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.