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American gleam: Monica Obniski enjoys a display of American silver that explores the diversity of colonial America and its craftsmanship.

A Handsome Cupboard of Plate: Early American Silver in the Cahn Collection

1 December 2012-24 March 2013

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Catalogue by Deborah Dependahl Waters

ISBN 9781898565116 (hardback), 35 [pounds sterling]

(John Adamson)

This sequel to 'Beyond the Maker's Mark: Paul de Lamerie Silver in the Cahn Collection' (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008), seen by this reviewer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), is set to travel to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (20 April 3 November), the Missouri History Museum in St Louis (23 November-2 March 2014) and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg (3 May 2014-25 May 2015). This time all the works are early American. As any contemporary collector will know, to assemble such a desirable and important group of early American silver must have been no small task.

The collection of Paul Cahn, a businessman whose grandfather was a silversmith, boasts great American names including Paul Revere, Jr. 0734-1818), and Myer Myers 0723-95), as well as standard forms such as porringers and tankards (not to mention some delightful surprises). In particular there is an embarrassment of riches in the quantity of objects by Myers, a New York silversmith, which points to the predominance of New York-made objects--they make up nearly three quarters of the exhibition--in the Cahn collection.

The one-room exhibition, which was situated at the MIA in a temporary gallery painted in a period yellow ochre, has been organised into 13 cases. The first introduces the intention of the exhibition: to explore the ethnic, religious and political diversity of colonial America through this early silver of 'attractive design' and 'distinguished craftsmanship'. The centrepiece of the case is the exceptional Myer Myers salver (c. 1768; Fig. 1) with an engraved decoration inspired by Psalm 34 for Theodorus Van Wyck; well known to silver connoisseurs, it has been featured in many previous exhibitions, but it remains a singular treat to view.

Included are over 50 works of early American silver, all of them from the Cahn collection except the extensive Revere tea service--the most complete one known in America--originally made for the Bostonians John and Mehitable Templeman and today in the collection of the MIA (1792; Fig. 2). It is a revelation when compared to Cahn's four-piece Revere service, displayed adjacently.

Although the show is not laid out thematically, several didactic panels group the objects. After the Revere tea services, new technology in post-Revere America, particularly the ornamental possibilities of rolled silver, is explored. Another thematic grouping is 'equipage for exotic beverages', a familiar tale of the rise of tea as viewed through the lens of objects including a milk pot, teapot, and large double-bellied sugar dish all by Myers. More interestingly, in another case communicating the variety of forms (and their cultural precedents) available in colonial America, a Joseph Richardson, Sr. (1711-84) octagonal sugar dish (1736; Fig. 3) is contrasted with a Myers circular sugar dish modelled on Chinese porcelain.

As mentioned, the work of Myers may be studied extensively because so many examples of his silver are found in the Cahn collection. One scholarly argument that is explored through these works and those of Myers' fellow New York silversmiths is the extent to which they collaborated on aspects of silver production. A fine illustration of this is the use of distinctive cast supports on both a Myers waiter and one attributed to Bartholomew Le Roux II (1717-63), which suggests that several New York workshops shared casting patterns in some (still unknown) way.

Also explored is 'New York style', embodying Dutch and English precedents, as ardently observed in the robust gadrooning and swelling belly of a caster by Bartholomew Schaats (1670-1758). The theme is further pursued with three coffee pots by different New York silversmiths: Myers, Daniel Christian Fueter (1720-85) and Otto Philip Daniel [de] Parisien (c. 1725-1810. Interestingly, the Feuter and Myers coffee pots both bear the same swan's neck spouts with ruffled central reserves, reinforcing the evidence for shared decorative vocabularies and parts.

This bare-bones exhibition revels simply in the delight of viewing good early American silver, with no photographs, maps or technologies enlisted in support. It would, I think, have benefited from the inclusion of at least some social history--after all, contemporary viewers may not fully understand why tea was then considered 'exotic', or how sauce boats were used (the very questions I overheard during my own visit).

There is a commendable exhibition catalogue by Deborah Dependahl Waters, an accomplished scholar of American silver. She uses the objects from the Cahn collection to weave a narrative of early American silver and silversmiths in her introductory essay, which is followed by 39 detailed entries full of concise and piercing analysis. Furthermore, her keen eye and stalwart research lead to some revelations, such as a debunking of the presumed provenance of a Bartholomew Le Roux II waiter.

Monica Obniski, assistant curator of American decorative arts, is working on a catalogue of American silver at the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Author:Obniski, Monica
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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