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Indepth Arts News:

"Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York"
2002-02-24 until 2002-05-26
Skirball Cultural Center
Los Angeles, CA, USA United States of America

An exhibition of the work of Myer Myers (1723-1795), one of the most accomplished craftsmen working in pre-industrial America, will be on view at the Skirball Cultural Center from February 24 to May 26, 2002. Organized by Yale University Art Gallery, Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York features 104 silver and gold objects created by Myers as well as close to 50 other objects that help place him in the context of the tumultuous political, economic, social, and religious life of New York in the second half of the eighteenth century. Upon its opening at Yale in September, the exhibition was acclaimed by the New York Times as the first large museum exhibition on Myers in nearly 50 years . . . offer[ing] voluminous insights into Myers's silver work and his life.

While Myers is not nearly as well known as Paul Revere, who worked in Boston, Myers, like Revere, is counted among a select group of highly respected merchant-artisans of the time. His work is found in major museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Harvard University Art Galleries.

The exhibition was organized by David L. Barquist, associate curator of American decorative arts at Yale, who also wrote the catalogue. Following its showing at the Skirball, Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York will travel to the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware from June 20 to September 13, 2002. The Skirball presentation includes a series of related events including a lecture by Dr. Barquist on Friday, February 22, at 1:00 p.m.

Myers was the most productive silversmith working in New York during the late Colonial period and his ritual and secular silver is the largest body of extant work by a Jewish silversmith from anywhere in Europe or America prior to the nineteenth century. He became the dominant figure in a large, well-established community of silversmiths that included native craftsmen of Dutch, Huguenot, and English ancestry, as well as immigrants from Europe. His renown as an artisan came from his ability to execute superb custom order work for the wealthiest patrons. His New York workshop was, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, one of the few that supplied such labor-intensive, richly ornamented forms as candlesticks, pierced bread baskets, covered jugs, and cruet stands, and alone in the production of such specialized work as Torah finials. Myers?s output was not, however, confined to these style-conscious forms. From the mid-1750s his shop generated a steady income by satisfying the demand for more modest forms of hollowware and flatware from a larger, less affluent clientele.

Myers's success as a silversmith, Dr. Barquist points out, was the result of his talents not only as a craftsman but also as an entrepreneur who marshaled the skills of other craftsmen and specialists.

In addition to the objects created by Myers, the exhibition features silver and gold objects by some of his contemporaries as well as painted portraits of his patrons, manuscripts, books, maps, and other works on paper. A major component of the exhibition explores Myers's stylistic development and the ways his patrons, represented by their portraits, influenced the forms and styles of his work. Another section surveys the Jewish communities of New York, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island, to which Myers was connected through the kinship network of his own family. The organization of the silversmith?s trade in eighteenth-century New York is examined in a another section. Here such issues as apprenticeship, the specialist craftsmen working in Myers's shop, his competitors, and commissions versus ready sale are considered and objects made in England and America are compared.

Myer Myers was born in New York City in 1723, the son of Solomon and Judith Myers. The family lived one block away from Shearith Israel's synagogue on Mill Street, where Solomon, and later his sons, were active members of the congregation and where many of the most useful documentary records of Myers's life can be found. After the traditional seven-year apprenticeship with a master silversmith, he registered as a Goldsmith in 1746, the first native Jew within the British Empire to establish himself as a working retail silversmith since the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1327. Myers had set himself up as an independent maker by 1753, a time when the leading merchants in New York, where the British army in North America was headquartered, made fortunes supplying the soldiers during England's wars with Spain and France in the 1740s and, later, the Seven Years' War.

An advantageous marriage to Elkaleh Myers Cohen, the daughter of a wealthy merchant in the transatlantic trade, and a partnership with Benjamin Halsted expanded Myers's connections and his business thrived. His patrons for the Rococo style objects he began producing in the mid-1750s included political, military, financial, and social leaders, among them the Reverend Samuel Johnson, a graduate of Yale (class of 1714) and the founding president of King's College, now Columbia University. Tories such as he were by no means Myers's only fashionable patrons; the Whig Livingston family, of enormous wealth and influence, also commissioned a large number of pieces and shaped the silversmith's style. During the late 1760s and the 1770s Myers created the magnificent Torah finials, or rimonim, four pairs of which are in the exhibition.

Myers's Torah finials are unique examples of eighteenth-century American Jewish silver, writes Dr. Barquist. They are also among the most extraordinary precious-metal objects produced in Colonial America. It was in these years that Myers's most significant commissions came from Samuel Cornell, a successful West Indies merchant and landowner, and his wife Susannah Mabson. Among them were a dish ring and bottle stands that are the only extant Colonial American examples of these forms, as well as other rare examples of pierced silver in the Rococo style.

The summer of 1776 brought Myers's activities as a silversmith and entrepreneur to an abrupt halt. George Washington had made New York his headquarters and British troops besieged the city. Myers and Joyce Mears, his second wife his first having died and six dependent children moved with other Jewish families to Norwalk, Connecticut, on the mistaken assumption that the enemy, as Samson Mears, Myers's brother-in-law observed, will have greater objects to attend to than this insignificant place. In July 1779 a British force attacked and burned the town leaving the residents homeless and Myers without his tools. The family settled in Stratford, Connecticut for the remainder of the Revolutionary War years and, despite his losses, it is evident from extant objects that Myers continued to work as a silversmith.

The war has served historians as the point of demarcation between the Rococo of the Colonial period and the Neoclassical style of the new Republic and Myers's workshop adopted the new aesthetic. Though not as successful in business after the war, it is clear that his peers held him in high regard, electing him chairman of the newly formed Gold and Silver Smith?s Society in 1785. He remained a leader in the Jewish community and was active in the affairs of the Shearith Israel congregation until his death at the age of seventy-two in 1795.

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