Friday, August 20, 2010

River of Life

Thanks to a recent grant from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, one of our most important folk art masterpieces is going to be conserved and prominently displayed in the Fenimore Art Museum’s 2010 quilt exhibition.

The piece is considered one of the greatest American quilts of all time, and one of the very few that feature a pictorial narrative akin to the genre paintings of the era. It is our Trade and Commerce quilt by Hannah Stockton Stiles, a 105” x 89” bedcovering made of cotton and chintz in about 1835. Hannah was born in Trenton, New Jersey and married John Stiles of Philadelphia in 1818. The two cities flank the Delaware River, a bustling commercial waterway that in the 1830s was loaded with all manner of ships, wharves, dockworkers, taverns, and shops taking advantage of the immense maritime traffic.

When Hannah decided to create a quilt, no doubt she wanted one that reflected her life. Whereas many quilters chose established patterns – often adding or creating variations on those patterns that were their unique individual stamp – Hannah did something quite extraordinary. She cut her own designs and images to make a complex and lively rendition of life along the river.

Her centerpiece for the quilt is highly symbolic, an immense Tree of Life. She borrowed this image and tradition from the imported palampores of India, but the notion of a life-giving river that provided everything for the people along its banks is central to the artist’s intent.

Along the margins of the quilt, Hannah did her most extraordinary work. Cutting out and applying her own shapes, she made figures of people and buildings and barrels and ships, all in the course of their daily business. Her level of detail is astounding, as you can see in these pictures. One can see a woman milking a cow, a fancy town carriage near a public bath, barrels being loaded or off-loaded at a wharf, and much more. She went so far as to cut zig zag shapes from her fabric to mimic the steam coming out of the steamboats on the river.

And look, lastly, along the bottom of the quilt. You can see a row of well-dressed people standing together as if watching the whole scene unfold. Might this be the Stiles family themselves, including the artist, paying homage to the life force that had given them everything they had?

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