By definition, the word “historicism” is the theory that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history. During the period 1790-1875, there were many pieces of furniture and decorations, such as chairs and vases, that are prime examples of how ancient civilizations influenced design at the time. In many cases, it was a combination of both ancient influence and modern design techniques. Thomas Fletcher, a well-known silversmith of his time, used his skills and designs to display the influences of ancient cultures. Fletcher was born in Alstead, New Hampshire, to Timothy Fletcher and Hannah Fosdick on April 3, 1787.
By 1808, he had gone into business and made a firm with Sidney Gardiner. The firm was started in Boston, Massachusetts, but they later moved it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1811. By 1812, they were already well respected in the silversmith industry and were asked to make several trophies. Fletcher would often travel to France and England to buy merchandise which would later influence his designs. (“Yale University Art Gallery: Artist: Thomas Fletcher, American, 1787-1866”).
In 1829, Sidney’s Brother, Baldwin Gardiner, contacted Fletcher to make a vase . Baldwin mentions that “None of the silversmiths here know that I have the order, as several of them would drop the hammer for me if they knew that I sent to Philad[elphia].” Fletcher responded with one of the largest and most “spectacular statements of the Classical Revival style in American silver.” (“Philadelphia Museum Of Art – Collections Object : Vase With Stand.”).
This vase was introduced to New York City District Attorney Hugh Maxwell (1787-1873) by traders appreciative for his indictment of degenerate directors of the New York Stock Exchange. Because it was presented to Maxwell for his accomplishments, the vase had to act as a trophy in some ways. At first glance, one can see that the vase has two handles on each side, as a trophy usually would. Secondly, it is made from silver, a precious shiny grayish-white metal. Lastly, the vase is grand and elegant, displaying its importance.
There are a few design elements on the vase that are sure signs of influence from art in ancient civilizations. The first being the elegant, large handles. The designs on the handles represent visual elements much like those found in ancient Greece and later in the Renaissance. As mentioned before, this vase is ‘one of the largest and most spectacular statements of the Classical Revival style in American silver”. This means that it relies on stylistic details of the earlier Greek civilization (“Classical Revival Style 1895 – 1950”). These stylistic details would be the leaves and grapes. The leaves could very well be laurel wreath leaves that are often found in ancient Greek art and mythology. These patterns repeat through the vase in the middle and at the bottom.
The next stylistic detail from ancient Greece would be the Sphinx’s that appear midway through the vase. The sphinx is a was first found in ancient Egyptian civilization and it has embodied several meanings during human history. Many cultures have adopted the idea of the sphinx to develop their own meaning and purpose. The well-known portrayal of the sphinx of old Egyptian culture is an animal with the body of a lion and the head of a man. The lion represents strength and the man represents intelligence. It is also believed that they symbolize guardians as they are often placed at entrance in ancient Egypt. They are often wearing a nemes crown, just like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. However, in Ancient Greece, the Sphinx is usually shown as a woman’s head on a lion’s body with the wings of a bird.
A prime example of a Sphinx used in ancient Greece is the Sphinx of Naxos (“The Naxian Sphinx”). Like Ancient Egypt, the Sphinx represent strength and guarding but sometimes also represented wisdom and omniscience in Greek culture. The three Sphinx’s found at the bottom of Fletchers vase could best be described as a Ancient Greek and Egypt combination, in terms of style and representation. Fletcher’s Sphinx is wearing a nemes crown, found in ancient Egypt, but also has wings, much like a Greek Sphinx representation. The feet at the bottom of the vase could also be a secondary representation of the feet of a Sphinx. Since the vase had significant meaning and was so precious, Fletcher could have very well incorporated these Sphinx to guard it.
One last thing to note about Fletcher’s silver vase is that he was able to take all these styles and design elements from ancient civilizations and incorporate them into a modern design. Since he was a very well know silversmith of his time, he was expected to use all the latest techniques to develop such beautiful pieces of silver. The way the space works, and the elegancy of his design, display his modern touch on the vase. While it was a vase, it perhaps was not actually put to practical use but was more of a recognition piece that was to be put on display. It was not uncommon at the time for silverware and furniture be put out for display and not actual use. This piece of work made by Thomas Fletcher is great representation of Classical Revival and influence from Ancient civilizations. There is no doubt that Fletchers social and cultural phenomena were determined by ancient history.
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