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Art, according to John Ruskin, the influential writer of the British Arts and Crafts movement, is most beautiful when its forms are derived from nature.

Now, when we call Nature beautiful, it’s often her finer moments we’re thinking of. A rose, with its velvety bundled petals, is beautiful. So too are the colors of sunset, the splendor of a tree in summer, the simple asymmetry of a starfish, or the spread of a peacock’s tail.

But many art jewelry makers of the early 20th century embraced all kinds of flora and fauna—even the ones that today might be perceived as…well, the opposite of beautiful. Spiders, bats, snakes, frogs, naked branches, and rotting blossoms have all been immortalized in gold, silver, and stone. What some might consider nature’s ‘dark side’ today was actually a source of intrigue and inspiration—the muse of artists all over the world.

That resulted in some striking motifs in these makers’ works, as you’ll see in a number of pieces on view in our current exhibition, Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. Let’s take a look at a few of them, and stretch the definition of beautiful in the natural world a little further.

 

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Chrysanthemum Pendant/Brooch, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. © 2014 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Chrysanthemum Pendant/Brooch, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. © 2014 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Take this pendant featuring a trio of chrysanthemums. In the audio tour of the exhibition, Driehaus Museum founder and collector Richard H. Driehaus explains, “This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection, and by the great René Lalique, whose jewelry has always commanded worldwide attention. You can see how each of the chrysanthemums is in a different stage of its blooming.” A picture-perfect chrysanthemum blossom—with its tight puffball shape composed of tiny petals—doesn’t look exactly like these three flowers Lalique has masterfully carved in glass. Instead, the jeweler chose blossoms that were past their prime. The lower petals are beginning to droop and lose their shape, not quite wilting, but almost. Below the flowers Lalique features a misshapen drop pearl, or “baroque pearl”, which further emphasizes the statement this piece makes that beauty can also be found in imperfection.

 

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Aquamarine Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014.

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Aquamarine Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014.

Here’s another example by the masterful Lalique, also on view in the French Art Nouveau gallery of Maker & Muse. In the pendant above, he set an aquamarine stone into and below two pairs of spiked, thorny stems of icy-blue enameled gold. Especially when set against the skin of the wearer, the sharp contours of this piece are striking.

 

Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach (German, 1861 – 1918), Octopus Waist Clasp, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach (German, 1861 – 1918), Octopus Waist Clasp, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Also in about 1900, goldsmith Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach created this fascinating waist clasp in the Art Nouveau style; you can see it on the second floor, in the gallery dedicated to a wide variety of German and Austrian art jewelry. The two grotesque large-mouthed fish grasp the body of the octopus—here, a luminous opal—while simultaneously seeming to be entrapped by the creature’s silver tentacles. In addition to the sinuous symmetry of the fish tails and octopus arms, the German goldsmith has given careful attention to texture. Note the fish scales, elongated fish nostrils, and raised suction cups on the octopus’s curvilinear arms.

The Artificers’ Guild (English, 1901–1942), Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

The Artificers’ Guild (English, 1901–1942), Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Spiders were other favorite themes. This spiderweb pendant was produced in turn-of-the-century London by the Artificers’ Guild, and is on view in the British Arts and Crafts gallery of Maker & Muse. The spiderweb form functions as a seven-pointed locus for a variety of colorful precious and semiprecious stones; the piece includes opal, sapphire, zircon, tourmaline, amethyst, almandine, garnet, moonstone, and pearl.

 

Frederick James Partridge (English, 1877 – 1942) for Liberty & Co. (English, est. 1875), Tiara with Corn Design, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

 

In addition to the creepy-crawly side of nature, art jewelers also made the plain and ordinary into something awe-inspiring. This rare tiara by Fred Partridge, an important early British Arts and Crafts jeweler, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Sheaves of grain are as humble a part of the natural world as there is to be found, and yet these five cornstalks, of semi-translucent horn topped with moonstones, are transformed into a supremely elegant work of art.

 

These are just a few of the stunning pieces of art jewelry featured in Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. There are many more—over 250!—and the exhibition is open through January 3, 2016. Self-guided visits are included in the price of general admission. For more information, visit the Maker & Muse exhibition site.

