Even More Textiles in Philadelphia

Alright, it has been more than a month since I went to Philadelphia, but, as David Letterman used to say, I remember it like it was on videotape!

In the short amount of time I had had to plan my sight-seeing, I had looked up the map of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I noticed one teeny tiny room of textiles tucked into a second-floor corner.  So after leaving the Perelman Building and crossing the street to the main building, I wandered in that direction.

Before I talk about the textile exhibit, let me just say that I was very impressed with the PMA.  To me, a real museum is one where you could never see it all in one day.  In some other cities, I have been a little disappointed — sometimes you pay your $20, and get in to see there are only about 6 small galleries, or sometimes the whole museum is given over to a display of butter molds or something, and while I enjoy the viewing, it just seems like there wasn’t that much to see.  I end up realizing how spoiled I am by the high quality of our lovely Museum of Fine Art Houston.  So I had steeled myself in case the PMA was just an ordinary museum.

But it was amazing!  One huge room has a medieval church fountain in the middle with columns all around, one room has some Japanese tea houses.  And I saw so many old friends!  Picasso’s Three Musicians, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  One I was especially happy to see was Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (which I have written about here).  And throughout the building, the captions on the art works helped you connect what you were seeing to your background knowledge and to other objects in the museum.

I didn’t know how much time I would have in the museum.  I had accompanied my husband on a business trip, and we had thought his business would just take up his morning, and then we would sight-see together in the afternoon.  So, I flitted through the museum quickly to make sure I could see the current textile exhibit.

When I got to the gallery, I had to laugh.  It was in a very tiny corner, and the lights were off.  It was like, “Oh, nobody’s going to set foot in here, we should save on the electric bill.”

When I went in and the lights flickered on, I realized they were on sensors to protect the textiles from too much light, but it still tickled me.

The exhibit was called Without a Stitch , featuring embroidery samplers from the 1700s and 1800s, that included Adam and Eve.  So that was a cute concept, stitchery about a pair famous for not wearing a stitch.  Now, in spite of my love of textiles, I have been pretty blasé about samplers.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, has been my attitude.

And as usual, once I took a good look, and read what the curators had to say about the pieces, I learned a whole new appreciation.  I was amazed at how much variety there was, even within this one theme.

You can see most of the pieces for yourself, if you click the link above, then scroll down to the exhibit title and view slideshow.  What you can’t see is the clever captions that were in the actual exhibit.  The online ones are more subdued.  In the exhibit, for number 5, Sarah Cogger’s sampler, the curator wrote that “Adam and Eve are standing defiantly with their hands on their hips.” For number 16, she wrote, “The grazing rabbits seem oblivious to the snakes with giant red fangs threatening them from behind.”  I loved those little statements — it was like the curator was saying, “Well, probably no one is going to come in here anyway, I can say what I want.”  And yet they made me look much more closely at those samplers and appreciate the details.

I had some questions.  On some of the samplers, the background fabric seemed to be missing rows of weft.  I wasn’t sure if it was damage, or if it had originally been woven with irregular spacing to make embroidery easier.   On other samplers, there were areas of very long stitches in just one direction, sometimes a half inch or more.  They seemed much longer than usual satin stitches.  Not knowing much about embroidery, I wondered if those were unfinished areas, that would have had threads needle-woven across them; or damaged areas that had lost some threads; or if that was just how satin stitch was done back a few centuries ago.  Well, I thought, I will buy the catalog and read more detail about this!

Only when I got to the bookstore, I couldn’t find any books about this exhibit or stitchery at all.  I even asked the store clerk, and she said, “We didn’t do a catalog of that exhibit, because the audience is so small.”


And how will the audience expand, if there are no resources for them to rely on, once the exhibit gets them interested?

I know the museum has to consider their bottom line, but I can’t help thinking it’s a self=fulfilling cycle.

Other textiles I saw throughout the building were wonderful Oriental carpets, velvet bed curtains from the Renaissance, a French carpet woven for the Louvre on a specially-created loom, and a set of tapestries that Rubens designed.  But again, since no catalogs were available for these textiles, I really can’t say anything about them, other than they sparked my interest in new areas to research.

I had a wonderful day wandering through the museum, soaking up art in its many forms, and I hope I get the chance to go back some day.