Windows on the past: Watercolors of long-vanished houses and gardens

August 2008 | Earlier this year the New York Times ran a report on the “new” trend of homeowners hiring celebrated photographers to document their houses. Once at the mercy of shelter magazines to showcase their interiors, these people have bypassed those arbiters and commissioned photographs to be hung on their walls and assembled into sumptuously designed albums for their coffee tables. “We fetishize homes now, in a way that we never used to,” says Todd Eberle, a photographer whose work appears regularly in Vanity Fair and has been exhibited in galleries and museums.1 He’s wrong of course, as House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection, an exhibition opening at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City this month, vividly shows. Well before the invention of photography, people were lavishing money and attention on their rooms and preserving the results for posterity by means of paintings.

Indeed, the artworks on view, drawn from the eighty-five watercolors donated to the museum by Eugene and Clare Thaw in 2007, are documents in every sense of the word. For their original patrons they captured beloved spaces in time. For us they provide a rich record of the social and aesthetic history of a vanished world. Mario Praz (1896–1982), the noted literary scholar, and the person credited with being the first to recognize the value of such paintings, and who was himself an avid collector of them, summed up their evocative power:

Water-colours of interiors, of which so many were painted particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, possess, in a special manner, the virtue of bringing a place to life in the mind of the beholder, thanks to the diligence with which they reproduce every piece of furniture and every household object, every minute detail of carpets and curtains, and the feeling of light and shade in a room. It might be said that by means of this objective diligence they capture the soul of things, preserving them as a botanist preserves a flower in a herbarium, or an entomologist a butterfly. Like those Japanese paper flowers which, when put in water, disclose an exuberance unsuspected in a piece of dry straw, or like the genie in the bottle of the Arabian tale who becomes gigantic when he emerges, so do these little pictures of interiors expand in the beholder’s imagination.2

The curators—Gail S. Davidson and Floramae McCarron-Cates, of the museum’s Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design—have designed a show that plays up the pictures as both evidence and time machines. They have placed objects from the museum’s collection alongside paintings showing similar items, and visitors are provided with magnifying glasses for close-up views of any of the painstakingly rendered articles that capture their attention. “These works hold their own in both fine arts and decorative arts contexts,” Davidson says. And, in fact, some of the Thaw works were shown at two earlier exhibitions in New York City, one at the Morgan Library in 1985 and one at the Frick Collection in 1992, which played up their status as works of art in their own right.3 The Cooper-Hewitt Museum show uses them to “trace the evolution of the domestic interior from the more formal to the more personal,” Davidson says. “We’re using them to discuss changes in both style and function over time.”

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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