clare Thaw’s generous gift to the museum of eighty-five 19th-century interior watercolors. On view in the museum’s first-floor galleries through January 25, 2009, “House Proud” features seventy-one watercolor drawings, alongside selected objects from the museum’s collection of wallpapers, textiles, ceramics and furniture. The exhibition is organized by Gail S. Davidson, curator and head of the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design Department, and associate curator Floramae McCarron-Cates.

“House Proud” explores the concept of the house and its interior spaces as a source of pride, convenience and personal status, which originated in the 19th century as a result of the rising bourgeoisie, the development of a consumer economy, the industrial revolution and the emergence of the woman as guardian of the house. With this glorification of the home, the commissioning of watercolors to document newly constructed or renovated domestic interiors developed among European royalty, nobility and the upper-middle class. The drawings – executed by both amateur artists and professional watercolor painters – were collected in albums as heirlooms; presented as gifts to betrothed children or visiting royalty; or displayed in drawing rooms to impress invited company.

The Thaw collection spans the entire 19th century and includes examples of English, German, Russian, French, Italian and Austrian domestic spaces, with work by such watercolor artists as Charlotte Bosanquet (1790-1852), Eduard Gaertner (1801-1877), Franz Xaver Nachtmann (1799-1846) and Rudolph von Alt (1812-1905). Through these works, the exhibition reconstructs the evolution of interior design in the 19th-century home, and explores how the interior spaces reflected the impact of social, cultural, economic and political developments. A cross section of interior design styles will be represented, offering substantial documentation of contemporary taste and revealing new information about collecting patterns, style movements and the display and arrangement of objects, textiles and other furnishings.

“The watercolors are the most important gift to the museum’s Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design Department in 30 years and provide an invaluable reference for all four of the museum’s collecting departments,” said director Paul Warwick Thompson. “The drawings will allow a fuller reading of the 19th-century objects in the museum’s collection, heighten interdepartmental connections and inform and stimulate new acquisitions across the museum.”

The watercolors meticulously detail the furnishings of the 19th-century interior, providing a window into a range of settings, from palatial halls, salons and bedrooms to humble artist studios and university rooms. Visitors will be encouraged to study the watercolors with magnifying glasses, in order to peer into the domestic spaces and study the objets d’art, collectibles and furnishings of the period. In each gallery, select objects from the permanent collection will be paired with corresponding objects depicted in the drawings.

In watercolor painting, transparent pigments are applied in thin overlapping washes, creating great depth of tone while retaining a lightness unlike any other medium. True watercolor does not employ opaque pigments or white paint, and relies only on the white paper for highlights. Gouache, by contrast, is opaque, and can be built up following the same system employed by an artist working in oils.

The watercolor medium was initially used in the late eighteenth century by highly skilled draftsmen, who produced survey drawings for architectural firms and topographers. Rarely used for portraits, watercolor may have lacked the monumentality of oil paint, but it was perfectly suited to intimate portraits of interior domestic spaces.

By the early 1800’s, numerous instruction manuals taught techniques to amateur painters, and a new industry of “color-men” sold prepared pigments to professionals and amateurs alike. An important innovation was James Whatman’s introduction in 1780 of wove paper, a paper with no discernable grid lines that provided a smooth surface. In 1832, Windsor & Newton began manufacturing watercolor paint of more consistent quality, and sold it standard tubes that replaced dry-cake watercolors.

Prior to the rise of professional watercolorists hired specifically to produce interior views of homes, amateur painters documented their surroundings. In the early nineteenth century, young upper-middle-class women were encouraged to study the arts and to cultivate their sensibilities. Tutors instructed them in music and painting, and the students often chose as subject the interiors of their homes, recording with great care the minutiae of their lives.

Organized according to the development of the domestic interior, “House Proud” begins with formal salons in royal palaces and country homes, including some residences with Chinese wallcoverings, ceramics and furniture, showing the influence of exotic cultures on Western European taste. Also on view are salons reflecting the revival of period styles, including neoclassicism, gothic and rococo revival, which encouraged continual cycles of decorating and redecorating. These watercolor interiors were often reproduced in books and popular media, influencing middle-class consumers to take direction in their own furnishings from the aristocratic palaces and country estates.

The second gallery focuses on interior views of the drawing room, where the most money and attention was lavished in an effort to impress visitors, and the winter garden, which developed concurrently with the growing fascination with botany and the cultivation of plants.

The third gallery of the exhibition features watercolors demonstrating the rise of gender-specific rooms including libraries, sitting rooms and bedrooms. A fourth gallery features such activity-based interiors as music rooms and artists’ studios.

Through contextual materials, the exhibition traces the technological advances in textile and furniture manufacturing, evident in a series of English and Russian interiors, and addresses the rise of photography, which replaced watercolor interiors as a more truthful medium available in a shorter time and at a lower cost.

A 192-page, full-color catalog, with essays by Davidson; Charlotte Gere, noted historian of interior design; and McCarron-Cates and published by Cooper-Hewitt, accompanies the exhibition.

“House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection” is made possible in part by the Arthur Ross Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Esme Usdan Exhibition Endowment Fund; Jan and Warren Adelson; The Felicia Fund; Albert Hadley Inc.; Mr. and Mrs. Frederic A. Sharf; Oceanic Graphic Printing (USA) Inc.; and the Fifth Floor Foundation.

“Clare and I were delighted to present this collection to Cooper-Hewitt, which will offer new perspectives on the works through educational programs, exhibitions and publications,” said Thaw. “We can think of no more fitting home for these works, where the drawings will serve as a central reference for visiting scholars of design and decorative arts and are sure to delight countless visitors by offering a portal into the 19th century.”

“This group of watercolors constitutes one of the top collections of 19th-century drawings of interiors in the world,” said Gere, whose research and scholarship informed Thaw’s collection of these works. “The collection covers the subject of 19th-century interiors from the grandest royal palaces to the artistic vicarage in rural England, and, apart from the drawings’ exceptional artistic quality, the collection’s true strength is its breadth.”

The interior watercolor collection is the third gift from Eugene and Clare Thaw, who, in 2006, presented the museum with a collection of 18th-century ceramics from the region of Moustiers, France, including a rare pair of Rococo potpourri vases and covers and a major pair of urns; and a collection of more than two dozen staircase models and related technical drawings.

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The museum presents compelling perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational programs, exhibitions and publications. Founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt – granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper – as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the museum has been a branch of the Smithsonian since 1967.

Cooper-Hewitt is located at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue in New York City. Hours are Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Public transit routes include the Lexington Avenue 4, 5 and 6 subways (86th or 96th Street stations) and the Fifth and Madison Avenue buses. General admission, $15; senior citizens and students ages 12 and older, $10. Cooper-Hewitt members and children younger than age 12 are admitted free. For further information, call (212) 849-8300 or visit www.cooperhewitt.org.

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