Traveling through art: New Canaan Historical Society explores the Orient

The mystique of “the Orient” is brought to life through richly exquisite paintings and sketches by noted American artists who were known as “Orientalists” as they captured the uniqueness of this mysterious region. “Orientalism in American Art and the Silvermine Art Colony” is a new exhibit at the New Canaan Historical Society that celebrates America’s 19th- and early 20th-Century fascination with the culture of “the Orient” in a period when artists and explorers from America joined Europeans in traveling through the Sahara, Arabia and India to paint from life what was unique to them.

The Silvermine artists were similarly drawn to paint and capture the character, nature and culture of this land. The paintings on display reflect their fascination with the life of this region in the 1890s and early 20th Century. The paintings are shown with period decorative arts, which include Oriental motifs that had quickly permeated popular American and European culture in the 19th Century.

The show was conceived by Edward Vollmer and curated by Susan Gunn-Bromley, Tom Davies and Vollmer. It opened Jan. 7 with a reception and talk by Vollmer and Gunn-Bromley. Davies will be available in the gallery spaces to provide additional information. The exhibit runs through March 30.

“I saw this show as a wonderful opportunity to educate the public about this moment in art history. I hope our visitors will share my sense of awe at the artists who depicted a vibrant and beautiful culture and appreciate how unusual these images were at the time they were painted,” said Nancy Geary, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society. “The main objective of the show is to understand the impact images from that part of the world had on American culture.”

The show includes original paintings and etchings by 20 American artists as well as rugs, inlaid wooden boxes, and brass decorative objects.

“Upon entering the Orient, these artists quickly realized that there was no Islamic tradition of figural, realistic or pictorial interpretations of their society. Essentially, Western artists created the only surviving images of what these diverse cultures and parts of the world looked like prior to the broad use of color photography,” explained Davies, speaking about the mid-19th Century paintings.

The Silvermine Art Colony artists represented are Addison T. Millar, Frank T. Hutchens, Bernard Gutmann, and Frederick C. Yohn, and there are examples of Charles Reiffel’s Middle Eastern work. “Here we look at Orientalism in the context of art, largely paintings and design, and how it was part of American cultural history. Oriental design and motifs were first introduced to Europe through the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Road that connected Europe with the Mediterranean and Asian world,” Vollmer said.

According to Gunn-Bromley, the non-figurative Islamic designs and motifs as well as the furnishings have played an important role in European and American art and design.

“The Western artists who traveled, explored and painted these lands brought back new visual representations which permeated Western material culture, art and design, as seen in the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and others. The artists were attracted to the differences, the sophisticated designs and architecture dating back centuries. They captured the patterns, designs, techniques, and materials of the Islamic world through the Western styles of Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism,” she said.

According to Geary, the show is both educational and enjoyable. “There is lots of information about the artists and the Orientalist movement, as well as information about the impact this art had on a larger American consumer culture. Visitors are lucky to have the opportunity to see this local art in a larger context.”

Many artists continue to be inspired by the Orientalists. As Vollmer concludes, “The influence of the Orientalists has not only permeated art and design but it has continued to influence American and European art, music, design, and film-making.”

The New Canaan Historical Society is located at 13 Oenoke Ridge, New Canaan. Visit www.nchistory.org to learn about lectures and events related to the Orientalism show.

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