Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile
November 8, 2013 – March 23, 2014
Russian folk dancers and a balalaika player mingle with strutting roosters; Admiral Dewey and a Russian peasant guard a pair of American flags; tennis racquets fan out, a hot-air balloon takes flight, and a circus acrobat performs a horse act while a rocking chair and a Star of David appear side by side. A veritable potpourri of Russian, American, and Jewish motifs, this colorful quilt – the subject of the third iteration of the Museum’s Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition series – tells multiple stories.
Originally owned by a Russian Jewish immigrant family, the quilt was assembled in America, incorporating panels probably embroidered in the Old Country. Its triangular pieces are aligned in a typical half-square pattern, but their random colors create a visual effect similar to that of a crazy quilt. The cross-stitch technique in which some panels are embroidered was often used in late nineteenth-century Jewish textiles from Eastern Europe, while certain decorative motifs are identifiable as Russian. That these are pieced together with distinctly patriotic American images tells its own vivid story. In the border, the American flag is combined with the Jewish Star of David. References to popular American sports and pastimes suggest the enthusiasm of an immigrant for her or his adopted country. The quilt thus bears testimony to the acculturation of Russian Jews in the United States.
A prominent figure in the textile is George Dewey, the hero of the Spanish-American War and later a candidate for president of the United States. This helps to date the work: although 1898 is seen at center, it could not have been completed before March 1899, when Dewey was promoted to admiral.
The quilt is shown here with other works from the collection of the Jewish Museum that feature Russian motifs or reflect a conflation of Russian and Jewish traditions, as well as with items of Americana that set the textile in context. America around 1900 is seen through the lens of an immigrant, whose interests range from politics to sports to entertainment. This rich assemblage rewards close observation. Hidden in its panels you may find a charming couple holding hands, a number of eagles, flowers galore, a mysterious initial M or W, and other motifs waiting to be discovered.
Claudia J. Nahson
Morris and Eva Feld Curator
Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Russian-American Quilt is organized by Claudia J. Nahson, Morris and Eva Feld Curator. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.