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Home | Articles | Curator's Choice—New Decorative and Fine Arts Displays at Winterthur

A section of the textile gallery illustrating various printing techniques.

The new exhibitions in the galleries at Winterthur showcase the collections in a way they have never before been seen. Focusing on specific media, displays have been crafted from the more than 85,000 museum objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1860. Themes in each gallery are built around such questions as How were things made? How were they used? How do we know what they are? Objects selected include everything from craftsmen’s tools to exquisite works of art, many of which are on view for the first time.

In Style gives an overview of the distinguishing characteristics of the eight major design styles popular in America from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. Perusing the length of the gallery, the visitor can see how specific objects changed in response to fashion—how a picture frame became more or less ornate, how chairs became more comfortable, or how textile designs responded to fashionable imagery. Each vignette includes similar objects, but the changes in line, color, and ornamentation illustrate the fashions of a particular time period, creating an excellent introduction to American decorative arts.

The gallery of prints and paintings includes portraits by Thomas Sully (1783–1872) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) as well as Pennsylvania German fraktur and examples from Winterthur’s extensive American print collection.

The exhibition In Wood presents various aspects of Winterthur’s world-renowned furniture collection. In one section, a cabinetmaker’s chest of tools, samples of raw materials, and designers’ pattern books introduce the visitor to the techniques and taste choices that were part of the cabinetmaking process. A wall of chairs dating from the 1750s to the 1850s illustrates both regional and chronological development in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. An area devoted to changing displays ensures that visitors will benefit from current research projects and will learn something new upon each return.

Visitors who think of Winterthur as a decorative arts museum will be surprised by the caliber of works in the new art gallery. Many of the paintings, prints, and drawings have not been seen for decades. The new display includes important paintings such as John Singleton Copley’s (1738–1815) portrait The Gore Children and a spectacular painting of Dr. David Hosack by Thomas Sully (1783–1872). Tools and copper plates reveal the techniques used to create a variety of prints, with examples from the comprehensive collection illustrating each process. A changing display of watercolor sketches by John Lewis Krimmel (1786–1821) depicts day-to-day life in early-nineteenth-century Philadelphia. From colorful fraktur of the Pennsylvania Germans to sophisticated portrait paintings of America’s favorite sons and daughters, the collection holds many wonderful surprises.

A corner of the furniture gallery is devoted to the identification of wood and the shaping of wood through templates, turning, and carving.
Textiles were one of museum founder Henry Francis du Pont’s first loves. From quilts to gowns, and needlework pictures to bed covers, Winterthur has some of the finest works of textile art made or used in America. The newly displayed gallery opens with Fashions and Furnishings and includes eighteenth-century gowns, bed hangings, and slipcovers—all expensive textiles that identified a person’s taste, cultural background, and wealth. Displays of quilted, woven, and printed textiles culminate in Needlework: Plain and Fancy, which highlights embroidery, lacework, and samplers. Because of the light-sensitive nature of these objects there will be regular changes in the new textile galleries, making repeat visits a must.

The ceramics and glass gallery exhibits the remarkable survivors of these fragile art forms. Examples from Winterthur’s extensive holdings of American glass, English pottery, and Chinese, French, and American porcelain are used to explore themes relating to production techniques, trade, and changes in consumers’ tastes. Visitors can learn how to distinguish between earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain, study the products of early American glassmakers, or learn how to set a fashionable tea table. During the year, displays will change to focus on new themes.

The metals gallery includes displays of silver, brass, and iron, exploring the properties of the different metals to reveal what makes them suitable or unsuitable for certain purposes. Art and industry unite as visitors also learn how metals were formed into functional and beautiful objects. From the simple elegance of a Paul Revere silver bowl to the glorious ostentation of a Victorian gas chandelier, this gallery illustrates the metals so integral to the life of early Americans.

In creating these displays, Winterthur’s curators wish to engage visitors in new ways. While the period room tours give the collections their context, the improved gallery installations explore themes that spring from a study of the objects themselves. The various interpretations and presentations offer enriching visits, time and again.

Patricia Halfpenny is Director of Museum Collections, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware. She was formerly keeper of ceramics at the City Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. She is an authority on eighteenth-century Staffordshire pottery.

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