When the Spanish came to the Western Hemisphere, they reintroduced the horse to regions where it had long been extinct. This animal had a far-reaching impact on life and culture in the Americas, including the production of equestrian adornments and images. This elaborately decorated, slipper-style stirrup is a luxury example of riding equipment for women. The ladies of Lima, Peru, were renowned for their grace on horseback, and since they rode side-saddle, their stirrups were made singly rather than as part of a pair.
Ceramics have a long-standing tradition in the southwestern pueblos dating from 7500 B.C.E. to the present day. Originally all pottery production was for Native use, and specific shapes, designs, and colors can be attributed to specific pueblos. The Hopi—Pueblo people living in the southwestern United States—began making tiles for decoration in the nineteenth century. Their designs mirrored the abstracted motifs used on their pottery. By the early twentieth century, especially after the advent of the Santa Fe railroad in the 1870s, non-Native merchants and collectors passing through the region created a demand for portable Native tokens. Entrepreneurial Native potters made small bowls and decorative tiles using traditional Hopi and Pueblo designs to fulfill this commercial opportunity.
In keeping with the emotional symbolism of miniature portraits, couples frequently exchanged these tokens to mark an engagement or wedding, as was the case for Elizabeth Stirling (1811–1900) and Erasmus Darwin Foote (1808–1866), who married in March 1833. The artist, Thomas Seir Cummings of New York, was the most famous miniaturist of his day and also taught and published on the subject. Contemporary critics praised his works for their ability to “raise sensations in the bosoms of those who gaze on them.”
Small Wonders from the American Collection
This long-term installation highlights a feature of the Luce Center for American Art: Visible Storage ▪ Study Center that gives the public access to more than 350 additional objects from our renowned American collections. Since its opening in January 2005, the Luce Visible Storage ▪ Study Center has housed approximately 2,100 work of art in two types of storage units: vitrined cases and paintings screens. In October 2008, our staff began installing objects in a new type of storage unit: drawers located in a corner alcove of this facility. By the time all forty-two of these drawers are full and opened to the public, the number of objects on view in visible storage will rise to 2,500—an increase of almost 20 percent.
The drawers’ contents will encompass a variety of objects from the Americas—including art of the United States as well as of the indigenous and colonial peoples of North and South America—and dating from the pre-Columbian period to the present day. Although the works range widely in terms of medium, date, function, and geographical origin, they do share a diminutive scale and suitability for flat storage. Among the objects that will be installed in the drawers are: American and Hopi ceramic tiles; Mexican pottery stamps; jewelry and other ornaments from Native and South American cultures; Modernist jewelry; silverplated flatware and serving pieces; Spanish Colonial devotional objects; American portrait and mourning miniatures; commemorative medals; and embroidery. As in other sections of the Luce Visible Storage ▪ Study Center, objects in the drawers are densely installed to maximize the available space and are grouped by type, medium, or culture. You can learn more about the works by using one of the nearby computer kiosks in the facility, or by accessing the Luce database online. To obtain a list of a drawer’s entire contents, use the Map feature and select numbers 41 through 47.
Held in conjunction with the ongoing drawers installation, Small Wonders from the American Collections features an eclectic selection of seventy works of art on the walls and in the display cases above the drawers. This exhibition both highlights objects that will be installed in the drawers and reveals a diversity of cultural traditions and artistic practices that constitute American art. A variety of jewelry and objects of personal adornment—although produced by different peoples—function similarly to signify information about the wearer’s identity. Flatware, pins, and other silver items on display reflect a broad array of forms, styles, and uses for this valuable metal. Ceramic tiles made contemporaneously by Native and non-Native Americans provide an interesting cross-cultural comparison with respect to the decoration and marketing of these wares.
With this feature of the Luce Visible Storage ▪ Study Center, we are delighted to make hundreds of additional works of American art accessible to the public. We encourage you to return frequently to discover what’s new and to enjoy the growing number of small wonders on view.