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"Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life"
2000-03-31 until 2000-08-20
Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum
USA United States of America
Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life,an exhibition featuring furniture and decorative
arts from Mount Lebanon, the first and most prominent Shaker community, will be on view
March 19 through July 25, 1999, at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
This exhibition offers an opportunity to see objects created by Mount Lebanon residents
for their own use and for sale in the World, illustrating the principles of fine
craftsmanship, order, and simplicity embraced by the Shakers. The fifty-seven objects are
grouped into several sections, such as Workshops, Industry, and School, that represent the
communitys daily activities. Founded in New Lebanon, New York, in 1787, the settlement
was the spiritual center of the sect, which at its height in 1840 boasted six thousand
members living in eighteen communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Kentucky, and Florida.
This Shaker exhibition is unusual in that it presents the Shaker aesthetic within the context
of the vibrant community that created it, said director Elizabeth Broun.
The show assembles objects to reflect the utopian simple life of the Shakers. A sisters
retiring room displays a bed, hooked rug, high chest of drawers, footstool, rocker, and
dress. Saws, tools, and a cabinet are exhibited in a section on Shaker workshops. Innovative
and successful tradespeople, Examples of the goods that Shakers marketed through their
stores and mail-order catalogues to the outside world—including chairs, sewing kits, herbal
remedies, seeds, textiles, boxes, and baskets—illustrate their role in the community and
Shakers were celebrated for their functional, unadorned, and well-crafted furniture, that
reduced the elements of a piece to its essentials. They did not consider the products of their
craftsmanship to be art but instead a palpable expression of their faith. In the words of one
Shaker sister, It was religion that produced the good tables and chairs.
In a communal settlement where time ordered all aspects of life, clocks were prominent
features. A tall clock from the Church family dwelling dates from 1806 and was created by
one of the first generations of Shaker craftsmen. While design influences from the outside
world are evident, the elimination of superfluous ornamentation on the tall case reveals the
essence of the new Shaker aesthetic, where simplicity was key.
A massive tool cupboard made around 1840, when Shaker design was at its purest and
most abstract, carefully fits form to function. This shallow cupboard, designed to store
woodworking tools, is unusual for its size, asymmetrical layout, arrangement of doors, and
use of contrasting colored finishes.
A cloak from a design standardized in the 1890s illustrates how simplicity pervaded all
Shaker products. Widely referred to as Dorothy cloaks after their originator, Sister
Dorothy Durgin of Canterbury, New Hampshire, the hooded garments were a specialty of
Mount Lebanon seamstresses. Available in several colors, cloaks were standard dress for
Shaker sisters, and fashionable with non-believers as well; Mrs. Grover Cleveland wore a
gray Shaker cloak in 1893 to her husbands second presidential inaugural.
The Shaker movement began in England and moved to the United States in 1774. Led by
Mother Ann Lee, the group members were called Shakers because of their early ecstatic
worship practices, which included shaking, frenzied dancing, shouting, and singing.
Although they separated themselves from society, Shakers embraced the latest technology
in their attempts to create, as they put it, heaven on earth. Their communities like Mount
Lebanon are considered among the most progressive and successful of modern attempts at
communal living. However, their numbers dwindled rapidly by the close of the nineteenth
century, and only a handful of Shakers are living today.