June 25, 2012

A Tour of the World's Fair: Decorative Objects from the 1893 Columbian Exposition


In April, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City opened an exhibition featuring 200 decorative objects collected from 160 years’ worth of world’s fairs (between 1851 and 1939). 

But if you don’t have the time or the heart to make the seven-hour road trip to KC before the exhibition closes on August 19, don’t worry: the Driehaus Museum has a permanent collection of decorative objects—an artistic silver piece by Tiffany & Company; a painting of Daniel Burnham’s Administration Building; and even a trio of Japanese bronzes, souvenirs for the family that originally occupied this mansion—that come exclusively from Chicago’s 1893 fair. Bonus: a Tiffany Studios lily-shade lamp design that was exhibited at Paris’s exposition in 1900.

Twilight at the World's Columbian Exposition (1894). Walter Launt Palmer. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
Twilight at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1894). Walter Launt Palmer (American, 1854-1932). Oil on canvas. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

This oil painting, with its pinkish sunset glow, hangs in the library. Walter L. Palmer featured the fair’s Administration Building in Twilight at the World’s Columbian Exposition—an immense, white, classically-inspired structure designed by the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham.

The Book of the Fair. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World’s Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, by Hubert Howe Bancroft (American, 1832-1918). The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
These books divulge all of the objects, inventions, and diversions that could be found down in Jackson Park during the fair.

Japanese bronzes from the 1893 World's Fair. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
Patinated cast bronze vessel (pictured) and two phoenix-form candelabra (not pictured) (ca. 1893). Artist unknown, Japanese, Meiji period. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Visitors never fail to notice the trio of bronze pieces standing in the second floor hall, fair souvenirs of Samuel M. Nickerson himself. Created by Japanese artisans for display in their nation’s pavilion, these bronzes reveal painstakingly fine workmanship in the sheer intricacy of their designs: monkeys, Lohan warriors, curved dragons, dense foliage, and abstract decorative patterns adorn their surfaces. Although these designs have little in common with true Japanese aesthetic, they were typical of objects displayed in the fairs to capture Western tastes.

Punch bowl by Tiffany & Company. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
Punch bowl (1893). Tiffany & Company (American, est. 1837). Sterling silver and metal. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

This silver-covered punch bowl—described in the Tiffany Archives as “Tall Roman”—was a particularly “special” piece. It cost $1,777.50 to manufacture. The base is raised on three paw feet, between which sprawls an infant god Bacchus, apparently enjoying the spiked drink from the two-handled, gilt-interior tureen.

Tiffany Studios 18-light lily table lamp. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
18-light lily table lamp (ca. 1910). Tiffany Studios (American, 1902-1932). Favrile glass and gilt bronze. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

This piece’s design actually made its big debut at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. The downturned heads of the lilies are proof of Louis C. Tiffany’s forward thinking. The design was exhibited proudly at France’s Art Nouveau-laden fair as one of the first household lamps made exclusively for electricity (gas flames would sputter and die in the floor-facing shades, not to mention blacken them with oily smoke). Though Thomas Edison invented his long-lasting filament bulb in 1880, electricity wasn’t widely used in homes in America until the first decades of the 20th century.

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