The Importance of the Aesthetic Movement in American Silver
1 April 2019
Among the most exciting and innovative periods in American silversmithing are the years between 1867 and 1887, a period of creativity in form inspired by the influence of the Aesthetic design movement and the growing interest in all things Japanese that permeated the American consciousness in the late 19th century. The latter of these influences, a byproduct of the forced opening of the U.S/Japan trade at the hands of Commodore Matthew Perry and the American Navy in 1854, spurred the adoption of a distinctly Japanese design sensibility across a wealth of American decorative arts.
At Tiffany, this hunger to capture the Japanese aesthetic was led by its head silver designer, Edward C. Moore, in the latter half of the 1860s. Moore’s designs won a bronze medal at the 1867 Paris Exposition, a first for America and a feat that greatly energized the silversmith’s creativity. Moore with the help of famed English designer, Christopher Dresser, acquired hundreds of Japanese wares, then shipped them to New York for study and emulation at the Tiffany workshop. Moore returned to the Paris Exposition in 1878 with such a stunning display of silver that Tiffany was awarded the grand prize and Moore a gold medal. These triumphs made them an international powerhouse. Dresser effusively praised Moore after the Exhibition, saying, in part, “No silversmith, that I know of, has made the progress in art as applied to their industry in the last few years that you have – indeed, the rapidity of your advancement has astonished many of my art friends as well as myself…”
This dramatic 10-year evolution of Tiffany silver in the Japanese taste was evident not only stylistically, but in the means and methods of production as well. The smooth backgrounds and engraved decoration present in pieces like lot 1208, a four piece tea set, gave way to hammered (martelé) surfaces, applied ornament and the incorporation of mixed metals as seen in lot 1202. Tiffany craftsmen even mastered a technique called “mokume”, which combines thin layers of gold and copper with silver to form a woodgrain pattern - a centuries old technique employed by Japanese sword makers. Because mixed-metal applications were prohibited by European assay laws, America gained an edge over the French and English silversmiths. Again borrowing from the Japanese, the shapes of Tiffany’s objects began to take on more organic forms, with undulating lines and asymmetrical designs that represented a complete departure from the company’s earlier work.
Though Moore and Tiffany led the way in this aesthetic, Gorham followed. Its inventive efforts are seen in lots 1209 and 1211. The tray in lot 1209 depicts a Japanese port scene, derived from a Japanese woodblock print, embellished with a bamboo border and nail heads holding the simulated stretched fabric to the frame. The dessert knives (lot 1211) showcase the combination of applied mixed metal insects, plants, and fish on the handles with Japanese motifs on the blades. The design of the Narragansett ladle (lot 1210) borrowed from the Japanese aesthetic, but also incorporated the marine life around Rhode Island, where Gorham was located. The exceptionally fine detailing of the shells, crabs, and seaweed makes one feel as if the encrusted ladle was plucked directly from the ocean.
Equally exquisite Gorham pieces will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance” at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, opening May 3rd. This is the first exhibition of Gorham in nearly 30 years, and will be accompanied by a book of the same name, published by Rizzoli in conjunction with RISD.