By the end of the 18th c, American young ladies who lived along the new republic's eastern seaboard were eager to demonstrate both their patriotism and their artistic skills in pieces like the one above. Every city boasted schools or academies run by respectable widows for the education of well-bred girls. The quality of the education varied greatly, with schools often placing more emphasis on genteel accomplishments like needlework, music, dancing, and general deportment than on academic subjects. This was perfectly agreeable to the pupils and their parents, and representative of a rising middle class with greater aspirations to gentility than academic achievement. (Click on the image to enlarge for details.)
Caliope & Clio, above, is a charming example of the work produced by these schoolgirls. The design was commercially prepared by a professional artist, and transferred to the linen background. Sarah Skinner Ward (1796-1844), an adolescent student at Miss Maltby's School in Philadelphia, painted over the design with tempera paints and embellished it further with silk thread embroidery. The scene shows Clio, the muse of history, and Caliope, muse of epic poetry, creating tributes to national hero George Washington, and the composition neatly combining fashionable neo-classical elements with American patriotism. No doubt Miss Ward's parents were proud to frame and hang their daughter's work in their parlor.
Caliope & Clio is also an excellent example of how adaptable artists had to be to survive in 18th c America. The original painting was the work of artist Samuel Folwell (1763-1813). Folwell's professional services were diverse indeed: he advertised himself as as an engraver, miniature and fancy painter, hair worker, and teacher of drawing and painting "upon Sattin, Ivory or Paper." An engraving of Caliope & Clio also appeared in the 1810 Philadelphia Repertory, a popular journal "devoted to literature and useful intelligence" – which doubtless also impressed Miss Ward's parents. (See here for another example of Folwell's design worked by a schoolgirl.)
This picture was featured in With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery, a recent exhibition held at Winterthur Museum. Although the exhibition is now closed, the gallery guide is still available on-line as a gorgeous, free PDF file here.
Above: Caliope & Clio, designed & painted by Samuel Folwell, and worked by Sarah Skinner Ward, Philadelphia, PA 1810-13. From the collection of Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.