BALTIMORE -- The best vantage point for appreciating "American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840," at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, is from the vortex of a kaleidoscopic image that shifts and swirls on the gallery floor.
The effect of color, light and motion is dizzying, like the vibrant early 19th-century American interiors that are the focus of this grand show.
The kaleidoscope was invented in 1816, at the height of a kinetic aesthetic movement known as Fancy. Nothing more perfectly captures the craze for decorative razzle-dazzle that flourished for 50 years among the burgeoning American masses. In the words of guest curator Sumpter Priddy III, Fancy became the "first widespread American original design."
In the thrall of the kaleidoscope one can imagine how several generations of portrait artists, decorative painters, furniture makers and quilters were inspired to incorporate intense colors and unrelenting patterns in every conceivable domestic surface. The effect turned the home into a blur of luminous polka dots, morphing diamonds and eye-popping starbursts of color.
"Style is more than mere superficial ornament, it's about human expression," Priddy said in an interview. "Human emotion changes over time. We think of humans as being constant and never changing. It's actually very different emphases at any time."
Priddy explores Fancy as a cultural and historical movement. Wall text makes the point that scholars have heretofore "categorized these colorful and playful artifacts as folk art." This exhibition considers the objects as a "new art historical style" that is "part of mainstream American material culture."
Fancy was a formal movement, known to all in its day, we are told. People shopped in Fancy stores, sang Fancy songs, dressed in Fancy clothes and sat on Fancy furniture.
Priddy has traced the word through the Oxford English Dictionary to a contraction of "fantasy," which explains almost everything. The movement was bold and whimsical. But what interests him more is the way it engaged the people.
"It really absolutely saturated the culture," Priddy said. "Everybody aspired to it. Fancy was the hottest advertising word of the late 18th century and early 19th century."
The historical society's sprawling temporary exhibition space offers more than 60 whimsical examples gathered from major museums and collectors across the country. There are objects, furnishings, fashions and family portraits. Bed quilts and blanket chests, grandfather clocks, chairs, tables, platters, even chamber pots were subjected to transformation by immersion in kaleidoscopic color and pattern.
Priddy, a former curator for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a noted Alexandria, Va., antiques dealer, has researched the period for a quarter century. He prepared a 267-page catalogue to accompany the show. Among other notions, his research counters the view that early Americans aspired to an austere classical ideal. Some may have, but Priddy writes that the growing middle class adopted "a vibrant world that was filled to capacity with colors and patterns, with visual excesses and superfluities and with lively furnishings that matched the lively details of their clothing."
Priddy's thesis is that the era reflected the optimism and energy of the young nation. Fancy and its wealth of images was also about pleasing the soul, catching the eye and awakening the mind.
"There is something about the material that is innately appealing to our human sensibility," Priddy says.
In the exhibition, the fireplace bellows have been painted with an idyllic fishing scene. The backs of chairs are adorned with scenes of idealized river towns, with waterfalls, rocky cliffs, lush greenery and boats on placid waters. A plain wooden chest was swirled with aqua paint to look like a lily pond. Samplers were finely stitched, and crockery was adorned with childlike patterns. Fashion was not immune. A red ceremonial fireman's hat is trimmed in gold and painted with a heroic Napoleonic head.
Baltimore was a flourishing center of painted furniture, and the Maryland Historical Society was able to lend a few gems from its permanent collection, including works by John and Hugh Finlay. A crimson Baltimore settee combines scenic painting and gold trim.
In the dramatic installation, walls are brilliant blue here, pale yellow or lavender there, and even the exhibition cases are lined in bold motifs. Highly decorated tin boxes, book covers and pressed glass compete for attention amid period family portraits. Staid couples and serious-faced children are surrounded by busy carpets and busier furniture.
If there is an apex of Fancy it would be hard to exceed a writing armchair from Boston, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that combines a scenic landscape, red cut-velvet upholstery, inlaid wood, carved arms and a pale green drawer and turned legs decorated with golden leaves.
A painting of a streetscape has been blown up to mural size to anchor a row of painted chairs on display. One of the storefronts on the street advertises "Fancy Chair Maker." Curiously, the white clapboard Colonial architecture is plain as can be. Except for the shop signs, with their ebullient gold, red and blue swirls, Fancy looks like a well-kept secret.
In the end, the movement probably wore itself out. Priddy takes note of a souring economy in 1837, which would have doused some of the middle-class optimism. By then, Fancy-style ornamentation had been popular so long its practitioners were no longer generating creative sparks. Enter the Victorians, who decided that one's surroundings ought to do more than awaken the imagination. They should inspire spirituality and put folks on a higher moral plane. That's how the term "fancy" got its bad, or at least frivolous, name.
That "bias toward the word" continues to this day, Priddy said.
He would prefer that people look at the era not as a collection of objects but as the expression of beliefs through material goods.
Americans have been on a high-minded, dour path ever since. The Victorians, with their over-the-top church Gothic styles, peaked during the Civil War. Then came the less-is-more moderns. Only in the late 20th century did Priddy detect a smidgen of Fancy in the brief burst of postmodernism.
He traces that undercurrent of whimsy back to the late 1960s, when flower children populated Haight-Ashbury, and forward to the euphoric New Economy of the 1990s.
"We actually are at a juncture -- 9-11 has been another watershed, a turning of emotions in another direction," Priddy said.
He sees a Victorian revival in our future:
"I hate to tell you, we're slowly creeping in that direction. Give us 15, 20 years, and we'll be there. "
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Details'American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840'
When: Through March 20. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
Where: Maryland Historical Society at 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore
Admission: Regular museum fee of $8, plus $4. (410) 685-3750.