Thursday, August 16, 2012

Exotic Beauties

I've recently been drawn to Clermont's more exotic artifacts, and it seems we have more than I realized.  While assisting with photography for the Friends of Clermont's upcoming art publication, I realized that the glittering gold of the tea set in the drawing room was in fact distracting me from some very Chinese-style ornamentation (seen at right).  But Clermont has many little exotic delights and souvenirs. 

Exotic styles went through various periods of popularity, and different region's of the world experienced their own trends at different times.  Amongst other things, a Cabinet of Curiosities, the home predecessor to the modern museum, could show off just how well traveled and educated its owner was.

When most Hudson Valley residents think of Exoticism, they can't help but think of Frederic Church's Olana. You can't really blame them.  With ogee arches, Persian-inspired stenciling everywhere, and Isabel Church's tiny Indian desk (built especially to fit her very petite frame, pictured at left from the Martha Stewart blog).  It just sticks out as a hothouse flower in rural New York.

While Olana may the biggest architectural example of the Victorian love of the exotic, Frederic Church didn't have a monopoly on exotic collecting.  The Livingstons picked up their own exotic beauties to show off their worldliness.  Alice even managed to incorporate ogee arches into by including them in the fireplace screen now displayed in her bedroom (at right).

In the late nineteenth century, when Olana was built and decorated exoticism was all the rage.  Trade with the Far and Near Eastern regions of the world had been going on since about the fourteenth century, influenced at various times by political climate, transportation technology, and archeological discoveries.

During the 1850s Japan opened its gates to trade with the west after over two centuries of legally-enforced seclusion.  This sent an array of Japanese goods, especially textiles, to eager consumers in America.  For instance, the circa 1865-72 gown at left (in the collections of the Fenimore Art Museum with photo borrowed from this visitor's blog) is made of an imported Japanese brocade perfectly matched to a shot silk taffeta.  Gowns like these were costly, but popular, and often the fabric was manufactured specifically for the Western market. 

Alice Livingston, with her artistic eye, developed an interest in Japan at least as early as her mid thirties, and her step daughter Katherine (who was about the same age) even traveled in Japan with her father John Henry in the 1890s.  At right is the title page of a Japanese floral arrangement book in Clermont's collections.  Alice attempted the techniques described within, and she even photographed one of her attempts with irises and honey suckle (pictured below).



Japanese design was also visible in ceramics.  At Clermont, my favorite example of Japonism in dishes is this exquisite set of plates.  Its exuberant and colorful design seems to shout for joy in the often-restrained decor of Clermont.  Found by New York State staff in the Cow Barn, it is believed that they belonged to Emily Evans, John Henry Livingston's second wife, whose decoration schemes Alice showed a particular distaste for.

Other exotic influences had been part of Western ornament for a much longer time.  Indian and Middle-Eastern textiles had traveled to the American Colonies since the 17th century.  Oriental carpets have had enduring success with the west, and the Livingstons acquired plenty over the years.

Although Oriental carpets may have lost much of their exotic impact on the modern viewer, initially their value was so great that the Dutch and Americans who owned them rarely put them on floors where they would get worn out.  Instead, well into the 18th century, oriental carpets were displayed on tables like a modern table cloth or on walls as a decorative hanging.  By the Victorian era, these carpets had finally found their way to the floor, and you can see the one in the study at left and an image of one in our drawing room (and you can just barely see one in the study too) from about 1936.  The image above at left shows one of Clermont's carpets displayed on the floor in the Study, and several large carpets were also used on the Library floor for a numbers of years while Alice and John Henry were married.

Indian textiles were also symbols of wealth and culture.  Advanced dyeing and printing technologies, combined with their possession of the versatile and beautiful fibers cotton and silk, put India's textiles in particular demand for both for home decoration and for garments, particularly in the 18th century.  Chintzes are one of the most well-known categories.  These were usually large floral designs on light-colored back grounds and could be used for draperies or clothing (at left is an image of a bed chamber in Colonial Williamsburg's Governor's Palace).  These chintzes and other Indian fabrics became closely woven into American and European costume, somewhat sidelined when the Industrial Revolution in first in England, then America, enabled more efficient domestic production on a mass scale.

