When it comes to dressing a window, few of us would make our own window treatments or implore a local artisan to create them from scratch. It is more likely we would stop by an Ikea, or browse a Pottery Barn catalog, for something premade It turns out that things weren’t all too different two hundred years ago, and this interior window cornice from the NYSHA collection remains as proof.

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Cornice, circa 1835, wood and pigment, 42.5″ x 7.25″ x 2.5″. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY, N0287.1976 (01).

According to historians, window treatments in early American houses varied, much like today. But during the second quarter of the 1800s decorated cornices came into fashion. Cornices were sold in sets, with matching ornamental motifs on either side of varying center landscape views. These landscapes depicted individual trees, hills, fences, coaches, wagons, animals, birds, houses, steam and sailboats.

You’ll notice identical swans and grand, stylized acanthus foliage flank the central landscape of this cornice, and the features of the landscape have similarly crisp edges. That’s because these designs have been painted from pre-cut stencils. Stencils were an early form of industrialized production that sped up a workshop’s output. These workshops may have even made stencil-decorated furniture as their primary product and diversified their product line by stenciling cornices as well.

It is likely that this cornice was made in New York. Portrayed in its landscape are dwellings and barns, grazing livestock, and hilly terrain, separated by a body of water, possibly the Hudson River, with sailboats. Other similar cornices show windmills, steamboats, and scenic hills that would have been familiar representations of the Hudson Valley.

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Like a modern day Pottery Barn, the cornice decorator was keeping up with interior design trends. The stenciling is done in a bronze powder over dark green paint. The gilt-on-dark color scheme would have matched Empire style furniture. While not particularly elaborate themselves, these cornices would have held fabric curtains. Large textiles were still expensive items at the time, and the cornice would have been a nice final touch to the window treatment, and to any fashionable 1830s room.

Unlike the completely machine-made decorations of today, however, details in the sky, water, and foliage were painted by hand by a workshop artist. Likewise, the stencils could be moved around to the artist’s liking to create a lively and individualized scene. This ensured that no two cornices were exactly alike. So while the seeds of modern interior decorating can be seen in the production of this cornice, we’ve still come a long way, for better or for worse.

For more information see:

Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester, “The Flowering of American Folk Art” (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 190-203.

-B. Schline, CGP’14

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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