Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Testing the Waters: The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909

The story of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in 1924, really begins with the museum’s Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909. The first exhibit of American furniture at an art museum, the Hudson-Fulton served as a way to “test the waters” to find out if there was an audience for American decorative arts. At the time, there were still many people who doubted the artistic value of American things and did not consider them worthy of being in museums. 

Portrait of Robert W. de Forest from
the collection of the Metropolitan Museum
But a group of progressive museum administrators who had come to the Met in the early 1900s believed that exhibiting American decorative arts would help open the museum to a broader audience. People who were not regular museum-goers might be intimidated by their lack of knowledge about fine art—painting and sculpture—but ordinary household things were potentially more accessible. Museum administrators also hoped that decorative arts displays would help teach good design and workmanship to visitors, who would use that knowledge to beautify their own homes and communities. 

The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum was due largely to the work of two administrators, trustee Robert de Forest and his assistant, Henry Watson Kent. They planned the exhibit to correspond with events that were happening all over New York to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the Hudson River as well as the (slightly belated) centennial of the launch of Robert Fulton’s first steamboat in 1807. De Forest and Kent hoped to capitalize on the excitement generated by the celebration, as well as a planned exhibit of Dutch master paintings at the Met, to draw visitors to the American decorative arts display.

Promotional brochure produced by the
New York Central Railroad
Because the Met had no permanent collection of American objects, everything in the exhibition had to be borrowed from private collectors. The task of finding suitable objects fell almost entirely to Henry Watson Kent. Over the course of his career, first at the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut, and then at the Grolier Club in New York, Kent had made many personal connections with collectors all over the United States. He was able to recruit R. T. H. Halsey and Luke Vincent Lockwood, two well-known experts on American furniture, to serve as advisory members of the exhibition committee.

Most of the seventeenth-century pieces on display were owned by a single collector, H. Eugene Bolles, a somewhat eccentric Bostonian lawyer who began collecting American antiques long before it became fashionable to do so. His cousin, George Palmer, lent many pieces from his collection of eighteenth-century furniture, while R. T. H. Halsey lent items from his collection of furniture made by Duncan Phyfe in the early nineteenth century. Other collectors lent portraits, silver, ceramics, and pewter, in addition to furniture.

Late-17th century chest with drawers
from the H. Eugene Bolles collection
The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was a wild success, setting a record for attendance that would stand until the opening of the American Wing. While art critics had focused their attention on the exhibit of Dutch painting, visitors flocked to the furniture galleries. De Forest and Kent were vindicated in their belief that Americans would accept decorative arts as museum pieces. Soon after the exhibit ended, the Met acquired the Bolles collection for its permanent collection (philanthropist Margaret Olivia Sage purchased it, then donated it to the museum), intending for it to become the nucleus of a future American Wing.

However, the exhibition also made museum curators realize that some changes needed to be made to the way the items were displayed. At the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, the furniture pieces were lined up in chronological order along the walls of the galleries. This method of organization was in accordance with accepted curatorial practice, but was thought by some observers to be a bit dull. Moreover, the relatively small scale of the pieces meant that they looked inconspicuous and out of place in the soaring Beaux-Arts galleries of the Met.

View of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition. Note architectural wall fragment at far right.
Creating a series of period rooms seemed to be the perfect solution. The smaller scale of the rooms would complement the furniture as well as provide the broader context for the history of American decorative arts. Creating home-like settings would allow visitors to enter imaginatively into the scenes being depicted and, it was hoped, encourage them to think about the ways they could apply ideas from the exhibits to their own homes.

Over the next fifteen years, Robert de Forest and Henry Kent, along with curator R. T. H. Halsey, would work to build the Met’s collection of American decorative arts and to create a proper setting for their display. By the time the American Wing opened in 1924, much had changed in the world of art and antiques—and the colonial revival was about to become more popular than ever.

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