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"Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum"
2004-04-06 until 2004-06-06
Portland Museum of Art
Portland, ME, USA

Calico & Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art from April 8, 2004 through June 6, 2004. The exhibition features 22 rare pieced and whole-cloth American quilts made before 1850, selected from the collection donated to the Smithsonian in 1999 by Patricia Smith Melton, a Washington playwright and quilt historian. These heirloom quilts, dating from about 1810 to 1850, preserve a notable era in textile and quiltmaking artistry. Before the United States developed a textile industry in the 1840s, colonists and citizens imported quality printed cottons from Britain or France.

These fabrics were used by affluent quiltmakers along the Eastern Seaboard and on Southern plantations for the sumptuous bedcovers that were an important decorative element in prosperous homes.

"These rare and beautiful quilts will come as a revelation to all quilt lovers," said Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. "The pre-1850's textiles demonstrate this earlier society's embrace of vivid color, rich pattern and exuberant beauty."

The cotton fabric used in these early American quilts incorporated vegetable and mineral colors-chemical aniline dyes did not arrive until the 1850s-and represented high standards of woodblock, copperplate, and roller printing. The term "calico" comes from Calicut, a port on the Malabar Coast of India where European traders in the 17th century bought the colorful cottons that revolutionized Western taste in textiles. "Chintz" is derived from "chints," a phonetic transliteration of the Hindi word meaning variegated. While the terms calico and chintz were used interchangeably to describe colorful cottons, calico properly describes unglazed fabric printed with repeat patterns of small floral or abstract shapes. Chintz refers to fine glazed cotton printed with prominent flowers, birds and other representational motifs. The exhibition also includes fragments of the kinds of imported period textiles used to construct the quilts in the collection.

Some of the quilts in this exhibition are the most intricate and complex of their kind. Pieced Bedcover (Honeycomb), about 1825, is composed of template-formed hexagons-each measuring only 5/8 inch-for a total of 442 rosettes of colorful cotton. Others are quite bold and expressionistic including Pieced Quilt (Nine Patch on Point), about 1845. This New York quilt would have been appropriate with the interior decor of a middle-class bedroom of the early 1840s.

Unknown Maker, New England
Pieced Quilt (Honeycomb),
ca. 1830, Chintzes, calicoes, and white cotton
58 x 57 inches.
Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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