Studying the Use and Reuse of Early American Artists’ Materials at Winterthur

Sep 13, 2022

by Cambra Sklarz  

With the help of a research grant from the Decorative Arts Trust, I pursued essential resources for my dissertation about the ways that artists in 18th- and 19th-century America participated in their domestic ecosystems. Relying on all sorts of materials collected from daily life, from dung to dirt, bones to scraps of paper, potatoes to old pewter, these artists played a unique role in moving materials through cycles of consumption, waste, and reuse. My dissertation in the Department of the History of Art at the University of California, Riverside, aims to understand why these artists turned to these supplies and what meanings these materials give to their artwork. 

Though grounded in ecocritical art history, my project also draws on additional frameworks, including those concerning materials and materiality and technical art history. Through the generosity of the Decorative Arts Society of Orange County, my five-day visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware allowed me to access critical primary source documents and consult with conservators regarding the physical composition of works and other technical aspects of my project.

Lance Mayer’s and Gay Myers’s book, American Painters on Technique: The Colonial Period to 1860, has played an early and important role in my project by giving me an overview of painting materials in early America. At Winterthur, I was able to consult several key sources discussed in this book, including invoices of Carroll & Crosby, a paint and art supply company in Connecticut, and artist Thomas Sully’s memoirs. I was also able to review other works, like the inventory records of Philadelphia druggist Christopher Marshall, and personal journals with recipes for art materials, which will provide further points of reference regarding the materials and making practices common to the period. These documents are helping me consider how artists were using a range of ingredients beyond those specifically designated as art supplies or manufactured for particular use in art.

My travel also allowed me to consult with conservators who gave me new information, ideas, and firsthand experience with relevant materials. Paper conservator Joan Irving showed me samples of different period papers. When viewed under a microscope in her lab, these samples revealed how bits and pieces of daily life, like cloth fibers and printed pages, are embedded in the paper. Irving also ran searches in Winterthur’s databases to help me begin to determine which American artists were using locally made paper, thereby suggesting occasions when artists were using recycled products from their own communities. Matthew Cushman, Conservator of Paintings, shared aspects of his research that relate to my project and pointed me to additional examples of artists using common materials. 

Although these meetings and archival research were the key aims of my travel, additional, unexpected experiences enhanced the impact of my visit to Winterthur. A tour of the Henry Francis du Pont House allowed me to see countless examples of period artwork, making me think in more general terms about the range of artistic practices taking place in North America during relevant years. I also had the chance to connect with other scholars in related fields who were at Winterthur during my visit. 

During the 2022–23 academic year, I will be working on my dissertation in Philadelphia as the Barra Foundation Art and Material Culture Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I will also be completing short-term fellowships at the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society, and Winterthur. These opportunities will build on the critical early work I was able to do with the support of the Decorative Arts Trust. 

Cambra Sklarz received a 2020 Decorative Arts Trust DARTS Research Grant supported by the Decorative Arts Society of Orange County, CA.  She is currently working on her dissertation, The Artist and the Ecosystem: Strategies for the Use and Reuse of Materials in Early America.

About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin

Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


Subscribe to receive an email when the Decorative Arts Trust publishes a new post.


Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, tour and symposium announcements from the Decorative Arts Trust.

Thank you for subscribing!


Join our mailing list to receive the latest news, tour and symposium announcements from the Decorative Arts Trust.

You have Successfully Subscribed!