Tired of winter? A few optimistic types have already planted pansies in Washington, D.C. Snowdrops are open and a few crocuses are up, but inside the Textile Museum, there's an explosion of flowers covering the walls.
"Fanciful Flowers: Botany and the American Quilt" features 25 19th-century quilts from the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The age-old association of women with nature was reinforced by a vogue for gardens and gardening in the 19th century. Botany and gardening were seen as perfect for women -- morally sound, intellectually challenging and esthetically pleasing. Gardening also provided opportunities for physical recreation and conspicuous consumption at the same time. Floral motifs, always popular, became even more so and appeared on tinware and furniture as well as quilts.
A central-medallion cut-out chintz appliqué quilt (probably American but possibly English) has Queen Victoria in the center surrounded by flowers in urns. Beyond are cutout chintz wreaths and bouquets with pansies, roses, lilies, morning glories, tulips and bird nests among other devices. This formal show quilt from around 1843-44 and similar pieces may be related to the parterre de broderie gardens with serpentine flowerbeds cut from lawns.
Basket gardens of Europe and America during the 1830s and 1840s possibly influenced the unknown maker of a "Basket of Flowers" quilt from around 1860-80. Basket gardens consisted of plantings in an oval bed surrounded by wicker or wooden slats with a handle over the top. The quilt itself is ablaze with baskets of orange and red dahlias. Dahlias, a Mexican import -- and many other non-native flowers like azaleas, zinnias and four-o'clocks -- were readily available through mail-order seed catalogues. The quilting is done in heart, leaf, trefoil and plume patterns.
About half the quilts here employ red and green print fabric flowers against a white background. New colorfast dyes, most notably green, from the 1840s saved quilts from the fading seen in a couple of examples. Perhaps the dyes were a factor in the widespread use of this color scheme into the last quarter of the century.
A Japanese exhibition at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia set off a rage for asymmetrical crazy quilts. One spectacular example of these usually unquilted but elaborately embroidered textiles is by an unknown maker, possibly from Indiana, and dated 1880-1900. The artist has confined odd-sized velvets and satins into nine pieced squares. Butterflies and delicately stitched grasses vie for attention with a rippling crimson coxcomb made of velvet that must be almost ½ inch thick. A central black velvet square holds multi-layered pink satin roses that are equally 3-D and lush.
The exhibition was seen first at the University of Nebraska, where it was organized by Carolyn Ducey. "Fanciful Flowers" is at the Textile Museum through June 3, then goes to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., June 30-Aug. 26, 2001. A catalogue, "A Flowering of Quilts," is forthcoming.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.