American Decorative Arts
About American Decorative Arts
Featuring approximately 20,000 objects in all media, the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of American decorative arts is among the finest in the United States. Its particular strengths are in the colonial and early Federal periods, due in large part to generous gifts from Francis P. Garvan, B.A. 1897. Yale’s collection of early silver is noted for superior examples from New England, New York, and Philadelphia. The furniture collection comprises outstanding examples from all periods, with particular strength in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. In addition to the pieces displayed in the Gallery, more than 1,000 examples can be seen by appointment in the Furniture Study.
Also present in the American decorative arts collection are significant holdings in pewter and other metals, as well as glass, ceramics, textiles, and wallpaper. A major addition to the collection occurred in the 1980s, when Carl R. Kossack, B.S. 1931, M.A. 1933, and his family donated more than 7,000 pieces of American silver, with particular concentrations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In recent decades, acquisitions have focused on late 19th- and 20th-century objects, including contemporary turned wood, the John C. Waddell Collection of American modernist design, and the Swid Powell Collection.
The department has also developed a website, the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery, as a resource for studying furniture making in Rhode Island from the 17th to the 19th century.
The permanent-collection galleries feature a chronological survey of American design from the colonial period to the present day. Thematic cases explore how issues of commerce, gender, religion, and ethnicity are integrated into the American experience.
Note from the Curator
Viola Frey’s monumental ceramic sculpture Resting Woman #2 is now on view in the Leslie and George Hume Gallery of American Decorative Arts. Frey’s works draw upon popular culture and the history of art; this piece in particular references the reclining female nude, which has appeared in art since antiquity, often as a symbol of idealized beauty or sensuality. Frey parodies this tradition by giving her figure textured skin and cartoonlike features painted with bright, contrasting glazes. The looseness of Frey’s brushwork intentionally calls to mind the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Manuel Neri, David Park, and other San Francisco Bay Area figurative painters who were part of Frey’s social circle. Resting Woman #2 complements the Gallery’s current special exhibition The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art: Selections from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection and the Yale University Art Gallery, open through January 3, 2016.
Patricia E. Kane
Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts
Tall clocks were among the most extravagant possessions owned by the elite in colonial America. Multiple craftsmen were involved in their manufacture: a clockmaker assembled intricate works, often using imported gears and parts, and a cabinetmaker fitted the works into custom-built cases. Some clocks were more than timepieces—they were also musical instruments. Musical clocks were complex and costly to produce, and only about 150 American examples are known to survive. This clock in the Gallery’s collection was made shortly after the American Revolution by Benjamin Willard while he was working in Grafton, Massachusetts. When the clock strikes the hour, it triggers a mechanism hidden behind the clock face: a cylinder studded with pins rotates and causes hammers to hit a series of bells and produce a recognizable song. Remarkably, we are able to hear the music much the way it sounded to an eighteenth-century listener because the tone is determined by the pitch of the bells and the rhythm is set by the mechanism that drives the cylinder. Willard’s unusually sophisticated clock plays seven songs—a different tune for each day of the week. In this short video, the clock plays a popular fife march called “Marquis of Granby,” which was first published in London in 1760. Words were added a few years later, with the opening line, “To arms, to arms, to arms, my jolly grenadier.” These lyrics may have resonated with the original owner of the clock, who had just witnessed the young nation’s call to arms.
Meet the Curators
Patricia E. Kane
Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, has been at the Gallery since receiving her M.A. from the University of Delaware, Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, in 1968. She received her PH.D. from Yale in 1987. She oversees collections from the 17th century to the present, pursues research on early American silver and furniture, and is the director of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive.Download CV
John Stuart Gordon
John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, first became interested in material culture while studying as an undergraduate at Vassar College. He received an M.A. from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture and a PH.D. from Boston University. His specialty is American design from the late 19th through 21st centuries. In addition, he supervises the Furniture Study, the Gallery’s expansive study collection of American furniture and wooden objects.Download CV
Barquist, David L. American and English Pewter at the Yale University Art Gallery: A Supplementary Checklist. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1985.
Barquist, David L. American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Barquist, David L., and Ethan W. Lasser. Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2003.
Battison, Edwin A., and Patricia E. Kane. The American Clock, 1725–1865: The Mabel Brady Garvan Collection and Other Collections at Yale University. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
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Carr, Dennis A. American Colonial Furniture, an Interpretive Guide to the Yale University Art Gallery’s Collection. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2004.
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Gordon, John Stuart, et al. A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920–1950. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2011.
Hood, Graham. “American Pewter: Garvan and Other Collections at Yale.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 30, no. 3 (Fall 1965).
Kane, Patricia E. 300 Years of American Seating Furniture: Chairs and Beds from the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976.
Main, Kari M. Please Be Seated: Contemporary Studio Seating Furniture, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1999.
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Ward, Barbara McLean, and Gerald W. R. Ward. Silver in American Life: Selections from the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1979.
Ward, Gerald W. R. American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.