News Articles Library Event Photos Contact Search


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Arts and Crafts Movement & The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Nonie Gadsden
Fig. 1: Lorraine and Alan Bressler Gallery (The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870–1930), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, installation image featuring the Byrdcliffe cabinet, Roycroft lanterns, and Stickley work table
The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Nonie Gadsden
by Nonie Gadsden

ABOVE:
Fig. 1:
Lorraine and Alan Bressler Gallery (The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870–1930), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, installation image featuring the Byrdcliffe cabinet, Roycroft lanterns, and Stickley work table.

Fig. 2: Installation of the 1913 Annual Exhibition of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Fig. 2: Installation of the 1913 Annual Exhibition of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Lorraine and Alan Bressler Gallery in the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, features works inspired by the American Arts and Crafts movement (Fig. 1). Despite the fact that the founding and early formative years of the museum were integrally related to the development of the Arts and Crafts movement in Boston and the United States at large, this is the first time in the MFA’s 140-year history that a significant gallery has been dedicated to this material.

The MFA’s founding in 1870 was in part motivated by design reform efforts begun earlier in the century in England. Design reformers lamented the decline in aesthetic standards brought on by industrial production, and debated the role of art, design, and morality in ornament and manufacture and, by extension, in everyday life. With “Art, Industry, Education” as its motto, the MFA was modeled after London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum, established in 1852), as a “resource whence artisanship and handicraft of all sorts may better and beautify our dwellings, our ornaments, our garments, our implements of daily life.” 1 The art and artifacts (or copies of originals) shown in the MFA were meant to inspire and educate artists, designers, and the general public, and therefore improve the aesthetic quality of manufactures and domestic settings in Boston and beyond.

Fig. 3: Vase, decorated by John Gardner Low for Chelsea Keramic Art Works, Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1877. Earthenware (redware). Gift of James Robertson and Sons (77.248). Fig. 4: Vase, decorated by Emilie de Hoa LeBlanc for Newcomb Pottery, New Orleans, Louisiana, about 1899. White earthenware body with blue and green underglaze. Anonymous gift (99.75).
Fig. 3: Vase, decorated by John Gardner Low for Chelsea Keramic Art Works, Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1877. Earthenware (redware). Gift of James Robertson and Sons (77.248).

Fig. 4: Vase, decorated by Emilie de Hoa LeBlanc for Newcomb Pottery, New Orleans, Louisiana, about 1899. White earthenware body with blue and green underglaze. Anonymous gift (99.75).

The design reform movement also sparked several artistic styles and philosophies, including the Arts and Crafts movement, whose English founders famously rejected mechanized production and modernity, and advocated a return to handcraftsmanship and the preindustrial lifestyle of the medieval age. Theorist and art critic John Ruskin, a main figure in the development of Arts and Crafts ideas, promoted Gothic architecture and ornament not only for its aesthetic beauty, but for what he saw as its purity and moral connotations as well.

Fig. 5: Brooch, Josephine Hartwell Shaw, Boston, Massachusetts, about 1913. Gold, blister pearls. Gift of John Templeman Coolidge, Jr. and others (13.1698).
Fig. 5: Brooch, Josephine Hartwell Shaw, Boston, Massachusetts, about 1913. Gold, blister pearls. Gift of John Templeman Coolidge, Jr. and others (13.1698).

When the MFA opened its doors in July 1876, it was housed in a new Ruskinian Gothic-style building by Boston architects John Hubbard Sturgis and Charles Brigham. With its terracotta ornaments and revealed structure, the building, as well as its neighbor on Copley Square, Henry Hobson Richardson’s Romanesque-inspired Trinity Church, offered clear evidence that design reform had followers in Boston.

Although Arts and Crafts ideas, such as William Morris’ maxim “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe beautiful,” were embraced by many American artists and craftspeople during the 1880s and 1890s, the movement officially planted roots in the United States with the founding of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, (SACB), in 1897, which vowed “to develop and encourage higher artistic standards in the handicrafts.” Of its twenty-one charter members, Denman Waldo Ross, J. Templeman Coolidge, Morris Gray, Arthur Astor Carey, and Samuel Dennis Warren II, as well as Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton, critic C. Howard Walker, and artist Sarah Wyman Whitman, all taught at the Museum School and were active in the MFA in numerous ways.

Fig. 6: Box, Elizabeth Ethel Copeland, Boston, Massachusetts, 1912. Silver, amethyst, enamel. Gift of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Sargent (19.5).
Fig. 6: Box, Elizabeth Ethel Copeland, Boston, Massachusetts, 1912. Silver, amethyst, enamel. Gift of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Sargent (19.5).

