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Author Topic:   Aesthetics of Baltimore Repousse

Posts: 69
Registered: Nov 2007

iconnumber posted 04-17-2011 02:10 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Nyoman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
[14-0141, 13-0837]

Being Balinese, I suppose it’s only understandable that my idea of what is aesthetically beautiful in silver is not always in sync with western taste. It’s pretty clear that one’s eye is developed from childhood by those objects we are most accustomed to seeing first hand, as well as the influence of parents/teachers in our unique culture who serve as our mentors as we grow.

I only offer this preamble, or introduction, as an attempt to somewhat legitimize the crux of what I would like to share regarding my opinions of Baltimore repousse silver.

In a word, or a few more, I think that the repousse silver produced in Baltimore, especially by those late 19th, and a bit into the 20th century artists, were simply brilliant. I immediately respond to those pieces as they have an incredible similarity to my own cultural roots where fine, detailed and intricate repousse work has been an integral part of our own artistic tradition for many centuries. For an example I offer this eastern Javanese or Balinese breast plate dating from the Majapahit Dynasty:

Having looked at that, now have a look at these two photos of Jacobi & Jenkins silver from our collection:

Am I wrong, or do they not beg to be compared more than contrasted?

With the Majapahit breast plate, I am particularly referring to the outside foliate border as opposed to the face of Kala as the central design. Within the crowded design there is order and there is a flow, although the flowing aspects of some of these designs are not always immediately apparent.

As any student of silver knows, repousse designs in silver have been a part of western culture for a very long time, but the Baltimore artisans took repousse work to a whole new level of intricacy and complexity. They were also incredibly skilled, as hand work on their level is not commonplace in any culture.

It seems fairly clear to me that the Baltimore repousse tradition has its roots in the middle and far East. Aside from design similarities, the shapes of many of the pieces made by those silversmiths are also clearly derived from the near or far East as clearly evidenced by the middle eastern shape of the coffee pot in the photo above. But what is also interesting is that it seems that when the Baltimore silversmiths used more conventional or western shapes with their hollowware, (Georgian or otherwise), the surface embellishment is still eastern in conception.

I only offer this as food for thought and discussion. However I am tempted to take my views on this a bit further and state that Baltimore repousse silver is largely based on Islamic art. Just to introduce that idea for discussion I offer this photo from an 18th century Al Qur’an from our collection:

Not to be political, but what an interesting exhibit it would be to assemble a large group of Baltimore repousse silver along with what was very likely the source of its inspiration…that being middle and near eastern objects. Not only could such an exhibition be stimulation for the eye and mind, who knows, it could also help to foster growth in understanding our cultural uniqueness as well as our similarities.

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Posts: 850
Registered: Jun 2004

iconnumber posted 04-17-2011 11:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for agleopar     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Nyoman, Great topic and I look forward to the discussion! I think good design crosses cultural lines and design influences can be found far from their origins.

One thought I had as I read your post is that metal because of its preciousness led the way in design. Also working in metal, unlike painting, the physical reality of metal means that no matter what the design the execution is the same. What I mean is that a chaser in 19th century Baltimore will be doing the same things to the metal as a chaser in the 12th c. The metal has a physical reality that makes it do only certain things in only certain ways.

The long and short is that I think you are right about the influence of the far east on Baltimore - the China trade with stops in the Philippines, Malaysia, Java, etc. Then throw in 19th c. naturalism and flowers and leaves become similar to each other 500 years and a world apart.

Lastly going back to metal first in the history of design I would hazard that the borders of your lovely Al Qur'an were designs in metal long before they appeared on the page.

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iconnumber posted 04-19-2011 07:45 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Nyoman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Interesting comments Agleopar! I agree completely that the border design on that illuminated page likely appeared in some form of metal object first.

In addition to the huge influence by the China Trade, wasn’t there also an Orientalist movement going on in fine art in the US at that time as well?

Many thanks for your observations!

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iconnumber posted 04-20-2011 07:56 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for agleopar     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am not sure of the dates and influences that were going on between the early china trade in England vs. later in America and how that all played out in 1820-ish Baltimore. I was hoping our more academic members would jump in here to educate me!

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iconnumber posted 04-22-2011 06:26 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Nyoman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Over time, perhaps others will join in with their views. From experience I know that Mr. Dietz of the Newark Museum loves to participate in these sort of discussions.

But, if not, how do Americans say...”that’s the way the cookie crumbles” or something like that? What a wonderful way to say Karma!

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