 

explore how art jewelry—a term invented later to describe a wide variety of bold, genre-breaking jewelry being made all over the world around the turn of the 20th century—also has a story to tell about transformations taking place in women’s fashion during this period.

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Spring has come to Chicago—and to the Chicago gallery of our latest exhibition, Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. A silver tiara, adorned with a spray of springtime lilacs, leaves, and vines, heralded the new season when it arrived at the Driehaus Museum this week.

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The elegant circlet is repossé silver, crafted from melted silver spoons donated by the women of Lombard, Illinois, in 1930. It was created as a symbol of Lilac Time, the annual springtime celebration in this west-suburban village. The crown adorned the first Lilac Festival Queen—whose name and the names of several other early Queens are etched in the crown’s interior—and continues to be an integral part of the festivities today.

 

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It’s also a late commission from artist and designer Christia M. Reade. Reade’s heyday was right at the turn of the century in Chicago, when the ideas from the Arts and Crafts Movement, having drifted over from England, took root here and bred a unique regional movement of its own. Arts and Crafts was about the artisanal talents of makers, and they weren’t shy about showing off asymmetry, unfaceted semiprecious stones, minute imperfections, and common metals—all indications of items made by hand in a studio, rather than by machine. Nature, as you can see in the Lilac crown, was chief among Arts and Crafts inspirations, often depicted in a freeform, romantic, medieval way.

 

Reade was the daughter of Josiah and Christia Reade; her father was a Chicago native, her mother a New York schoolteacher. Reade studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and soon became one of the city’s biggest names associated with the Arts and Crafts movement here. She achieved prominence as a principal designer of the Krayle Company, a domestic decorative arts firm with its office in the Marshall Field Building. Her ambitions took her to study in Paris for two years, probably under the artist Luc-Olivier Merson. When she returned from Europe, Reade opened her own studio at 211 Wabash Avenue, which she maintained until the 1920s.

 

Near Reade’s crown in the Chicago gallery you’ll see other stunning works of jewelry from the same period, many of them made by her female contemporaries. These include Clara Barck Welles, founder of Kalo Shop. She and Reade were fellow graduate of the Art Institute, and are listed as co-jurors on the committee selecting works for the Art Institute’s first annual exhibition of “Original Designs for Decorations and Examples of Art Crafts Having Distinct Artistic Merit” in 1902–03. (This was, incidentally, also a time when Samuel M. Nickerson was still a trustee of this institution.)

 

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The February 1897 issue of The Decorator and Furnisher devoted a spread to “Miss Christina M. Reade, and Her Work.”

 

“The woman decorator of today is a well established institution. She demands—and receives—full and due recognition for her work, not because she is a woman, but because her work is as a rule meritorious, and deserving of notice. She has had much to struggle against in the way of popular prejudice, but in spite of adverse criticism she has worked her way steadily to the front in a field hitherto conceded to man alone. We refer to her as a coalition; but from this great and growing unit we take pleasure in selecting the work of Miss Christina M. Reade of Chicago as excellent examples of artistic work…”

 

Reade was best known for her metalwork, but commanded a range of media and exhibited throughout the Midwest. To the same Art Institute exhibition in 1902–3, for example, she submitted a carved walnut bellows, mahogany book rack, copper mounting for a leather bag, copper lock with plates and hinge ornaments, an oak screen with copper panels, and copper buckles, brooches, and cloak buttons set with semiprecious stones like opal, malachite, and amber. She also designed metal lampshades. In The House Beautiful (Volume XI, 1901–1902), a “pierced brass” shade designed by “Miss Christia M. Reade, of the Krayle Company,” was recommended by the publication for one reader’s library drop light.

 

Reade would have been around 70 years old when she designed the Lilac crown for her hometown of Lombard, but it is filled with the same Renaissance simplicity that imbued her early work. The geometric Art Deco movement may have prevailed in 1930, but in Reade’s world, the romance of nature and the rustic beauty of a perfectly handmade object still captivated her.

 

The Lilac Festival crown is on loan from the Lombard Historical Society and will be on view at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum through February 2016.

 

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