Embroidered samplers of the past transcend artistic boundaries

Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News.

This weekend, the Loeb Art Center opened an exhibit in the Spotlight Gallery displaying artwork that has never before been hung on its walls. The installation, entitled “Between the Lines: Innovation and Expression in Women’s Sewing Samplers,” explores the cultural significance of embroidered samplers. Organized by Adjunct Assistant of Art History Caroline Culp and Ida-Rose Chabon ’24, the show aims to reconfigure public perception of the art form. Embroidery, a decorative art dominated by women, has long been pigeonholed as a mere craft. Art historians often consider the decorative arts unworthy of the analysis and reverence ascribed to fine art. When a woman makes dinner, she is a dutiful wife. When a man makes dinner, he is an innovative chef. This incongruence is not limited to cuisine; it has long defined the relationship between women and the practice of making art. In particular, embroidered samplers have been continually dismissed as the formulaic, unremarkable work of upper-class women. The new exhibit challenges these conventions and presents embroidered samplers as a legitimate, unique art form. A variety of samplers are juxtaposed on the walls of the Loeb, pointing out the sly deviations and personal touches each artist has included in her sampler. Examining these differences confirms the sampler as a legitimate art form beyond convention.

A young British student named Ann Hall took great care when creating her sampler in 1800. The floral border, geometric composition, and decorative symbols are consistent with other embroidered works at the time. As you look closer, you start to see details in color, subject matter, and composition that deviate from the others. For example, Hall riffs on the imagery of Adam and Eve in her sampler. Rather than a traditional portrayal of two nude figures, Hall costumes them as the Harlequin Jester and Colombina, which the piece’s label identifies as two very recognizable figures to British audiences at that time. Using intricate needlework, she crafts a leotard with a diamond motif for the jester and a patterned skirt for Colombina. By transforming Adam and Eve into the Harlequin Jester and Colombina, Hall uses biblical imagery to express her personal experiences at the theater. As the sampler states, Hall was only twelve years old when she stitched it. 

“Between the Lines” contains several other samplers with backstories as unique as Hall’s. One piece, created in Mexico by student Feodora Cerón in 1857, shows a fusion of indigenous artistic traditions with Catholic imagery. The label informs the viewer that nuns taught embroidery in Mexico and Central America in Catholic schools. Ostensibly, students modified the European tradition with details of their own cultures and identities. Céron has formulated her sampler differently from its American and European counterparts, consisting of thin bands filled with individual patterns stretching across the length of the cotton. She chose to include songbirds, grapes, and a variety of flowers and vines. Many small animals are tucked away between the bands of flora, including what seems to be a household pet next to a multicolored house. The house, the inclusion of text, and the decorative symbols are reminiscent of Hall’s piece, but the bright hues of violet, cornflower blue, pink, and crimson set Cerón’s work apart from Hall’s neutral tones. Although the sampler may have started as a practical exercise, it grew to reflect the quality of a woman’s education and contain religious and moral messages. By examining the work of a young teenage girl, we can nearly predict her future, for her literacy and suitability for homemaking could be easily judged by her embroidery. Despite the rigid association with social class and gender roles, women and girls found a way to express their personal beliefs, interests, and affiliations through subtle alterations and decorative additions.  Perhaps these artistic choices could be considered a quiet rebellion, a reassertion of each woman’s personhood through the very work that was thought to strip it away. The first installment of “Between the Lines” is on view until June 1, and a second series of samplers will be viewable from June 24 to Sept. 3.

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