NEEDLEWORK PICTURE OF RECUMBENT LIONS
Probably American, Philadelphia, first half of the 18th c.
This impressive embroidered picture represents a new enigma in the study of colonial American needlework. In recent years, scholarship has revealed a sub-category of eighteenth-century Philadelphia needlework aptly referred to as the “Tree of Life” pictorial group. There are eight silkon-silk embroideries documented, all with the common format of a dominant leafy or flowering tree typically flanked by leopards and/or lions, sometimes singly and sometimes in pairs. These pictures were made by affluent Philadelphian schoolgirls within a brief six-year period (1748–1754), presumably under the tutelage of a single instructor. Though the scale, proportions, minor motifs, and animal poses are fairly uniform within this grouping, each picture was worked in a distinctively individualistic manner. Inventive choices, especially in the stitches and colors used, suggest that instruction took place in an informal atmosphere in which a teacher could encourage creativity.
This needlework composition, with its marked visual similarities, is related to these “Tree of Life” pictures and is a strong candidate for a precursor to this distinguished group. The subject matter and placement of motifs are familiar: a lion and lioness, recumbent on rolling hillocks, face a fruiting tree under a flock of birds. Flowers, grasses and a slender oak tree sprout from the mounds, while a startled rabbit, bees, a butterfly, dragonfly, and a diminutive grasshopper surround the felines. Billowing clouds and a radiant sun-face, with the same bulbous nose as seen on the lions, frame the top edge of the picture. Like the girls who created the “Tree of Life” pictures, this young embroideress had remarkable control of her needle, and a unique approach to color. Unlike the other known Philadelphian examples worked in shading stitches on silk panels, this piece is entirely surface-embroidered in counted stitches on a plain-weave linen foundation. Worked in extraordinarily precise tent stitch, sinuous bands of gold-to-tawny modeling highlight the lions’ muscular bodies; these tonal modulations are echoed in the verdant ombré shading of the crossstitch hills, as well as in the leaves of both trees. The lions’ expressive faces—she with her whiskers, and he with his red lips and long beard (rather than a mane)—are made all the more charming with the addition of black glass beads for their eyes, also a typical feature of the wild cats in the “Tree of Life” embroideries. An ivory-colored sky, worked in a shimmering expanse of queen stitch, is one of the most remarkable features of this piece.
This needlework picture walks a fine line between English embroidery traditions and the emerging American aesthetic. Early American needlework skills were a direct extension of the English repertoire; thus, it is not uncommon to find attributes shared between the two geographically disparate bodies of work in the eighteenth century. The particular stitches used in this piece are also found in colonial needlework, as is the practice of covering the whole of the canvas with embroidery. However, it is the techniques and stylistic variations employed here which set this picture apart from the established Philadelphia group.