16 February 2011

Colonial schoolgirl samplers at MFA Boston

1. Sampler, detail.
When I was twelve, I was doing my homework in front of "Gilligan's Island", and trying to survive middle school. Twelve-year-old Boston girls in the 18th century made better use of their time, learning necessary stitching skills while composing delightful exercises in color and pattern. Museum-goers are more conditioned to appreciate oil paintings and monumental sculpture, but interest in samplers often perks up at the news that a Boston schoolgirl sampler fetched an auction record price of $465,750 in 2009.
Another wonderful attribute of these items, unlike so much work done by women, is that most are signed and dated. That said, during my somewhat rushed visit to this gallery, I didn't have time to note the artist of every sampler I photographed, so I apologize to our schoolgirls for the lack of authorship. (I will amend this entry if I have a chance to return to the show.)

2. Sampler, Hannah Storer.

The stitched message sternly admonishes: In prosperity friends will be plenty, but in adversity not one in twenty. (White spots on image are glare from overhead lights.)

3. Detail, sampler, Hannah Storer.

The samplers were all made by girls living in Boston, and studying with women who often developed distinctive styles of stitching. The samplers usually feature an alphabet, bands of decorative geometric and floral motifs, often some kind of adage or proverb, perhaps a Biblical scene, and are finished with a border as well as name and date.

4. Detail, sampler, Sarah Erving, 1750, age 13.

I especially like the samplers worked primarily in cross-stitch, with occasional use of satin stitch, such as in these strawberries by Miss Erving.

5. Detail, sampler, Sarah Erving.

A popular figural motif, used in many samplers, depicts Biblical scouts Joshua and Caleb returning from Canaan with their haul, as recorded in Numbers 13: 23. "And they came to the Wadi [stream] Eshcol, and cut down there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them." The symmetry inherent in this literary motif - two men on either side of fruit - lends itself to the technique of counted cross-stitch, as the young artist can repeat the pattern of the first figure for the second.

6. Sampler, Sarah Erving, overall view.

7. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

Sarah Lowell also illustrated the exploits of Joshua and Caleb in her sampler, with bright red grapes. Her sampler also featured some lovely, spikey foliage.

8. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

9. Detail, sampler, Sarah Lowell.

10. Detail, sampler.

Adam and Eve, with snake and fig leaves, were another popular theme for the figural part of a sampler (see also the first image in this blog.) Again, the figures tend to be mirror images of each other, with Eve perhaps having more hair.

11. Detail, sampler.

The colors of the samplers have faded over time, and I kept wishing there was some way to see the backs of the samplers, as viewing photographs or scans of the reverse side might give us an idea of the original colors. Images of the reverse sides accessible on some kind of portable screen would have been a good use of technology. Any curators listening out there?

12. Detail, sampler.
Leaves are outlined in buttonhole stitch.

13. Detail, sampler.

14. Crewel embroidery flowers
emerge from a cross-stich basket.

15. Detail, sampler.

The needlework teachers were from Great Britain, and it would be interesting to compare these samplers with contemporaneous items created by girls in England. This last sampler definitely has a unique New England flavor, however, with its bird-watching moose.