Collection Highlight: A “Wow” Moment in Gallery 207

This magnificent walnut sideboard makes quite the focal point in Gallery 207 where it is currently on display. Its highly-detailed carving, wealth of imagery, and massive presence seems to say the following about its owner- “I’ve got money-and taste-!” It’s also a great stop for a tour with school-age children because there are so many details on which the eye can focus- for instance, the dog-head door pulls, identified as Brittany-Spaniels and Short-Hair Pointers; the bountiful game animals and the crowning element, a hawk seizing a partridge. However, to me, the most interesting elements of the composition are the depictions of Native Americans on the sides of the counter top. When Native Americans appear as subject matter in 1800’s art, their inclusion can stem from a documentary impulse (like George Catlin’s 1830s portrait series) or a Romantic sympathy (like James Earl Frasier’s The End of the Trail, 1894); but here, these half-naked figures seem to glare at us with suspicious air that seems less than sympathetic. I had to pause for a moment and think: would the sideboard’s attributed sculptor and cabinetmaker, Joseph Alexis Bailly, have even seen anyone looking like thi! s on the streets of 1850s Philadelphia? Doubtful. By the mid-1800s Native Americans of the mid-Atlantic region, having been subjugated to the “civilizing” influence of whites for centuries, had adopted settler dress, language, and religion and taken elements of their own culture underground in order to survive. The Native men flanking the Cleveland Museum of Art’s sideboard, although wearing certain elements of Woodland people’s traditional dress such as the gustoweh and moccasins, would have largely been a fiction of the artist’s imagination by that time. And indeed it turns out they were meant to be allegorical figures, certainly not portraits or even renderings of a specific type of Native person. According to Stephen Harrison, Curator of Decorative Arts, this sideboard makes reference to a sideboard that was on view at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London (the one for which the Crystal Palace was built) which featured allegorical figures of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America in about the same location of the composition. In the eyes of Europeans, Native Americans were about as New World as you could get; and so were often used as allegorical figures for the Americas. Their inclusion on the sideboard “Americanizes” the work. If the composition could be summarized as “American abundance”, the subject was timely for the mid-1800s. America was beginning to experience the financial ramifications of the newly emerging Industrial Revolution. The men who would have backed inventions- such as railroads, telegraphs, and processes for refining petroleum- were the type of men who could have afforded such a piece and may have been the cabinet maker’s intended consumer. Money doesn’t always buy taste, but it seems safe to say this sideboard’s original owner must have had both in abundance. -- Alicia Garr


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