Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sarah Bernhardt Continues to Put on a Show at the Shelburne Museum

by Carolyn Bauer, Assistant Curator


Shelburne Museum's current exhibition Natural Beauties: Jewelry from Art Nouveau to Now features show-stopping fine jewelry. Visitors to the exhibition stop in their tracks as they are taken aback by the abundance and artistry of beautiful gems and jewels in the gallery. Perhaps no one piece of jewelry is the most to blame for causing these pauses than the Art Nouveau  Enamel, Diamond and Amethyst Pendent.

Rene Lalique, Enamel, Diamond and
Amethyst Pendent, ca. 1895. Enamel,
diamond, amethyst, and 18k yellow gold,
4 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. Private Collection,
courtesy of Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry.

Created by the famous French jeweler René Lalique (1860-1945), the Enamel, Diamond and Amethyst Pendent is an enamel necklace encrusted with an array of precious stones, such as: rose-cut diamonds, cabochon citrines, garnets, periodots, tourmalines, and amethysts.  Framed by gems in a gold setting, the open-work enamel scene depicts the profile of a woman walking in the woods accompanied by a dog. The figure of the famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). In this work of art she is rendered as Melissande, a Countess of Tripolia, a character she played in the 1895 stage production La Princesse Lointaine, a play written by the acclaimed playwright Edmond Rostand, a fond friend of Bernhardt. 

Bernhardt, a living legend and celebrated beauty during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a muse for the world's leading artists, designers, and fashion labels. Today, the actress is best remembered as the face of the aesthetic Art Nouveau movement through artist Alphonse Mucha’s popular advertising posters.

 Among Bernhardt’s many talents, she also had an eye for fine jewelry.  In addition to her own interests in collecting jewelry she also exerted a great deal of influence over its creation during a time when jewelry was rising towards the status of fine art.  As she was building her jewelry collection, Lalique’s dramatic designs caught her attention. Lalique, who was also beginning to make a name for himself in the arts through his technically innovative and artistic jewelry, went from being an admirer of Bernhardt to being her friend.

It was their friendship that assisted in Lalique’s invitations to create elaborate costume jewelry for Bernhardt to wear on the stage.  In 1894 he was commissioned to design her crown for the play Theodora, and it has been suggested that Lalique may have also designed the jewelry and crown worn by Bernhardt for La Princesse Lointaine.

Rene Lalique, Jeweled copy of La Princesse
ca. 1895. Leather, Gold, Diamond,
Citrine, Garnet, Peridot, Tourmaline, Cabochon,
Amethyst. Private Collection, courtesy of
Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry.

In celebration of Bernhardt’s starring role as Melissandre, Princess of Tripoli, Edmond Rostand presented her with a copy of the script. Bound in light beige leather with inlaid precious stones, the text is a testimony to their friendship and admiration for each other. On the script's cover is a lily, a reference to the crown she wore in the performance, which is composed of diamonds and citrines. Rostand also included Bernhardt's initials, her motto "Quand Meme" ("in spite of"), and a handwritten dedication to her in the book. 

Exhibited side by side, the stunning Lalique necklace and play script not only enchants visitors with their exceptional beauty, but also give a glimpse into the private lives of these exceptional artists and memorialize their lasting influence in the arts.  

Both of these must-see works of art will continue to be on display at the Shelburne Museum in Natural Beauties: From Art Nouveau to Now until March 8, 2015.  


Carolyn Bauer is the Assistant Curator at Shelburne Museum. Her interests include, but are not limited to:  mid-twentieth century modern art and culture,  American decorative arts, feminist art historical writings, and contemporary art. She is obsessed with the lives and artworks of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell;  and enjoys cheering on her home state’s Green Bay Packers and exploring Vermont with her dog, Greta.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Look into our eyes...

Curator of Design Arts Kory Rogers reminding himself of which pieces we've looked at.
In the course of preparing some of the objects from Shelburne's collection for Supercool Glass, curator Kory Rogers and I took a closer look at a collection of prosthetic eyes, normally on view in the doctor's office.  In particular, he was curious about how the capillaries were added to the whites of the eyes, but I found the manner in which the glass worker created the irises to be just spectacular. Here are a few examples of what we saw:

One example of what's referred to as a reform-style glass eye. The capillaries are applied as glass threads to the white glass.
Doesn't it look like there are butterscotch starlight candies in this iris?

