April 15, 2013
North Carolina’s most in-demand, pre-Civil War, master cabinetmaker Thomas Day had everything it took to be Southern royalty–land, money, education. Yet, Day was a black man. Born in a community of free African-Americans in southern Virginia, Day was able to achieve such fame that his customers created a double meaning for the term “daybed,” a convenient play on his name. His story is as striking as his unique creations, marked by his very own “Exuberant Style,” of which a collection of 39 exemplary works can be seen at the Renwick Gallery for its new show “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.”
Day came from educated and well-to-do parents. His mother, Mourning Stewart, was the daughter of a free mulatto who owned some 800 acres of land as well as slaves. His father, John Day, was the son of a white woman from South Carolina, who was sent away to a Quaker community to have her child. Because he was born free, John Day was required by law to learn a trade by the time he was 18, in this case cabinetmaking. Day, then, settled with his wife and two sons—Thomas and John, Jr—in Petersburg, Virginia, a community of free people. The family eventually relocated to North Carolina.
With his father’s tutelage and training, Thomas Day set up his own shop in 1827 in Milton, North Carolina. Though being a black cabinetmaker was a rarity–96 percent of the cabinetmakers in the state were white–Southern society was actually somewhat less restrictive in the early 1800s than in the period directly before the Civil War, according to Renwick Gallery chief Robyn Kennedy, who brought the show to the gallery from the North Carolina Museum of History. “He was accepted into elite mercantile plantation society,” says Kennedy. The exhibit opens with proof of his standing: a petition signed by members of the community to allow Day’s bride to travel from Virginia to North Carolina (something not allowed at the time for a free person) as well as a pew he designed for the otherwise white church he attended.
“He was a very astute businessman,” Kennedy adds. In addition to owning his own workshop and fields to supply timber, Day also employed roughly 14 workers and owned slaves. He sought to compete with cities like Philadelphia and New York and established a reputation for his output. Even when he represented 11 percent of the state’s furniture market, he never lost his unique artistic flair that kept customers asking for more. Governor David S. Reid, for example, ordered no fewer than 47 pieces from Day.
Though he “worked in a variety of styles,” says Kennedy, “it was basically what was popular at the time.” Greek Revival architecture called for matching pieces and Day was adept at crafting works to suit his client’s tastes, from conservative to more adventurous.
The beauty of his pieces, says Kennedy, is that at first glance, they fit the style of the day, but upon examination, small touches emerge that are unlike anything else being produced. Curves, cutouts and shapes unique to Day’s studio characterize his wooden masterpieces, which included architectural enhancements and features done in clients’ homes as well. One cabinetmaker installing replicas of some of Day’s pieces from North Carolina’s homes said to Kennedy, “Who was this guy–all the swirls and curlicues!”
Day was given considerable freedom to create his playful style. “A lot of his work was done with a verbal description and a handshake,” says Kennedy. His own adaptation of the French Antique tradition was known as “Exuberant Style.” Kennedy says elements of his fluid forms don’t seem to show up again until Art Nouveau.
But 1857, however, even his reputation could not sustain him through an economic crash and impending Civil War. He had to sell his shop and fell from the state’s first to fourth most prominent cabinetmaker. Day died in 1861 and after the war, one of his sons bought the shop back and tried for a few years to revive the business. He would eventually move to Washington state, likely in response to KKK activity. His other son is lost in the records far before then. He was rumored to have “passed” for white, married a white woman and moved to Washington, D.C. to work in government. Meanwhile Day’s brother, John Jr., had traveled to Liberia as a minister. There he helped draft the country’s constitution and was eventually appointed to its Supreme Court in 1854.
Day’s great-grandson, William A. Robinson traveled back to Milton and says, “old aristocratic families, now poor, who have old rotting mansions and formal gardens ‘gone to pot’. . . still have antique furniture made by Thomas Day, which they now consider their most valuable possessions.”
“Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” is on view through July 28, 2013 at the Renwick Gallery.
March 27, 2013
Though you might not know it judging from the forecast most places, spring has indeed arrived. And despite the unpredictable D.C. weather, the snow, sleet, cold rain and wind hasn’t kept the tourists away. Crowds are gathering in the nation’s capital for the first glimpses of the cherry blossoms. For those of you interested in making the most of your visit, the editors over here have released two new spring-themed tours to help showcase the seasonal delights both inside and outside along the Mall.
