The Art of History: New Gallery Exhibit

By Estill Curtis Pennington
Visiting Curator of Portraiture


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The Art of HistoryĒ places on display objects that richly illustrate the origins of taste in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. From their frontier beginnings, Kentuckians of means patronized cabinet-makers, portraitists, and silversmiths of considerable talent, guaranteeing an abundant supply of material wealth. Early portraits in this installation include works by Aaron Houghton Corwine (1802- 1830), Nicola Marshall (1829-1917) and Ferdinand Walker (1859-1927). The Walker portrait of Bennett Young is doubly important as a likeness of one of the periodís great antiquarians, an un-reconstructed rebel with a notso- hidden agenda. That he looks so elegantly benign is a great tribute to the ability of the portraitist to imbue likeness with artistry, rendering the heroic individual all the more dignified for the confrontational twinkle in his eye.

Silver on display includes work by artisans from Louisville and Lexington, including Asa Blanchard, active circa 1810 to 1838, and the team Garner and Winchester, active as agricultural trophy makers in the 1850s. A remarkable piece of presentation silver with double engravings, commissioned by Filson scion Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston as a christening gift for a near relative, is also displayed.

The history of silver collecting in Kentucky is almost as evocative as that of portraiture and more likely to be fact based. The concept of farmers riding to town with saddlebags laden with silver coins to be melted down into a base material and reborn as rather elegant spoons has the ring of truth. While the idea that portraitists went about with headless bodies on canvas seeking sitters to correct the decapitation has a certain ghoulish appeal to the more active antiquarian imagination, it does not seem to have actually occurred.

Two groups of objects on display have never been previously displayed. A pair of watercolor renderings of birds are reminiscent of the work of the late 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby (1679-1749), who has collateral descendants still living in Kentucky. These richly colored birds are rendered in an enchantingly crisp manner. Naturalist artists may not have always been wildlife preservationists, John J. Audubon for example, but they were the documentary filmmakers of their day. These works fulfill every curatorís fantasy of opening a long closed drawer only to treasures worthy of rescue from obscurity.

Also on display is a set of Old Paris porcelain, a bequest from the estate of Mary Park Clements. This French porcelain from the first half of the 19th century was composed of a hard paste, often brilliantly gilded, and fired at a very high temperature resulting in a glossy body of heightened fragility. Further consideration of the means by which earlier Kentuckians acquired porcelain invokes the travel and trade routes of the period, how goods arrived in urban areas like Louisville, and how and to whom they were marketed. In this way, the life of one object covers a lot of territory and unites several fields of study. Percy Moranís depiction of the meeting of Washington and Rochambeau invests an actual historical event with a patriotic sentimentalism bridging revolution and artistic fraternity.

Much of the furniture on display is in the antique taste: a rococo revival sofa reminiscent of the works of Meeks and Belter, a breakfront display cabinet in the style of William Kent of England, two flip top tables in the taste of Duncan Phyffe, and a cabriole legged pier-table too over-scaled for Chippendale but just right for Grand Rapids Michigan, the Valhalla of colonial revival furniture production.

Long known for an outstanding collection of manuscripts, maps, books and documents, The Filson has been the resource of choice for many historians and genealogists in the region, and indeed, the nation. However, throughout its long history, The Filson has also attracted other gifts, including a stunning assortment of Ohio Valley portraiture. Explorations in the vaults of the permanent collection are now revealing other treasures.

Perhaps some of these items were given because of an obscure association with a significant event or figure. Maybe there is a plate from which Lafayette supped in Louisville, or a silver mug from which Henry Clay drank punch at a post-election wake. Possible associations such as these can provide the background to a more assertive history of taste in the Commonwealth. Once fully considered, it is altogether likely that The Filson Historical Society has the material culture to create truly viable displays which offer a definitive view of taste, patterns of creating and collecting, and style in the near and distant past.

Volume 4, Number 4

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