The Legendary Elsie de Wolfe: Fact and Fiction by Design

Jared Goss, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, October 13, 2015Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Interior of Elsie de Wolfe’s Villa Trianon, her home in Versailles, France

Interior of Elsie de Wolfe’s Villa Trianon, her home in Versailles, France

Almost more than any other figure in her field, the decorator Elsie de Wolfe (1865–1950) seems to elicit an endless amount of breathless admiration. Open any book devoted to her - there are many - and certain tropes consistently recur: she was legendary, iconic, revolutionary, the first to have (fill in the blank). Since 1938, when The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner credited Elsie de Wolfe with singlehandedly “inventing the new fashionable profession of interior decorating, countless other such lofty claims have been made and repeated: she “revolutionized twentieth-century design”; she was decorating’s “most famous and successful practitioner”; she was “a dauntless pioneer” who continues to enjoy an “enduring influence” today. Is any of this really true? Jared Goss will examine the facts and fictions of de Wolfe and her work in an attempt to recognize the true and lasting contributions of this extraordinary woman.

Without a doubt, de Wolfe (who had worked as a stage actress) was one of the first well-known female practitioners of interior design. She must be counted among a small number of early 20th century decorators with a taste for antiques rather than made-to-order modern furnishings. Elsie de Wolfe was certainly among the earliest decorators to encourage personality and humor in the interior. Above all, she was without question an interior decorator of taste, originality and accomplishment. Despite her stellar attributes, her list of projects is not especially long and, by her own admission, her home in France represented the best of her work. “If I have done anything really fine, it is the Villa Trianon.”

Following her 1926 marriage to a British diplomat, she became Lady Mendl. Janet Flanner archly observed that “Lady Mendl has always been well known for something - principally for being Miss Elsie de Wolfe.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of de Wolfe - considered by many to be one of the most influential women of the 20th century - was her talent for self-mythologizing.

Continue reading

Shadow of the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt and Its Influence in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

Tuesday, November 10, 2015Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Tiffany & Company Egyptian Garnature

Mantel Garniture, ca.1875-1885 Maker: Unknown, French Retailer: Tiffany & Company, American, New York, NY (active 1837-present) Slate, marble, bronze, brass, wood, and glass Clock: 18-1/2 x 21 x 7-3/4 inches Obelisks: 20-1/2 x 7-3/4 x 5-1/8 inches Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York

Anna D’Ambrosio invites us to travel through the eternally fascinating world of Egypt with her and to witness Egypt’s long influence in arts and culture into the present. Since the dawn of recorded time, no nation has mesmerized and influenced the world quite like ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt has the whole package - incredible wealth and beautiful objects, great stories of powerful people, awe-inspiring deities, mystery, discovery and, of course, the promise of eternal life.

For more than a century, Egyptian-inspired artworks have illustrated an obsession with a culture far removed from most people’s everyday lives. Ms D’Ambrosio will explore the allure of ancient Egypt and its astounding influence on European and American artists and designers from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century. Landmarks along the way of this adventure include Egyptian-inspired furniture motifs by French-born Anthony Quervelle (1789–1865) who plied his craft in Philadelphia and the New York firm of Pottier & Stymus (founded in 1859). Louis C. Tiffany and Cartier designed opulent jewelry in the Egyptian taste.

Specific events have periodically ignited, and re-ignited, America’s and Europe’s fascination with the rich and exotic history of ancient Egypt. A frenzy for Egyptian-inspired style followed English Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. When Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion broke the code of the Rosetta Stone in 1822, he made a major contribution to the understanding of hieroglyphics and other ancient languages and sparked another craze for things Egyptian.

Continue reading