Friday, March 13, 2015

The Homes of Our Ancestors: R. T. H. Halsey and American Decorative Arts

One very important person was not included in my last post about the makers of the American Wing: Richard Townley Haines Halsey. He deserves a post of his own, because Halsey did more than any other individual to determine how the American Wing would interpret decorative arts.

R. T. H. Halsey in 1941
R.T., as he was known to his friends, was born in 1865 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to a well-to-do family whose ancestors had come to North America in the 1630s. Halsey graduated from Princeton in 1886, and his father purchased him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Though he had a very successful career in finance, Halsey also devoted his time to collecting, researching, and writing about American antiques, and he published his first book, Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Staffordshire Pottery, in 1899 at the height of the china-collecting craze.

Halsey was involved in nearly every important early exhibition of American decorative arts in the United States. He wrote the catalog for the 1906 exhibit of American silver at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; he lent pieces from his collection to the Hudson-Fulton and the 1922 Duncan Phyfe show at the Metropolitan. In 1914, he was elected as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum and became chairman of the Committee on American Decorative Arts. By this time, plans for the new American Wing were well underway, and Halsey eventually gave up his seat on the Stock Exchange to devote more time to his curatorial work (technically, he remained an unpaid volunteer who “perform[ed] the function of curator”).

18th-century silver bowl once owned by Halsey and
exhibited in Boston, 1906, and at the Hudson-Fulton.
Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Like Robert de Forest and Henry Watson Kent, Halsey took great pride in the American past and personally identified with figures from the colonial era. He was very proud of the fact that his grandfather had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite organization of former Revolutionary War officers. Halsey believed that there was a direct connection between the heroic individuals of the past and their surroundings: their elegant homes reflected their cultivated taste and education, which in turn contributed to their sense of civic responsibility and patriotism.

Although Halsey’s vision of the past could be very romantic and selective (the rooms of the American Wing were furnished only with objects that had belonged to the very wealthy and elite), he was also a careful historian. His two books on the collection, A Handbook of the American Wing and The Homes of Our Ancestors, situated the American Wing’s rooms in their historical context and explained how curators used inventories, wills, newspaper advertisements, travelers’ accounts, and design books to make appropriate selections of furniture, wallpaper, carpets, window treatments, and upholstery.

Room from the Powel House, as depicted
in the Met Bulletin, November 1924
In the American Wing, Halsey celebrated not only the founding fathers who had purchased decorative arts, but the artisans and craftsmen who produced them. The items in the Met’s collection were valued for their historical associations and because they were unique, handmade pieces that (at least in some cases) could be identified as the work of a specific individual. Halsey set 1825 as the cut-off for the American Wing, believing that nearly everything made after that date was hopelessly tainted by mechanization and mass production.

Halsey hoped that the refined and gracious rooms of the American Wing would foster an appreciation of the values of the past. Modern Americans, especially those who lived in cities in impersonal apartment buildings with machine-made furnishings, and who sought out entertainment at movies and amusement parks, needed to be shown a better way of living—which would help them become better citizens. Halsey was particularly thinking of the many immigrants who had come to the United States since the 1890s; like many white, native-born Americans, he felt that they had failed to become thoroughly assimilated.

It’s no coincidence that the American Wing (and the Alice) opened in the same year that Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, a highly restrictive immigration law that was specifically designed to reduce the numbers of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe. The Colonial Revival and the Immigration Act of 1924 both originated, at least in part, from concerns that the United States was rapidly changing due to the combined forces of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. As Halsey put it in The Homes of Our Ancestors, “The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked, may shake, the foundations of our Republic.” Restricting immigration was one way to stem this “influx of foreign ideas”; educating new arrivals about American history and culture through decorative arts was another.


R. T. H. Halsey and Charles O. Cornelius, A Handbook of the American Wing (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1924).

R. T. H. Halsey and Elizabeth Tower, The Homes of Our Ancestors: As Shown in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1925).

Wendy Kaplan, “R. T. H. Halsey: An Ideology of Collecting American Decorative Arts,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (April 1982), 43-53.

Jeffrey Trask, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

No comments:

Post a Comment