Nevertheless, here is a piece of chintz on a nineteenth century chair in Clermont's collections.  I wish I were more of a expert on chintz so that I could determine whether this was an older piece of chintz that some later Livingston had cut up for re-use (which was not uncommon) or whether it is a revival of an older style.  If it is old enough, the faded green in the leaves would have once been bright and eye-catching since green was a particularly fugitive dye.

Sadly, few of the Livingstons' early textiles survive at Clermont so even though it is likely that the Livingstons purchased when they were popular in the 18th century, I have nothing left to demonstrate it.  I do wish I had more examples to showcase here!

Textiles were not the only thing imported from India.  I also came across this pretty carved wooden stand, complete with a big paper label proclaiming "hand made in India" (which to me pretty much guarantees that it was purchased in the US or at least not in India proper).  The hinge in middle allows the two identical pieces to fold outward, forming an X, and the arched piece at the left becomes the feet.

Of course, you can't talk about exoticism without talking about China.  China's influence on Western decor and costume--and particularly the importance of Chinese export porcelain--is so long-standing and well-documented by experts, that I won't even begin to chronicle it here.

Suffice to say that they were  expensive and moderately rare in 18th century America, and many pieces continued to maintain that cache through the 19th.  Chinese export porcelain came in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors, and Clermont has its fair share.  Above is a tea bowl circa 1750, and my favorite is this large blue punch bowl seen at left.  Like tea, punch had a special place in elite society, and I love to image Robert the Judge serving up a batch to his dinner guests.

Of course Clermont has a few of the larger and more eye-catching pieces as well, like the pair of large, colorful vases that flank the Lady of the Lake in the drawing room. 

Egyptian art also experienced several waves of popularity.  Successive discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--particularly that of the tomb of of King Tutankhamun in 1922--rocketed ancient Egyptian society into the limelight.  Alice Livingston didn't have to wait for Carter's discovery of "King Tut" to become enamored with Egypt though.  By her own admission, it was the most influential of the locations she and John Henry visited on their two-year honeymoon (right).

Alice's artistic eye was enthralled with the lines and flow of Egyptian art.  The stately little bench in the Library (often missed because of its placement behind the massive couch) is distinctly Egyptian in style.  From Alice's own photographs, it appears that it once was accompanied by at least one more single-person seat as well.

Alice's friends must also have been aware of her predilection for
all things Egyptian because this turquoise and gold ceramic bowl was given to her as a gift at some point (seen below).  Though made domestically in the Egyptian style, I still classify it as an example of exoticism because the intent was there (even if it lacks some of the grace of actual Egyptian pieces).

The Livingstons, like others of their social status, believed that travel and familiarity with different cultures (whether or not you continued to believe that Western society was still superior, as was common) was an essential part of their high social standing.  In 1906, John Henry took Alice around Europe and norther Africa on his second Grand Tour, after having also done even more exotic travel with his oldest daughter in the 1890s.  In 1921, when Honoria and Janet were old enough, their parents packed up and moved the family to live in Europe for six years.  Other generations too got their "Culture with a big C" by seeing the outside world and bringing back souvenirs.

While most souvenirs were European, featuring the height of class and sophistication, other exotic fair showcased some distant cultures as sources of curiosity and artistic inspiration.  A house furnished and decorated completely in Indian fashion would have been considered overpowering, but Indian textiles could add sophistication when applied to chairs, clothing, or bed hangings.

Objects like these could be souvenirs of exotic travel, as in the probably case of Alice's Egyptian bench, or they could simply be status symbols purchased at great expense from afar, as with Margaret Beekman Livingston's Chinese export punch bowl.  Either way, the Livingstons were joining the fashion favored among their social peers of judiciously incorporating pieces like Chinese ceramics, Oriental carpets, and even Japonese flavors into their home. While Clermont may not be as overtly exotic as Olana, we've still got a healthy dose of exciting little trinkets from afar.

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