Chintz Applique Quilts at The Taft

The contemporary art world has embraced quilts: Amish quilts with their color-blocked abstraction and the equally striking quilts from Gee’s Bend, which are perhaps less known. For six generations the women of Gee’s Bend, a rural community founded by freed slaves on an island in the Alabama River, isolated from the mainland by an unreliable ferry and an unpaved road with a roundabout approach, have made quilts with an abstract boldness and lively folk-art aesthetic.

The examples in American Elegance: Chintz Appliqué Quilts, 1780-1850, are nothing like these; these are polite and refined. The women who made them were often unknown society ladies with the means and the time to create these rather extraordinary quilts. they carefully cutout motifs from chintzes, which were imported from India and expensive, and appliquéd flowers, scenes, animals, and other designs onto quilts that were intended for actual use or for commemorative purposes.

The exhibition traces the changes in fashion with the substitution of cheaper calico fabrics manufactured in the U.S., and stylistically to pieced or patched work and block designs.

In an age of cheap imported Chinese quilts that retail for $15, including coordinating fabric tote, at Walmart or what hobby quilters put together from kits with machine-stitched piecing, these quilts are absolute technical tours de force. The unknown maker of a Medallion Quilt, 1820-40, (medallion referring to a motif placed in the center) carefully cutout floral motifs and a woven basket filled with an extravagant bouquet of tulips, lilacs, and passionflowers to use as the medallion. However, she used the less expensive calico for a stepped-pyramid pattern on the edge. Although virtuoso technique is not particularly valued in contemporary art, it’s hard not to be impressed by the miniscule size and machine-like regularity of the stitching. It makes a textured ground of diamond shapes, and also traces graceful grapevines, flowers, and berries, which are emphasized with trapunto, or stuffed work with extra batting, for a bas-relief effect.

The size of these quilts is unexpected. A Tree of Life, 1790-1820, is nearly 11-feet-square—big even for today’s California king (76” x 80”). The informative label, like all in the exhibit organized by the International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explains that fashionable four-poster beds were often piled high with feather mattresses and had trundle beds, all needing to be covered. The compositions of all of these quilts are sophisticated, the palettes pleasing, and the execution superb. They certainly deserve to be called masterpieces.

-Karen S. Chambers

American Elegance: Chintz Appliqué Quilts, 1780-1850 on view through November 7 at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. 513-241-0343.

Pictured Above: Medallion Quilt, maker unknown, probably U.S., c. 1820-49, 122.5” x 124”. International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2006.003.0004. Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art.

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