"In the humour people are in here, a man is in danger of becoming invidiously distinguished, who buys any thing in England which our Tradesmen can furnish." So wrote Samuel Morris of Philadelphia in 1765, a time when owning the most fashionable English furnishings was the rage, but the cry "Buy American" was the political reality.
Being fashionable then meant luxuriating in the regal rococo style (most Americans call it Chippendale; to the French it's Louis XV). An international aristocratic taste, it was "characterized by a sense of fantasy, elegance and movement, and employed a repertory of shells, scrolls and leafage," according to Morrison H. Heckscher, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. With Leslie G. Bowman, his counterpart at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mr. Heckscher organized the new exhibit "American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament," now at the Metropolitan and moving to Los Angeles this summer. It will appeal to casual museum-goers, scholarly connoisseurs and anyone interested in Colonial precedents for today's debates about the quality of goods made in America versus foreign imports.
It is no surprise that English taste profoundly influenced Colonial American design. "A common culture, strong ties of kinship and mercantile regulations that prohibited the American Colonies from trading independently with other nations made that artistic dependence inevitable," the curators note. British policy required the Colonies to provide her raw materials and markets for her manufactured goods. This system created a class of wealthy American merchants who spent their money on stylish adornments to prove their position in polite society.
The rococo style came to America in three ways: through imported British goods; engravings on ephemera and in pattern books, the most influential of which was Thomas Chippendale's "Director" (hence the style's nickname); and the heads and hands of artisans eager to escape the British guild system.
The exhibit shows that the rococo crossed the Atlantic more than a decade earlier than scholars had thought, flourishing in urban centers by 1750. Americans did not lag far behind their British cousins in style or craftsmanship. The first gallery displays side-by-side pairs of chairs, porcelain sauce boats, silver coffee pots and carved picture frames -- one imported from England, the other made in America. British design books open to engravings of chimney breasts and chairs are shown near the American carved examples. Flowing and naturalistic motifs also erupted on the shafts of Kentucky rifles; the pediments, skirts, legs and hardware of high chests; tooled leather bookbindings; engraved bookplates and tradesmen's cards; iron stoves and firebacks; and even church memorials, all represented in the exhibition.
Silver forms were not included in rococo pattern books, so American silversmiths copied imported English pieces or employed craftsmen "lately of London" to embellish their designs. A circa 1745-'55 teakettle on a stand dripping with three-dimensional hammered flora and fauna, long-considered the apogee of American rococo, is marked by Joseph Richardson of Philadelphia but may have been created by an immigrant assistant who learned in England how to push metal to its limit.
In contrast, the decoration on a silver cake basket made circa 1756 by New York-born Myer Myers is all piercing, employing three variations of the English rococo noted in Chippendale's "Director": Modern (scrolls), Chinese (fretwork), and Gothic (quatrefoils and diamonds). A tea table made in Williamsburg, Va., and another from Portsmouth, N.H., show how cabinetmakers in distant colonies used similar designs.
By the 1760s British-American relations had soured, as a result of new taxes and import duties. Colonists retaliated with boycotts of British goods, and merchants signed non-importation agreements. While these actions temporarily reduced the flow of British luxury goods and staples, they didn't stamp out colonists' yearnings for the latest London rococo fashions. Nor did they stop the influx of British artisans who supplied consumers with American-made furnishings, albeit regal-looking ones crafted by English hands.
Tastes differed regionally. In Boston, which by the 1760s had passed its mercantile prime, the rococo generally was too rich for Puritan values and pocketbooks. But in Philadelphia, then the richest and largest American city, the fancier the better. The thicket of lavish carving on a white painted looking-glass, and the sinuous scrolling of a dark mahogany pier table with a gold-veined black marble slab top, both on exhibit and made in Philadelphia circa 1770, epitomize rococo taste just before it fell from fashion on the eve of the Revolution. It was supplanted after the war by the Federal style, independent of courtly European influence and based on the classical designs of ancient Greece and Rome.
"American Rococo 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028, through May 17. Call (212) 879-5500 for details. From July 2 to September 27, the exhibit will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90036; (213) 857-6000. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalog of the same name by curators Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, available at the museums in hardcover ($50) and softcover ($39.95). The hardcover edition, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., also is available at book stores for $60.