Quilt show weaves wealth of information into a rich visual background

August 13, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

How differently works of art can be viewed, depending on the beholder's perspective.

Today, quilts are seen not only as beautiful works of art, but as one of the few ways in which 19th century women could express themselves, confined as they were to domestic life. The women's suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, however, looked down on quilts as primary symbols of "woman's unpaid subjection."

So we learn from "Four Quilts From the Collection" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Jan. 26). The title, while descriptive, may sound a little dull, but the quilts are anything but, and as usual Associate Curator of Textiles Anita Jones has used the opportunity to provide considerable information.

The late 19th century interest in Colonial America, for instance, led collectors to give quilting a "Colonial pedigree," when actually it was for the most part a later phenomenon. The largest and most spectacular quilt on display, a Star of Bethlehem more than 10 feet square, was given to the museum with an attributed date of 1768, but is now dated about 1850 based on its fabrics, style and size.

The six-pointed star has more than 1,500 diamond-shaped pieces, radiating out from the center to give a sunburst effect, with appliqued chintz blocks between the points of the stars and a chintz border.

As is the case with a great many quilts, no one knows who did this one or where it came from, except that Star of Bethlehem examples have been found from Maryland to South Carolina. Some quilts do have a complete history, however, including the chintz applique quilt of about 1840 on display, with its delicate vines, flowers and birds.

It was made by Ann Mariah Talbott Williams of Montgomery County -- perhaps for her wedding in 1841 to John Thomas Williams -- and descended in her family. Beside it in the museum's gallery is a photograph of Ann and John Williams; could either of them have guessed that one day her quilt would earn them a place on a museum's walls?

Perhaps not, but certainly this and the other quilts here were highly prized by their owners, for they were carefully preserved for generations. Sometimes, too, stories were preserved with them. The brightly colored quilt with repeating floral motifs (second quarter of the 19th century) is attributed to Lizzie Price of Baltimore, who is said to have dedicated it to the cousin and sweetheart whom she never married. The swag-and- bow/sawtooth border also provides a local connection, with the highly prized Baltimore Album Quilts.

The fourth quilt is the oldest, about 1820, and of still a different type, with printed diamonds in a pillar and floral pattern alternating with crewelwork sections.

In terms of numbers of works, this is an extremely small show. But it provides a lot to look at -- from patterns to individual motifs to intricately stitched quilting -- and a good bit to learn as well.

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