pages 24-25 pages 28-29 

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Embroidered Silk Satin Coverlet

Chinese Export for the American Market, late 18th c.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, merchants in the American colonies were prohibited by English regulations from trading directly with China. Almost immediately following the Revolution, American ships began sailing to Canton—the only port open to westerners at the time—and seafaring men in the young Republic quickly developed a substantial trade with the Chinese. The Empress of China, one of the first commercial expeditions from the United States, arrived in New York on May 11, 1785 laden with tea, porcelain, and silk and cotton textiles. While the cargo was not so dissimilar to that originally obtained from England, the accomplishment of obviating this source was a matter of great national pride. By the end of 1790, privately financed American ventures had sent at least twenty-eight ships to Canton.

Chinese merchants quickly adapted their wares to the demands of American traders, as they had been doing with other foreign merchants who preceded them. This magnificent silk coverlet reflects an American preference for restraint in the overall decorative scheme. Arranged in a Chinese-derived composition of a centralized medallion and symmetrically placed corner motifs, the embroidery is worked in masterfully controlled satin stitch with occasional French knot accents and couched thread lattices. At the center, surrounded by a lobed cartouche pierced with leafy sprays, a stylized peony radiates floral and foliate motifs. Spiky palmettes are nestled in the corners of the interior field as well as the border; the rest of the coverlet is decorated with delicate blossoming tendrils. The most visually arresting aspect of this bedcover is the cerulean blue satin ground, the sheen of which may have been enhanced by calendaring, a technique that relies on the application of pressure to smooth the silk’s surface.

This coverlet is a rare example of a completely Chinese-made furnishing textile. Dark blue and gold Chinese fringe trims three sides, and the reverse is lined with an unusual plainweave cotton impressed with a vermicular and flowering vase pattern—also Chinese in origin. Export-market textiles were typically as fine as those made for domestic consumption, and this piece certainly bears witness to the artistry of Chinese needlework. Not only is the double-ply silk thread embroidery impeccable, but the transitions between shades—from pale celadon to deep olive green, and a spectrum of reds including persimmon, rust and mauve—lend a subtle yet exotic air of sophistication to the workmanship. Embroidering a coverlet such as this was likely assigned to several people; each of the three satin panels which compose this piece was embroidered separately and then joined together, which explains the slight variations in colors within the design.

Though many products sought in the China trade were ephemeral by nature—tea, spices, paper goods, even fireworks—many precious textile goods have been preserved through generations of care. This remarkable coverlet is said to have descended in the Rupert and Grubb families of Delaware.

105” H x 84” W

pages 24-25 pages 28-29  

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