by Cynthia Fowler
1 Introduction 1
2 The Modern Embroidery Movement in Context 15
3 Marguerite Zorach: The Roots of the Modern Embroidery Movement 33
4 Georgiana Brown Harbeson and Her Collaborators: Establishing the Modern Embroidery Movement 69
5 Collaboration 93
6 Visualizing Manhattan 117
7 Nature as Symbol 139
8 Embroidered Portraits 159
9 Conclusion 191
Selected Bibliography 235
In the first half of the twentieth century, a group of American women artists dedicated themselves to embroidery as a form of artistic expression. The embroideries they made were consciously designed and executed to demonstrate their training as painters and more specifically their adherence to the principles of modern art. In the early 1930s, artist Georgiana Brown Harbeson declared that the embroideries created by these women constituted a “modern embroidery movement” in America. In a 1935 article, she identified the key contributors to this movement: Marguerite Zorach, Marcia Stebbins, Mary Ellen Crisp, and herself.1 In a book she published three years later, Harbeson added embroiderer Marian Stoll to the group.2 Harbeson’s efforts were recognized by her contemporary Frances Morris, an associate curator of textiles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1922 until 1929 and a lifelong advocate of textiles, who described Harbeson as “the foremost American exponent of the modern movement in embroidery.”3 This book is an examination of the embroideries created by this dynamic group of women artists who turned to needlework as a preferred form of artistic expression. It considers the arguments put forth by Harbeson and her collaborators that embroidery should be evaluated with the same seriousness as any other art form. It also considers the reception of these arguments by critics and contemporary evaluations of the embroideries themselves when they were on exhibit. Most importantly, it provides a close examination of individual embroideries, which have received little serious analysis by art historians. Fundamentally, this book continues Harbeson’s project of documenting the history of modern embroidery in America. More broadly, it demonstrates that American artists in the first half of the twentieth century contributed to the advancement of modern craft and the decorative arts concurrently with their European counterparts whose contributions have already been recognized by scholars.
Modern embroidery and the craft tradition
Harbeson’s advocacy for the artistic potential of embroidery coincided with a major craft revival in America. During the 1930s, craft programs were supported throughout the United States by New Deal policies designed to provide economic relief from the impact of the Depression. Support for craft extended into the private sector as well. Craft programs were established in a wide range of institutions, including schools, museums, and community art centers.10 As curator Hildreth York has summarized, these programs “provided income, self-help, and rehabilitation for the unemployed, countering the ills of the Depression as well as the more long-term effects of industrialization and mechanization that had wiped out many artisans, workshops, and craft industries in this country.”11
The success of 1930s craft programs culminated with a major craft exhibition held in the American Art Today building at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair. The exhibition was strongly influenced by WPA/FAP director Holgar Cahill.12 In addition to the craft on display, the exhibition included a WPA/FAP Community Art Center with handicraft demonstrations, which reflected Cahill’s interest in offering craft activities for “the average person” as an alternative to “the passive appreciation of the work of a few exceptionally brilliant individuals.”13 Cahill’s perspective on craft reflects the continuum that defined craft, which ran from craft as an amateur pursuit to a form of artistic expression that required professional training. Harbeson’s approach to embroidery was one that challenged this binary. Taking a progressive view on the artistic potential of all individuals, she believed that “amateur” embroiderers, if they followed well-designed patterns, had the potential to create “museum quality” work. Furthermore, in an interview with Harbeson the year before she died, the interviewer explained, “She believed that only widespread practice and enthusiasm would generate the experience and experimentation that would allow needlework to develop as a fine art.”14The 1930s craft revival in the United States had important historical roots. The 1920s were also characterized by efforts to “preserve and broaden production and marketing bases of the crafts.”15 Craft historian Janet Kardon’s Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945 provides evidence of the flourishing of the crafts in the 1920s.16 The Arts and Crafts movement set the strongest historical precedent for American craft. Although it took hold in the nineteenth century, it continued to influence the American craft tradition into the twentieth century. Art historian Wendy Kaplan has summarized that the American Arts and Crafts movement had “by World War I, made a major impact on American art and American life.” She observes, “In altering attitudes toward the fabrication and use of objects, it changed fundamental perceptions regarding design, the home, and work.”17 In this regard, Gustav Stickley’s furniture designs and his monthly periodical The Craftsman, published from 1901 to 1916, warrant specific recognition. Most pertinent to this book, The Craftsman did not exclude textiles in its efforts to bolster American craftsmanship. Providing a precedent to Harbeson’s needlework patterns published in Needlecraft, The Craftsman published needlework patterns for amateurs as early as 1903.18 Throughout the history of American craft, artists played a significant role in invigorating the craft tradition through their experiments in craft media. In their survey of the history of studio craft, craft historians Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf identify a large number of professionally trained artists who worked in craft. Metcalf and Koplos focus on studio craft, which they define as “handwork with aesthetic intent, largely or wholly created by individuals (usually art school or university trained) to their own designs.”19 The embroideries under consideration in this book fall within this definition in that the embroiderers who made them insisted upon the necessity of professional art training. Historically marginalized within the craft tradition as women’s handicraft, embroidery made by professional artists challenged this marginalization. In their book, Metcalf and Koplos recognize Zorach and other modern embroiderers for their individual contributions, but they do not connect their individual efforts to a larger movement. It is the argument of this book that artists working in the crafts were more than individual actors. Their choices reflected a shared appreciation among American modern artists for the value of the craft tradition in expanding artistic practices as a whole. Zorach, Harbeson, and their collaborators shared a belief in embroidery as a meaningful form of artistic expression and demonstrated this belief publicly and consistently throughout their careers. They often exhibited their work together and they publicly acknowledged each other’s work. In these ways, they formed a cohesive, albeit loosely connected, movement.