As I wander through on-line collections, occasionally I spot things that look very familiar. There are pattern style families, even specific motifs and strip designs that persist over time, popping up in multiple locations, over periods of decades. Those are fun to trace, and to try to figure out branching traditions, and to try to pinpoint ultimate origins, although that’s rarely possible.
Today’s pieces though are something different. I believe them to be either part of the same original artifact or set of artifacts.
To begin with, here they are. At left is a piece from the Art Institute of Chicago (accession #1907.740); at right is a piece in the Hermitage Museum’s on line collection (accession #T-2734).
The AIC’s piece has a more complete annotation, noting the dimensions of the various component parts, describing the materials and stitches used (“long armed cross stitch, cut and drawn thread work… insertion of silk needle lace”), and giving a provenance and date of Italy, 1601-1650. They call the piece “unfinished.” It was acquired by the museum in 1907.
The Hermitage’s piece provides less detail, silk on linen, and overall dimensions. They call the stitch used “double Italian cross” (or that’s what the Russian translates as). They cite origins as Italy, 16th-17th century, and say the piece came to them from the private collection of Baron Stieglitz. I am unsure which member of that family they are citing, but the the Stieglitzs were prominent bankers and aristocrats during the 1800s, and up to the time of the Russian revolution. They were known for amassing opulent art and antiques collections, among other extravagances.
When my Stealth Apprentice brought the Russian-collected example to my notice last year, she opined that it was unusual to see the very coarse voided strip, needle lace, and more delicately done center piece all in one composed work. I agree with her. It is curious – all the more so because of the second example from Chicago.
Let’s look more closely at the two. Chicago’s larger piece seems to start at the right edge at the same design point of the urn/flower cycle as the Hermitage’s. The count and spacing on the motifs are identical on both pieces, although the Russian sample is very slightly taller – about four or five rows of the flower/urn area pattern. Both seem to be “full length” slices north/south. But that left edge on the Russian example is very clearly cut and truncated, with the narrow border removed from a work’s right edge and seamed to the larger field. AND look at the top area. Not only was the piece sliced off and then replaced on the urn/flower area, that same cut and sewn seam ascends all the way to the top, cutting through BOTH the needle lace band, and the coarsely executed voided strip. It’s also clear that the strip that was cut was taken from the left edge of the original source piece, because the fragment of the narrow border flower at the top left has “turned the corner.”
Further, because both artifacts include an intact right hand edge with no seaming, these were probably descended from a set of two matching items.
Both pieces seem to have been cut off at the right edge, snipped through the narrow needle lace strip, and both show signs of stitching remains on their bottom edge – possibly fragments of more needle lace. On the Russian bit, there’s even evidence of red remnants along the outer edge of the applied border strip. Both works show clear signs of there being a finished hem around the central flower/urn plus companion border section; but no hem is in evidence on the voided strips. Even the linen ground’s weave on the voided strip parts looks coarser than that in the center area’s ground.
So. What do we have?
Here’s one possible flight-of-fancy. I have no evidence to claim this as being true, so it’s just postulation and theory: two rounds of re-use.
Our piece starts off as the urn/flower part – two strips, about 42.3 cm (16 5/8 in) tall, but of an indeterminate length. They might have been bed hanging, long towels, or something akin in shape or proportion to a modern table runner (historical use unknown).
At some point in time, these items gets turned into something else. Possibly a deeper set of bed valences, or possibly one or more rectangular bolster or cushion covers, through the addition of the side strips of voided work, attached by the decorative needle lace sections. These additional bits were done by a different hand than the older flower/urn section. (I do note that there are other examples of artifacts that employ side strips to turn rectangular flat pieces into square-edged 3D cushion covers.)
Fast forward to the second moment of re-use… The second-use bed hanging or bolster cover is cut down again. The unknown recycler may have intended to make multiple covers for smaller cushions, or other smaller covers/bags/whatever. And it’s possible she or he never finished that project – that’s why we have the partial cut-down-and-reassembled Hermitage fragment, and the unfinished fragment in Chicago.
And for the piece’s final disposition among multiple museums – I do know that in the late 1800s, lace and embroidery collecting was a fad among the wealthy and fashionable. Many American museum textile collections crystallized around donations from prominent families – items they picked up on Grand Tours of Europe. I have come across quite a few artifacts that may be pieces sundered in that process – cut apart by antiquities dealers who then sold smaller bits to multiple buyers, rather than keeping artifacts intact and making only one sale. I posit that our flower/urn twins are a pair of those pieces, and having fallen victim to profitable multiple sales, ended up fragmented between two continents.