With the help of these influential people, Arts and Crafts philosophies were embedded in the very fabric of the MFA, as evidenced by the numerous exhibitions that featured the work of Arts and Crafts proponents, such as Six Drawings and Watercolors by Mr. Ruskin (1880), Christmas Cards Designed for Messrs. Prang and Co. (1881), Specimens of Colored Glass lent by Mr. LaFarge (1881), Exhibition of the Works of Mr. Walter Crane (1891), and Special Exhibition of Color Prints, Designed, Engraved, and Printed by Arthur W. Dow (1895). In addition, the MFA served as a venue for the Society’s annual exhibition in 1911 and 1913 (Fig. 2).

In 1877, just a year after the MFA opened, the museum accepted gifts of art pottery from James Robertson and his sons, the proprietors of Chelsea Keramic Art Works. One of those early gifts remains in the collection, a large two-handled vase with form and decoration imitating Greek “Black Attic” vases (Fig. 3). The Robertsons had followed the advice of design reformers to look to the past for artistic inspiration, perhaps even studying artworks shown in the MFA galleries. By accepting the Robertson’s gifts, the museum not only endorsed the works as worthy contemporary design, but increased the Robertson’s marketing profile as well. The museum had similar relationships with several other art potteries in the following decades, including Maria Longworth Nichols and the Rookwood Pottery and the Newcomb Pottery of the Sophie Newcomb Memorial College (Fig. 4).

J. Templeman Coolidge, MFA trustee and active SACB council and jury member, donated several works by SACB craftspeople, including Hugh C. Robertson of the Dedham Pottery and jewelry maker Josephine Hartwell Shaw (Fig. 5). In 1919, another Arts and Crafts-minded patron donated a medieval-inspired enameled box by SACB member Elizabeth E. Copeland (Fig. 6).

Fig. 7: Vase, designed by Arthur Stone; made by Herbert A. Taylor, Gardner, Massachusetts,1914. Silver. Seth K. Sweetser Fund (1978.234) Fig. 8: Hanging lantern (one of a pair), designed by Dard Hunter; made by: Karl Kipp for Roycroft, East Aurora, New York, about 1903–08. Copper, nickel silver, stained glass, leather. Harriet Otis Cruft Fund (1980.279).
Fig. 7: Vase, designed by Arthur Stone; made by Herbert A. Taylor, Gardner, Massachusetts,1914. Silver. Seth K. Sweetser Fund (1978.234).
Fig. 8: Hanging lantern (one of a pair), designed by Dard Hunter; made by: Karl Kipp for Roycroft, East Aurora, New York, about 1903–08. Copper, nickel silver, stained glass, leather. Harriet Otis Cruft Fund (1980.279).

Fig. 9: Covered tazza, Laurin Hovey Martin, Boston, Massachusetts, about 1902. Copper. Gift of the artist’s family (1997.209).
Fig. 9: Covered tazza, Laurin Hovey Martin, Boston, Massachusetts, about 1902. Copper. Gift of the artist’s family (1997.209).

Initially, most of the Arts and Crafts objects to enter the museum’s collection were by local craftspeople and reflected local interpretations of Arts and Crafts philosophies, which remained closely tied to the British origins of the movement, emphasizing historic styles and superior handcraftsmanship. Through the national membership of the SACB and the influence of SACB leaders in publications and in national competitions, Boston’s more conservative approach spread throughout the country. Although some artists in Boston and in other regions of the United States explored more progressive ideas that emphasized simplification, modernization, or responses to the local environment, these more experimental works did not find their way into the collection of the MFA.

By the 1910s, the museum was experiencing a change in focus. Emphasis on the applied arts and training began to give way to aesthetics, imagination, and escape from everyday life. The MFA’s curators and collectors, like most of their contemporaries, turned their attention to historic examples that told a story of the Anglo-European past. During the following decades, the museum and its donors built one of the nation’s best collections of colonial American art and paid little attention to current manufacture. In fact, under the guidance of J. Templeman Coolidge, chairman of the visiting committee to the Department of Western Art, the museum even deaccessioned many pieces of art pottery in 1916 as “not desirable.”

Fig. 10: Punch bowl, Clemens Friedell, Pasadena, California, about 1912. Silver. Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously, and from Shirley and Walter Amory, John and Catherine Coolidge Lastavica, H.E. Bolles Fund, Michaelson Family Trust, James G. Hinkle, Jr. and Roy Hammer, Robert Rosenberg, Sue Schenck, Grace and Floyd Lee Bell Fund, and Miklos Toth (2003.730).
Fig. 10: Punch bowl, Clemens Friedell, Pasadena, California, about 1912. Silver. Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously, and from Shirley and Walter Amory, John and Catherine Coolidge Lastavica, H.E. Bolles Fund, Michaelson Family Trust, James G. Hinkle, Jr. and Roy Hammer, Robert Rosenberg, Sue Schenck, Grace and Floyd Lee Bell Fund, and Miklos Toth (2003.730).

