Silver seahorses, dolphins, and mermaids were the gorgeous reward for yacht-race winners in Newport, R.I.
A few days ago, I wrote about the Rhode Island School of Design museum’s lovely, important show on the work of Gorham Manufacturing Co. during its pinnacle as one of America’s great makers of silver. This week, I’ll write about another new show, Spectacular Silver: Yachting’s Goelet Cups, which just opened at the Redwood Library in Newport, R.I. It’s more focused — grand silver sailing trophies from the 1880s and 1890s — but as wonderful and enlightening.
American art has good moments and bad, and as an American art scholar, I’m bound by my profession’s code of honesty to say that many of them, very many, in fact, are not-so-good. Painting in America, for example, had a slow start, emerging from more-or-less caveman style with the young but talented John Singleton Copley in the 1760s. A Tory, and the son-in-law of the rich man who owned the tea that went into Boston Harbor, Copley left for London in 1772. It’s where, he correctly felt, real painting, as well as patronage, fame, and fortune, really happened. He never came back.
It’s not that Americans are uncouth. American literature is as strong as any. Fiction and theater spring more smartly and naturally from the American mind. The old Protestant primacy of the Word — the primacy of language in conveying God’s beauty, authority, and guidance — informs American culture, as well as a stubborn Protestant aversion to decoration and artifice. Painting is not very practical, but furniture and silver are. These media evolve more quickly and with more refinement.
Silver? Practical? Before IRAs, silver was a store of value, as were land, buildings, and animals. Silver was a form of saving and an asset. Indicating wealth, it was a status symbol, too. Its cool gray luster inspired dreams of beauty and fine design realized by its malleability. Very early, colonial artists fashioned silver with distinct, sophisticated aesthetics, expressing differing tastes and influences in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Spectacular Silver: Yachting’s Goelet Cups is a deceptively niche title. It’s the first time the New York Yacht Club has shown its collection of big silver sailing trophies, augmented by loans. They’re where Gilded Age wealth, refinement, manufacturing acumen, and showmanship intersect.
The show gathers a dozen of the massive sailing trophies commissioned by the New York real-estate magnate Ogden Goelet (1851–1897) for New York Yacht Club races held off the coast of Newport in the 1880s and 1890s. Goelet paid for the cups awarded to schooner and sloop race winners each year from 1882 until he died. Thirty-one were awarded by the yacht club, going home with the winners for them to keep. Some came back to the club. Some went to museums. Some are still with the families, and five are still mysteries.
Expertly done by the club’s art curator, silver scholar Alice Dickinson, it’s far more than an art show, though it’s well grounded in aesthetics. Contextualized with ship paintings and models and photographs, the trophies also invite us into the culture of yacht racing and early American sportsmanship.
The first Goelet cup, in the show’s introductory section, is a silver pitcher and tray made by Whiting Manufacturing Co. in 1882 with colorful enamel decoration. It sets a tone. It’s the art of joy, abundance, and technicolor dazzle. Puritan austerity got shown the door in favor of “God gave us wealth because we’re good, so let’s flaunt it.” Call it the Age of Rationalization.
Goelet was a grandee, one of the Four Hundred certifiably rich families in New York. His adherence to old Puritan values seems to have stopped with the name of his yacht, The Mayflower. That’s not shocking. His family wasn’t from New England. They were French Huguenots, tossed out during a purge and coming to New York via Amsterdam. He built an immense house in Newport. His daughter married the eighth Duke of Roxburghe in 1903, bringing with her a $20 million inheritance.
Sinuous sea horses, leaping dolphins, and mythological sea critters might together seem crazy, but there’s a method to the madness. Americans are seafarers. Until 1800, the vast majority of Americans lived near the Atlantic Ocean. The sea supplied our livelihood, protected us, transported us, and inspired our dreams. It flavored our air with salt and fed us with fish. The sea set the stage for endless stories of adventure and exploration. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast was America’s best-loved book, beside the Bible. When good painting finally got traction, seascapes became, with landscapes, a natural, expressive subject. Ship paintings were as loved by Americans as were horse paintings by the English. The silver on view is maritime art.
