Lockwood de Forest—Bringing India to America in the Gilded Age
March 17, 2010
Roberta A. Mayer
Decorative Arts scholar
In the late 19th century, no American decorator was perhaps more important than Lockwood de Forest in bringing the aesthetic of faraway places to Gilded Age homes. On Wednesday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m., the Morse is pleased to welcome decorative arts scholar Dr. Roberta A. Mayer back to the Museum to talk about de Forest’s career promoting and showcasing the work of the mistri of Ahmedabad, India—a subcaste of highly skilled woodcarvers. Admission to the lecture is free.
In this presentation, Dr. Mayer will show how de Forest’s career fits into the context of the late 19th-century East Indian Craft Revival, a movement that began with the fanfare surrounding Queen Victoria’s new role as Empress of India in 1877 and the publication of George C. M. Birdwood’s Industrial Arts of India in 1880. In the previous decades of colonial rule, Indian art traditions had suffered and were in decline. De Forest’s initial experience of India came at a time of renewed interest in preserving and reviving “authentic” Indian art that began with Birdwood and found support amongst the British proponents of Arts and Crafts and the British Colonial government in India.
Though de Forest (1850–1932) trained early as a painter and continued to paint throughout his lifetime, he is most remembered in the art field for his work as an importer and decorator. He is best known at the Morse for his association with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), who shared his passion for the exotic. Dr. Mayer delivered a lecture at the Museum on Louis Comfort Tiffany’s early businesses in March 2006. De Forest, in fact, began his career as a decorator in a partnership with Tiffany. His first assignment in 1880 was to acquire exotic goods for this decorating business, and India was a key destination. The Museum has a number of objects in its collection that were the result of Tiffany’s collaboration with de Forest.
When de Forest returned from his travels in 1882, he and Tiffany ended their joint business, but they continued to share clients in the years thereafter. In the 1880s and 1890s, de Forest built a robust following among New York City’s most elite families. His imports from India were in demand by such visible figures of the era as industrialist Andrew Carnegie and financier Charles Tyson Yerkes. Dr. Mayer is currently associate professor of art history and Visual Arts Area Head at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pennsylvania. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in art history from the University of Delaware.
Widely published in the field of decorative arts, Dr. Mayer is the author of Lockwood de Forest: Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India (2008), for which she won the annual award in the category of Decorative Arts Monograph from the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America (2009). Additionally, her article “Decorative Glass in Tiffany’s Domestic Interiors, 1878–1900,” has been published in the recent exhibition catalogue by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Tiffany Glass: A Passion for Colour (2010). In 2001, Dr. Mayer received the prestigious Robert C. Smith Award from the Decorative Arts Society.