The 71 watercolor drawings showcased in the exhibition House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection, on view at the Cooper-Hewitt, invite museum-goers to leave the darkly paneled galleries of Andrew Carnegie’s former mansion and enter into the salons, drawing rooms, winter gardens, libraries, studies, and bedrooms of 19th-century European royalty, nobility, and the emerging haute bourgeoisie.
Painted by both amateur and professional artists, these intimate watercolors, paired with related objects from the museum’s collection, trace the evolution of domestic interiors, ranging in style from Neoclassicism to exoticism to Gothic and Rococo revival, and document the social, cultural, and aesthetic development of domestic life. The drawings are similar in composition to the photographs that appear in the shelter magazines of today, and with their obsessive detailing of architectural elements, furnishings, and bric-a-brac, appeal to the developing consumer culture of the era.
The exhibition includes examples of drawings that were published in building guides and other books authored for those designing interiors; however, the majority of the works were commissioned by proud homeowners and collected in albums as heirlooms, presented as gifts to visiting dignitaries, or prominently displayed in the house itself.
Jules-Frédéric Bouchet’s A Small Salon in the Montpensier Wing, Palais Royal (1830) shows King Louis-Philippe’s penchant for the French-Empire style. Renovated by Pierre Fontaine, the room reflects Empire trends in furniture arrangement, with a table placed in the center of the room and a reclining sofa located in the corner. This style became popular with members of the noble and upper class, as seen in Hilaire Thierry’s watercolor, A Salon in the Empire Taste (1820–1830), that details mythological scenes above the doorway and tea-related objects, similar to those designed by Percier and Fontaine for Napoleon and Josephine.
The watercolors document private interior spaces, as well as those that are used for public occasions. John Nash’s Chinese Gallery As It Was (1838) shows couples promenading past Chinese porcelains in the exotic gallery of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, designed for George IV. The popular chinoiserie style is seen in Eduard Gaertner’s The Chinese Room in the Royal Palace, Berlin (1850), with its bright yellow upholstered furniture, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, and pale blue ceiling covered with birds. Though uninhabited, the room is filled with life and personality, and the viewer can easily project himself into the scene, settling into a bamboo armchair for tea.
Anna Alma-Tadema intimately depicts the library at Townshend House, London, decorated in the “aesthetic” style by her father, the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The watercolor captures the comfort of the room, with its Japanese porcelain, inviting sofa covered with a fur throw, and mullioned casement windows. Adjacent to Alma-Tadema’s work are spectacular metamorphic library table-steps, as well as imported bark cloth, similar to that seen in the watercolor. Not to be missed, however, is the spectacular shellwork bouquet in the final gallery. Hermetically sealed under a glass dome, this curiosity illustrates how the meticulous attention to detail common in 19th-century objects could produce strange yet awe-inspiring examples of high design.