Plainly Fancy

A new exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society examines the colorful American style born in a burst of early national pride.

December 20, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The undoubtedly admirable Daniel C. Knowles sits at a parlor table and reads the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette in a charming watercolor on display at the Maryland Historical Society as part of an exhibit called American Fancy.

Created by itinerant New England painter Joseph H. Davis, the watercolor also depicts Knowles' wife, Mary, sitting with a book on her lap - perhaps a prayer book, or a romance novel. A portrait of President Andrew Jackson hangs in the center of a swag of greenery behind the husband and wife.

The table is gaily decorated in the multicolor style of 1836, and the kaleidoscopic carpet beneath, on which a cat lounges, is almost gaudy. The young couple is soberly dressed mostly in black, but Daniel wears a white ruffled shirt and colorful waistcoat and Mary wears a fancy bonnet with a blue ribbon, and a jaunty pattern edges her apron.

Davis' watercolor captures splendidly the middle-class consumers who embraced an ebullient style called American Fancy, which, buoyed by the exuberance of the young American republic, burst onto the scene around 1790 and lasted nearly half a century until the dark divisions of race and economic stress deepened. And Baltimore - "distinguished by its gaudy splendor," British author Frances Trollope wrote in 1832 - adopted Fancy with great gusto.

Curator Sumpter T. Priddy III says American Fancy "starts out upper class, very expensive, avant-garde, delicate and refined. It becomes everyday pretty quickly."

Priddy literally wrote the book on Fancy, a monograph titled American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, published by the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, Wis., where the show first opened in April at the Milwaukee Museum. The exhibition went to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Mass. The Maryland Historical Society is the last stop on this cross-country tour. The more than 200 objects and artifacts in the installation will remain here until March 20.

"This stuff was the right style to reflect the upbeat American perception of itself, the American mood, after victory, first in the Revolutionary War. and then the War of 1812," Priddy says. "It was a huge phenomenon in the period. We've lost how tremendous it was. Fancy was the biggest advertising word in America between 1790 and 1840. It was hot. Hot!"

Introduced as "the mastermind of American Fancy" at a Sunday lecture at the Historical Society, Priddy began exploring the style nearly 25 years ago while he earned his master's degree as a fellow at the Winterthur Program of Early American Culture. His thesis was Fancy: acceptance of an attitude, emergence of a style. He also worked six years as a curator at Colonial Williamsburg.

"We love to think of ourselves as an egalitarian society, whatever the truth of it may or may not be," Priddy says, walking through the exhibition. "This material has always had an appeal because it really is perceived to be everyman's art. And this was, in its own way, the first democratic American style because everybody was able to participate [in it] across the social spectrum.

"Everybody enjoyed ornament for the first time. [Earlier] it was something only the wealthy could in any articulate way have any aspirations to. And now in the early 19th century everybody did."

And ornament they did. In his book, Priddy begins by contrasting the white-on-white Grecian interior of an elite New York home with the colorful Fancy parlor of another New Hampshire couple like the Knowleses. Fancy confronts the classic with the contemporary, reason with imagination, chaste white with wild color, stillness with motion.

"Fancy came to signify almost any activity or object that delighted the human spirit or stirred the imagination," says the introduction at the entrance to the exhibition.

"Wild, dizzying patterns and brilliant colors danced across the surfaces of objects in celebrations of middle-class Americans' optimism, energy and excitement about the prospects for their new country."

Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by the exuberant patriotism of a transparent window shade painted with a white-gowned Liberty placing a laurel wreath atop a marble bust of Washington, while trampling the British crown underfoot. Highlandtown painted screens are perhaps a more sedate domestic descendant.

Some of the pieces that pop up throughout the exhibit are quite goofy. A writing armchair from Boston upholstered in bright-red cut velvet, with a handsome river scene painted on the crest board, wouldn't look out of place with Elvis Presley sitting in it. A comic figure painted at the bottom of a chamber pot announces on a sash, like Popeye speaking via a cartoon balloon: "Keep me clean and use me well and what I see I will not tell."

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