Federal Eglomise and Giltwood Looking Glass
The looking glass and frame trades were closely linked in the early 19th century, as most mirror labels testify. Edward Lothrop of Boston, for example, stated that he “KEEPS constantly on hand, a good assortment of well made Guilt and Mahogany framed LOOKING GLASSES of the first quality . . . Miniature and Profile Frames, by wholesale or retail . . . Looking Glasses, Portraits, Pictures and Embroidery, framed in the best manner.”1See DAPC for a photograph of the printed label from the reverse of shaving stand, 1837–1838. This large, handsome mirror incorporates elements found on picture frames of the period: cove molding bordered by spiral gilt stringing, and diamond-shaped diapering made of a smaller version of wooden, gilt spiral roping.
This pier mirror is related, if in a more subdued fashion, to a group of large, three-part overmantel mirrors with classical inspiration known to have been owned in the Boston-Salem area. The best-known example of this form is part of the original furnishings of the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, Massachusetts, and is owned by the Essex Institute. Use of diamond-shaped latticework on the upper section of the mirror, painted or eglomisé panels decorated with classical subjects, and a variety of gilt ornaments are common elements in these mirrors, as they are in a group of smaller, rectangular looking glasses with histories of ownership in New England.2The Peirce-Nichols House mirror is illustrated in Lockwood, 317. A related looking glass is pictured in Sack Collection, 30:P4540. Miller 1937, 2: 655, illustrates several smaller looking glasses in this style. Made to fit into a pier between two windows, this mirror would most probably have hung over a pier table of approximately the same width.
Although restrained, the mirror clearly reflects the latest neoclassical currents, as expressed by such arbiters of taste as Thomas Hope in England, the architects Percier and Fontaine in France, and the painter Angelica Kauffmann. The diamond diapering, for example, suggests the ornamentation on the ceiling in two rooms at Hope’s house on Duchess Street in London, the Drawing Room and the Egyptian Room.3Hope, pls. 6 and 8. The anthemia encircling the oval painted panel was ubiquitous in the early 19th century. The subject of the panel, Minerva, was a favorite classical goddess. While neither the artist nor the exact source for the oil painting on panel is known, it relates to canvases by Kauffmann (the best-known student of J. J. Winckelmann), whose faintly sentimental, softly outlined classical compositions were familiar throughout the Western world.4See Mayer, 17ff.
To the educated Boston homeowner, the allegorical overtones of this painting were evident: Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and the patroness of all arts and trades. Representing the rational, she was favored as an ornament for libraries and other places of learning. With Minerva is the baby Mercury, messenger of the gods, here shown holding a caduceus, the winged staff entwined with two serpents. The caduceus is often featured in combination with a cornucopia, both symbolizing prosperity, fecundity, and love. Likewise, these motifs were favorites in places associated with commerce or the written word.5For more on classical symbolism, see Lewis and Darley, 66, 92, 202, and 204.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.