The MFA did not revive its interest in the art and design of the Arts and Crafts era in any significant way until the founding of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture in the 1970s. Undoubtedly influenced by the Princeton Art Museum’s groundbreaking 1972 exhibition, The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1916, the department began to seek out objects for the collection that complemented the existing holdings, and also enlarged the scope of the collection to include non-New England interpretations of the movement. Several fine examples of art pottery and tiles entered the MFA collection through the gift of Professor Emeritus F. H. Norton and the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science at MIT, who donated a large collection of ceramics that focused on glaze experiments. Family members of pioneering Arts and Crafts silversmith Arthur Stone donated large caches of the craftsman’s work in 1978 and 1979 (Fig. 7). The department also made several key (now iconic) purchases in the 1980s in preparation for the museum’s first exhibition of Arts and Crafts material since the 1910s. The Art that is Life: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920 expanded on the Arts and Crafts themes revived by the Princeton show fifteen years earlier and remains today a landmark exhibition in the field. This exhibition featured some of the important new acquisitions including a spectacular pair of hanging lamps from the Roycroft Inn designed by Dard Hunter and made by Karl Kipp (Fig. 8), a sumptuous carved bench by Arts and Crafts maverick Charles Rohlfs, and a rocking armchair in the style of the Prairie School by George Washington Maher. The department continued to steadily build the Arts and Crafts collection in the 1990s, including a particularly notable group of metalwork by members of the SACB, including Laurin Hovey Martin’s magnificent copper tazza (Fig. 9) and Edward Everett Oakes’ masterpiece silver casket.

Fig. 11: Tall back side chair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; manufactured by John W. Ayers & Co., Chicago, Illinois, 1900. Oak, leather. Gift of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in honor of David A. Hanks (2006.1439).
Fig. 11: Tall back side chair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; manufactured by John W. Ayers & Co., Chicago, Illinois, 1900. Oak, leather. Gift of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in honor of David A. Hanks (2006.1439).

As plans developed for the Art of the Americas wing, the MFA focused on rounding out its collection of Arts and Crafts material to represent the spectrum of Arts and Crafts styles that developed across the United States, while emphasizing Boston’s contributions to the movement. Important acquisitions include a large cabinet made at the Byrdcliffe Art Colony by Zulma Steele, a massive silver punch bowl trophy by Clemens Friedell of Pasadena, California (Fig. 10), and a the gift of a spindle-back dining chair designed for the Hoxey House by Prairie School architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Fig. 11). Another notable gift was a collection of over 130 pieces of pottery made by the Saturday Evening Girls at the Paul Revere Pottery in Boston, given by David L. Bloom, the son of one of the Pottery’s most talented decorators, Sara Galner (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12: Plate, decorated by Sara Galner for the Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls club, Boston, Massachusetts, 1912. Earthenware with glaze. Gift of Dr. David L. Bloom and family in honor of his mother, Sara Galner Bloom (2007.377). Fig. 13: Lorraine and Alan Bressler Gallery (The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870–1930), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, installation image featuring Greene & Greene’s fireplace surround for the James A. Culbertson House.
Fig. 12: Plate, decorated by Sara Galner for the Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls club, Boston, Massachusetts, 1912. Earthenware with glaze. Gift of Dr. David L. Bloom and family in honor of his mother, Sara Galner Bloom (2007.377).

Fig. 13: Lorraine and Alan Bressler Gallery (The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870–1930), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, installation image featuring Greene & Greene’s fireplace surround for the James A. Culbertson House.

Generous loans from private collections and public institutions help to complete the story in the installation of the Art of the Americas wing. Among these many fine objects are a masterfully carved fireplace surround by California architects Greene and Greene, lent by Guardian Stewardship Foundation (Fig. 13). It is surrounded by other works by the Greenes, as well as a strikingly modern looking inlaid music cabinet probably designed by Harvey Ellis for Gustav Stickley. The elongated inlay on the Stickley music cabinet echoes the stems of the superb vase decorated with daisies, a masterpiece of Boston’s Grueby Pottery Company, on loan from the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. And, over 130 years after James Robertson and his sons donated their pottery of their manufacture to the MFA, a spectacular display of pottery made by members of the Robertson family has also been made possible by the generous loans of a local private collector. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, these and other generous donors and lenders have championed the Arts and Crafts movement at the MFA.


Nonie Gadsden is the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

All images © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


1. General Luigi Palma de Cesnola, first director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as quoted in Andrew McClellan, “A Brief History of the Art Museum Public,” Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, edited by Andrew McClellan (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 17. Cesnola’s comments were specifically made about The Metropolitan, which was also founded based on the South Kensington model. The quotation works just as well for the MFA’s original mission.

Events