Magnifying Light and Reflecting Beauty: Looking Glasses in England and America, 1680–1860

David Barquist, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tuesday, March 8, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Pier glass, as installed at Monticello, French, ca. 1785

Pier glass, as installed at Monticello, French, ca. 1785, gilded wood and silvered glass. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Carter

Desk and Bookcase, Philadelphia, ca. 1762

Desk and bookcase, Philadelphia, ca. 1762, mahogany, white cedar, yellow poplar, yellow pine, silvered glass and gilded brass. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pier glass, probably French, ca. 1835

Pier glass, probably French, ca. 1835, gilded wood with incised and applied ornament, and silvered glass. Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term “looking glass,” or simply “glass,” was the common name for objects that came to be known as “mirrors” about 1860. Looking glasses were costly luxuries in the preindustrial period, and David Barquist’s lecture will document their usage in American interiors from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries, following fashions set in Europe. They provided a means of reflecting light and an aid to dressing, but their high value also made them important status symbols.

Many of the looking glasses owned in colonial America were relatively small and imported from England or other European countries, although a few extraordinary American-made frames are known. After the Revolutionary War, larger plates of glass became more widely available, and American craftsmen also began producing frames to suit a wider variety of tastes and pocketbooks. By the second quarter of the 19th century, very large glass plates were a significant element of high-style American interiors, and frames frequently were tour-de-forces that matched their exceptional scale.

David Barquist spoke to the Forum about “Looking Glasses in America, 1640-1840” in January, 1994. This month’s lecture will update this intriguing area of research because, as we learn more about mirrors used in early America, we learn that we know less in terms of place of manufacture and attributions.

British export records, merchants’ accounts and newspaper advertisements all vouchsafe that enormous quantities of looking glasses were exported to early America. Trans-Atlantic trade included American woods, as well as Caribbean mahogany, so that secondary woods for mirrors tell us less than we once thought they did. English manufacturers sometimes used American woods for carved ornament, and American looking-glass frame makers may have utilized imported English ornament. David Barquist emphasizes that the many components of mirrors (glass, frame, secondary woods, added ornament) and their fragility warrant a different type of analysis than furniture. Labels and provenance may not indicate place of manufacture, but they nevertheless remain important documents in the history of American taste.

David Barquist graduated from Harvard with a fine arts degree, followed by a master’s degree from the Winterthur program in early American culture and a doctorate from Yale in the history of art. His doctoral dissertation research was published as Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York with essays by Jon Butler and Jonathan Sarna (2001). (David Barquist spoke to the Forum about “Myer Myers and the Goldsmith Trade in New York City, 1746-1795” in November, 1998. He also presented “New York Colonial Silver” in December, 2002.) Starting in graduate school as a museum intern at the Yale University Art Gallery in 1981, David Barquist rose through the ranks to become its acting curator of decorative arts until 2004 — when he became the curator of decorative arts for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His many publications are products of his relentless research and, often, his long association with Yale. They include American and English Pewter at the Yale University Art Gallery: A Supplementary Checklist (1985); American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University with essays by Elisabeth Garrett and Gerald Ward (1992); and Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture with Ethan Lasser (2003). He also contributed to The Concord Museum: Decorative Arts from a New England Collection (1996).

Dr. Barquist is also responsible for many object entries to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery (2008); Albany Institute of History & Art: 200 Years of Collecting (1998); Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (1991); and John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter (1982). (Tammis Groft presented “Decorative Arts from the Albany Institute of History & Art” to the Forum in June, 2000, and Gail Serfaty spoke about “The Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State” in September, 1992.)

David Barquist also wrote the introductory essay for Susan Detweiler’s American Presidential China: The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008). His contributions to The Magazine Antiques are “A Tankard by Myer Myers”(2009); “American Looking Glasses in the Neoclassical Style, 1780-1815” (1992); and “Imported Looking Glasses in Colonial America” (1991). Lest we think that Dr. Barquist is slacking off — or interested only in early decorative arts — 2011 will see his essay, “Druids and Dropouts: Working Wood, 1945-1969,” published in Making It Real: The American Studio Movement, 1945-1969, edited by Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan. (Jeanine Falino spoke to the Forum about “Inspiring Reform: The Arts and Crafts Movement in New England” in August, 1998.)

7:15pm mini-exhibit

It will reflect well upon you — and everyone else — to bring a mirror or any object with a reflective surface to the mini-exhibition. Powder your nose with a compact, or bring a lustreware tea pot.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.