Summer Research Report: Emelie Gevalt

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Emelie at the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Image courtesy of Emelie Gevalt.

With January’s Emerging Scholars Colloquium fast approaching, we are happy to introduce Emelie Gevalt, another Summer Research Scholarship recipient who will be presenting there. An alumna of Yale University, where she majored in Art History and Theater Studies, Emelie worked for several years in New York City, first as a curatorial assistant for a private collection and then at Christie’s auction house in their Department of Estates, Appraisals & Valuation Services.

Her desire to develop a particular specialty in the decorative arts field led her to Winterthur, where she fell in love with Taunton chests during her furniture class. As a former auction professional, she found their historical journey through families and collections as interesting as the aesthetic appeal of their construction techniques and painted surfaces, particularly as furniture has been the centerpiece of collecting and Americana studies for a long time.

“Generous funding from the Decorative Arts Trust facilitated essential foundational research on my Winterthur thesis this past summer, as I undertook a study of the painted chests of Taunton, Massachusetts, attributed to the hand of Robert Crosman. My work took me to cities across Northeast as well as the Midwest, where examples of the early-to-mid 18th century chests had found their way into numerous museum collections, including, among others, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Henry Ford, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, the Dietrich American Foundation, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Old Colony History Museum in Taunton itself. Through this summer’s journeys, with the gracious help of numerous curators and museum staff, I have now conducted firsthand examinations of almost all of the Crosman chests currently held in public collections. Along the way I drew diagrams, took endless detail shots, and compiled a chart of comparative data on points of construction, decoration, and object history. This key primary source research will form the basis of my thesis, allowing me to pose questions about authorship, ownership, and the creative process involved in both the making and the later collecting of these beautiful and mysterious pieces of furniture.

“I first became captivated by Taunton chests during my furniture connoisseurship course at Winterthur, when I investigated the example acquired by Henry Francis du Pont. I was struck to note that although the chests are constructed simply, they are intricately decorated, featuring tenderly expressive tree-of-life-type designs. In addition, the complexity of the decoration varies considerably from one piece to the next, ranging from sketchily executed single trees to far more elaborate overlapping compositions of multiple birds, vines, berries, and blossoms. These contrasts – both from one chest to the next, and from complex decoration to plain construction – inspire intriguing questions. Was Robert Crosman truly the sole maker of each of the chests attributed to him? Can we view the changing complexity of decoration as a gradual artistic progression, as Esther Stevens Fraser suggested in her 1933 article in The Magazine Antiques, or is this idea an imposition of a 20th century art historical conceit? What design sources inspired the maker(s), and how might they have been transmitted to the small Massachusetts town? Finally, how might the chests’ “re-discovery” by Americana collectors in the early 20th century have impacted our present day interpretations of the painted designs?

“The time is ripe for a re-examination of this subject. Fraser’s article has served as the basis of scholarship on these chests, proposing a maker on the basis of a single example initialed ‘Taunton, R.C., 1729.’ Although scholars and curators have since addressed the chests in catalogue entries and other short studies, no comprehensive review of Fraser’s original findings has been published. In addition to exploring the questions posted above, a major component of my thesis will be to prepare a catalogue of the chests I have now seen, documenting their points of consistency and divergence, in the hopes of re-opening the topic for further study.

“The opportunity to examine multiple chests in person has laid essential groundwork for my project. Moreover, visiting the above collections prompted invaluable conversations with curators across the field, providing numerous helpful suggestions, observations and insights that advanced my research. I truly am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for helping to make my summer research trips possible.”

Thanks to the support of the Trust’s members, Emelie has continued to build on the jumpstart her Summer Research Scholarship gave to her project. We hope that you will consider joining us at the headquarters of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust at 9 AM on January 22nd for the Emerging Scholars Colloquium to hear exciting new research by Emelie and her fellow emerging scholars!

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