Yale Showcases Rhode Island Furniture

By Patricia E. Kane,
Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, and Director of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive

In August, the Yale University Art Gallery will open the first major exhibition of early Rhode Island furniture in half a century. Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 illustrates Rhode Island’s standing at the center of a dynamic and active cabinetmaking trade during the colonial and Federal periods and features some of the most iconic pieces of American furniture ever created.

The show gathers more than one hundred examples­, including masterpieces of American furniture such as elaborate block-and-shell case pieces from Newport and Providence long appreciated for their craftsmanship and design innovation. These are presented alongside objects made in smaller towns, such as Warren and Coventry, illuminating how their makers interpreted the styles of the more populous centers (as seen in the comparison between the two desks and bookcases shown here). Prints, paintings, silver and architectural elements provide a broader cultural context for the furniture. The installation also includes videos of contemporary craftsmen making reproductions of objects in the exhibition.

Drawing on decades of research, Art and Industry reexamines not only the artistry of the furniture made throughout Rhode Island but also the cultural and commercial system in which it was made. Whether working in prosperous port cities or smaller agricultural towns, Rhode Island craftsmen produced objects that combined artistry and industry, design and engineering. Their furniture graced homes both grand and humble and was shipped to ports both near and far, fueling Rhode Island’s commercial economy within the Atlantic world.

Visitors will encounter 17th century chairs and chests that show multiple influences, mirroring the diverse backgrounds of early colonists of British, Dutch, and French descent. By the mid-18th century, considered Rhode Island’s golden age of cabinetmaking, a recognizable style had developed, and furniture made for export became a large part of the cabinetmaking business. Pieces made after the American Revolution demonstrate the gradual decline of the handcraft tradition, as small shops serving local markets gave way to a wholesale economy.

The exhibition is accompanied a comprehensive publication, featuring more than 400 objects that demonstrate the superb workmanship and artistic skill of Rhode Island’s furniture makers. Written by distinguished scholars, including Dennis Carr, Nancy Goyne Evans, Jennifer N. Johnson, Patricia E. Kane, and Gary R. Sullivan, the book presents new information on the export trade, patronage, artistic collaboration, and shop traditions that defined early Rhode Island craftsmanship. The show and catalogue are the culmination of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive project, a long-term fieldwork and archival survey venture that endeavored to identify extant objects as well as the joiners and cabinetmakers who produced them. The fruits of this impressive labor are fully accessible through an online database.

For additional information on the exhibition and publication, visit http://artgallery.yale.edu. To access the Rhode Island Furniture Archive database, visit rifa.art.yale.edu. Yale is hosting a symposium related to the exhibition on September 15-16. Trust members will have the opportunity to tour the show with Pat Kane on October 14. Please stay tuned for more details.

UPCOMING EVENTS

By Patricia E. Kane,
Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, and Director of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive

In August, the Yale University Art Gallery will open the first major exhibition of early Rhode Island furniture in half a century. Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830 illustrates Rhode Island’s standing at the center of a dynamic and active cabinetmaking trade during the colonial and Federal periods and features some of the most iconic pieces of American furniture ever created.

The show gathers more than one hundred examples­, including masterpieces of American furniture such as elaborate block-and-shell case pieces from Newport and Providence long appreciated for their craftsmanship and design innovation. These are presented alongside objects made in smaller towns, such as Warren and Coventry, illuminating how their makers interpreted the styles of the more populous centers (as seen in the comparison between the two desks and bookcases shown here). Prints, paintings, silver and architectural elements provide a broader cultural context for the furniture. The installation also includes videos of contemporary craftsmen making reproductions of objects in the exhibition.

Drawing on decades of research, Art and Industry reexamines not only the artistry of the furniture made throughout Rhode Island but also the cultural and commercial system in which it was made. Whether working in prosperous port cities or smaller agricultural towns, Rhode Island craftsmen produced objects that combined artistry and industry, design and engineering. Their furniture graced homes both grand and humble and was shipped to ports both near and far, fueling Rhode Island’s commercial economy within the Atlantic world.

Visitors will encounter 17th century chairs and chests that show multiple influences, mirroring the diverse backgrounds of early colonists of British, Dutch, and French descent. By the mid-18th century, considered Rhode Island’s golden age of cabinetmaking, a recognizable style had developed, and furniture made for export became a large part of the cabinetmaking business. Pieces made after the American Revolution demonstrate the gradual decline of the handcraft tradition, as small shops serving local markets gave way to a wholesale economy.

The exhibition is accompanied a comprehensive publication, featuring more than 400 objects that demonstrate the superb workmanship and artistic skill of Rhode Island’s furniture makers. Written by distinguished scholars, including Dennis Carr, Nancy Goyne Evans, Jennifer N. Johnson, Patricia E. Kane, and Gary R. Sullivan, the book presents new information on the export trade, patronage, artistic collaboration, and shop traditions that defined early Rhode Island craftsmanship. The show and catalogue are the culmination of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive project, a long-term fieldwork and archival survey venture that endeavored to identify extant objects as well as the joiners and cabinetmakers who produced them. The fruits of this impressive labor are fully accessible through an online database.

For additional information on the exhibition and publication, visit http://artgallery.yale.edu. To access the Rhode Island Furniture Archive database, visit rifa.art.yale.edu. Yale is hosting a symposium related to the exhibition on September 15-16. Trust members will have the opportunity to tour the show with Pat Kane on October 14. Please stay tuned for more details.

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