We don’t know why Goelet picked Whiting or Tiffany & Co., his other go-to maker, for a given year. The 1882 cup — a pitcher and tray — is within the realm of convention as forms go. You can use it. The 1884 schooner cup, made by Tiffany, is pure sculpture, a galleon shape with a cast Poseidon on the prow and six exquisitely cast dolphins. I suppose you can use it for an ice bucket if you’re desperate. Tiffany borrowed this and five other Goelet cups it made to show in its booth at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The firm considered these things among its best work.
The 1886 Goelet Cup for schooner racing was made by Tiffany. It’s 27 inches in height and 189 ounces of silver. It could sink a ship. As much as I like the ocean, as far as I’m concerned, it’s for looking, swimming, and someone else catching fish for dinner. Living among the Green Mountains, I’m a mountain man, tidied up via Brooks Brothers. Yachting is not my passion.
So I looked at this object in three ways. First, I think about how it’s made. It’s entirely embossed, with no element cast separately in a mold and applied. This means the artist used an array of tiny hammers, pushing the material in through thousands of pressing gestures to create stunningly deep relief. It’s microscopic sculpture and very difficult.
Next, I look at design. The activity on this thing is intense. It’s meant to be seen frontally so the central figures are the writhing mermaid and a big personification of the wind, but the mermaid’s tail sweeps around the cup, and cherubic figures with the lung power of a screaming two-year-old decorate the entire object, as does an underwater jungle of flora and fauna. Though this might seem strange, it’s a practical Gilded Age American aesthetic. Why leave any surface undecorated? It’s a waste of shiny silver real estate. God doesn’t like waste.
The silver in the show is High Victorian meets Anything Goes. It’s over the top, eclectic, and very sexy. And sex comes to mind in looking at this object. The motif of a woman flailing underwater is the ultimate 1880s damsel in distress. As odd as it seems, women in Gilded Age America weren’t usually taught how to swim. The development of seaside resorts like Newport but also Long Branch in New Jersey, catering to the affluent, occasioned near drownings, which inspired the storyline of manly rescue. Winslow Homer’s famous paintings of drowning women pulled to safety by brave, muscular men were done between 1884 and 1886. Love on the beach didn’t start with From Here to Eternity. Oceanside romance was a new and big theme in the 1880s in art, literature, and advertising. Oh, and swimming lessons became de rigueur.
Even in the narrow chronological window of the show, there’s lots more difference in style. The 1891 cup has the look of Lillian Russell, full-throttled and full-figured but with decoration so subtly tactile and detailed that it demands to be touched. The low-relief seahorses are on the move. The thing’s a very elegant action figure. It’s very American: art nouveau and rococo with a not inconsiderable debt to the Parthenon frieze. It’s diversity anyone can love.
I feel I’ve privileged schooners. In the name of equity and inclusion, I’ll conclude with the 1886 cup for the sloop winner. The schooner trophies were bigger and more expensive, costing Goelet $1,000 as opposed to $500. The 1886 sloop cup is indeed smaller and lighter, but it shows even more of American design eclecticism. It’s a bit of Egyptomania. The Suez Canal had opened only a few years before, Orientalism was in full flower, and Newport was the ultimate oasis.
The Redwood Library is a private library, but don’t be intimidated. They understand they’re doing a gorgeous, first-ever show and are welcoming everyone. It’s free, too. The extraordinary Truro Synagogue, one of the great architectural splendors of Newport, is a very short walk, though with restricted opening hours. I took the city bus from Providence and back. As a skinflint, I was delighted to spend a mere $2 for transportation each way. The little, egalitarian democracy on the bus reminded me of my rural Vermont hometown. I suspect that everyone riding shared with me the distinction of not belonging to the New York Yacht Club.