Most of the eyes in this collection are of the reform style, originally developed in the 1880s by Dutch eye surgeon Hermann Snellen. Reform-style prosthetics are elliptically-shaped convex and hollow. Kory displayed one of these upside down in Supercool Glass to show how these were made. There are also a few examples of shell-style prosthetics in the group:
Two shell-style prosthetics turned upside down.

One of the reasons I find these prosthetics so interesting is that there are so many points of comparison with the dolls' eyes in the collection. Glass eye makers also made doll eyes. Perhaps the most amazing examples of glass doll eyes in Shelburne's collection are seen on the wax-over-papier mâché-headed doll by London maker Anthony Bazzoni, produced c. 1860. As gorgeous as they are, these spherical eyes just don't have the same level of realism as the prosthetics.

Not all glass doll eyes are globe-shaped or this realistic. Eighteenth-century examples of English glass doll eyes in Shelburne's collection are shaped something like cowrie shells. We get the best sense of that by looking at x-radiographs and CT scans.
I think you get the best sense of the shape of the doll's eyes in profile. The tacks around the crown of the head hold a wig in place.

Here's a frontal view radiograph. The wood doll was made in England c. 1720.

Of course, attempts at making realistic eyes in materials other than glass have a long history too. If you want to learn more, check out this post from our colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum's conservation lab and their recent investigations of how eyes were made in a group of Egyptian wooden sculptural heads. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Art of Peril 2

In March, I told you about a show I've been working on for the summer season, The Art of Peril: Fires, Shipwrecks, and other Disasters. In that post, I told you about the explosion of the Peacemaker, one of several historical disasters I’m featuring. 

Today I’ll share with you another catastrophe I’ve been learning about, a series of earthquakes that occurred in Italy at the end of the 18th century.

On February 5, 1783, the first of a series of earthquakes struck the southern tip of Italy. Over a period of two months, five earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks were recorded, triggering tsunamis. By the time the tremors ended, hundreds of towns and villages had been destroyed, and the death toll was estimated between 30,000 and 60,000. Many deaths resulted from disease and poor sanitary conditions. To put that number in perspective, imagine having the entire population of Burlington, Vermont, which was estimated to be around 42,500 in 2012, wiped out during the course of spring mud season.

Here’s a print that shows one of those quakes wreaking havoc on a port city.

Artist Unknown, La Ville d'Oppido, late 18th century, hand-colored engraving. Collection of Shelburne Museum, 27.6.2-93

What you’re looking at is an example of a vue d’optique, or “optical view,” a type of engraving that shows three-dimensional views of different places. Think of these as an ancestor of 3D movies. They’re ideally viewed through a device called a zograscope, which consists of a magnifying lens and a mirror mounted to a stand.

A zograscope and vue d’optique. Image courtesy of

To enjoy the 3D nature of the vue d’optique, you place the print under the magnifying lens, which amplifies the print’s sense of perspective, and then look at its reflection in the mirror. These prints were often hand-painted in bright, almost garish colors, which helped enhance their 3D qualities.

Shelburne Museum has several of these, actually. Here are two examples:

J. Chereau, St. Paul de Londres (St. Paul's Cathedral, London), 18th century, hand colored engraving. Collection of Shelburne Museum.

Artist Unknown, Vue de Louvre (View of the Louvre), 18th-early 19th century, hand colored engraving. Collection of Shelburne Museum

Vue d’optiques often depict placid scenes of famous cities, but the one I’m featuring is all about destruction. 

What struck me about this print was not so much the overall composition or its technical skill (vue d’optiques typically aren’t the most skillfully-executed engravings), but the vignettes sprinkled throughout the piece. Let’s look at some of these scenes.

On the left side of the print (or proper right in art conservation terms), a priest appears to give last rites to a dying man.

Meanwhile, in the lower right side of the print, another man is crushed beneath broken masonry.

Then there’s this man, who could be shielding himself from some falling debris, throwing his arms up in despair, or both.

I’m not claiming that this print is an objective visual record of the earthquakes. The poses are conventional and the colors too conveniently synchronized for that. Still, these passages do remind me that real people suffered and died from these tremors. I think we sometimes forget this as an event becomes more distanced from us chronologically, but we should remember the suffering that these people experienced when we look at images like these. They’re fun to look at, but they’re also sobering.