The Gardens tour will take you to our many well-maintained plots around the Mall to see more than just a few pink blooms by the Tidal Basin, including heirloom plants, geometric splendors reminiscent of the grandest of European gardens and even a Victory Garden.Meanwhile, our Spring Fling tour will take you inside to show off the riches of the Smithsonian’s arts and sciences collection and celebrate the season with baseball legends, a tree you can wish on, bouquets in paint and even a spring from space.
Head here to download the visitor’s app and get your step-by-step directions, custom postcard feature and greatest hits from the museums.
March 6, 2013
Looking for something to do today, while the snowy weather conditions persist? The Smithsonian museums will be open for business today. But the National Zoo will be closed Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Plan your visit, using our convenient Tours app, a free download is available here.
February 20, 2013
The American Art Museum’s craft and decorative arts building, the Renwick Gallery of Art, is in for a little craft and decorative rehabbing of its own. The historic building, located at the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, will be closed for two years starting in early 2014 while a Cleveland-based team gives its infrastructure and historical details an upgrade.
Once called the “American Louvre,” the building was first designed in 1859 by architect James Renwick Jr. (who also designed the Smithsonian’s Medieval Revival style Castle) to house the art collection of William Corcoran. Renwick cleverly adopted European elements to American soil. His Corinthian columns, for example, featured cornhusks instead of the traditional acanthus leaves borrowed from ancient Greece. Known for its French Second Empire architectural style, the structure was also notable as one of the first constructed in America specifically for the purpose of housing art. Under the facade’s center pediment, the phrase “Dedicated to Art” stretches across the building.
Its construction, however, was interrupted by the Civil War in 1861, according to the historic structure report prepared by the Smithsonian Institution. From 1864 to 1869, the building served as the office headquarters for the Quartermaster General, where for the duration of the war, it provided storage space for records and uniforms. After the war, in 1871 Corcoran hosted a lavish ball to raise the funds for another high-profile project, the Washington Monument. Called the “most magnificent reception ever given in the United States,” the party was attended by President Ulysses S. Grant and musicians played in a special balcony accompanied by singing canaries in cages suspended from the ceiling.
In 1873, the Corcoran’s art gallery finally opened to the public, complete with a hall of bronzes and others for sculptures, as well as a main picture gallery.
“At last we of Washington have an Art Gallery!” wrote a correspondent in The Youth’s Companion in April, 1874. “The fact ought to rejoice every American.” For his generosity, Corcoran was admired almost as much as his gallery.
“You have never seen Mr. Corcoran, perhaps. You will see him presently, after we mount this wide, perfect staircase. There he is, a man handsomer than many a youth of twenty, with his bright eyes, finely colored face, white hair and beard, and beautiful smile.”
Finally able to serve as an art gallery, the building would again find itself diverted from its initial purpose.
As Corcoran expanded his arts empire, Renwick’s building shuffled hands. In 1898 it was rented and used again as government storage. Then from 1899 to 1964, the space served as the U.S. Court of Claims. After decades of renting the building, in 1964, the government finally bought the structure, paying $300,000.
But in all that time, the building’s charms had faded and Congress was ready to raze the structure. But for the intervention of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the Smithsonian’s Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, the building might have been lost. Ripley met with President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and asked that the building be transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1969, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places; and in 1972, after a lengthy restoration process, the former Corcoran gallery was opened once again, this time as the Renwick Gallery of Art.
Today, the structure stands as stately as ever; its Grand Salon is home to a collection of 70 works of art, dating from the 1840s to 1930 from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its first floor galleries are filled with permanent collection of contemporary American craft. After the renovations, the museum will be the “first all-LED illuminated museum in the United States,” according to the Institution. Upgrades are expected to be completed in 2016.
January 28, 2013
Smithsonian museums in the Washington, D.C. area as well as the National Zoo will open at noon Monday, due to inclement weather.
An early morning round of freezing rain left roads slick with ice as federal workers and schools around the area got off to a slow start. Canada would like to remind us, via Huffington Post, that cold weather has some perks too, eh? Like making it more difficult for some viruses and bacteria to live. Plus you can effectively “wash” your bed linens by hanging them out in the cold. We’d recommend waiting for the rain to stop, though, before you give that a try.