Artists in the Gardens

Opening Nov. 18, the exhibition “COLLECTION/S: WCCW/five at The Huntington” will be on view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art through Feb. 12, 2018. Part of the second year of /five —The Huntington’s five-year contemporary arts initiative focused on creative collaborations—the exhibition will be a manifestation of The Huntington’s yearlong partnership with the Los Angeles-based Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW). The exhibition will feature new work by seven artists, selected by WCCW, who have conducted research in The Huntington’s library, art, and botanical collections. Catherine G. Wagley, a freelance journalist who writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles, focuses in this post on the three artists delving into the botanical collections: Zya S. Levy, Sarita Dougherty, and Olivia Chumacero.

During the past two months, artist-botanist Zya S. Levy has made 300 plaster casts of cacti. Photo by Kate Lain.

“I’m interested in rarity and abundance coexisting in the same sphere,” says artist-botanist Zya S. Levy. It is late afternoon in August, and Levy and her longtime collaborator, artist Kaitlin Pomerantz, are working at a big table in a backyard in Highland Park, covering cacti with silicon to make molds. Pomerantz is visiting from Philadelphia, where she’s still based, helping Levy with these molds that will eventually become an army of plaster plants.

When Levy and Pomerantz founded their project WE THE WEEDS in Philadelphia a few years ago, they started giving urban tours, showing how natural and human-made environments interacted.

This year, as part of her Huntington residency, Levy has been exploring the tangible, urban effects of collectors who brought exotic plants back to cities like Los Angeles, where they can be found growing on medians or in sidewalk cracks. “These collections have infiltrated our daily lives,” observes Levy.

Levy takes notes on the golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) in The Huntington’s Desert Garden. Photo by Kate Lain.

Levy regularly spots in L.A. yards the same non-native cactus species that she sees in The Huntington’s Desert Garden, even though certain species are now nearly extinct in their places of origin—in some cases due to Western collectors and in others, such as the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), largely due to habitat destruction. “There weren’t as many cultural constructs around caring for nature,” she says. In a curious twist of fate, the collector has become the conservator, a reality that also informs Levy’s project.

During the past two months, Levy has made 300 plaster casts of cacti, based on models found at Home Depot and Sal’s Cactus Mart in Filmore, California—or discarded on street corners. A total of 150 casts will appear in a group exhibition featuring The Huntington’s seven artists-in-residence in November. Levy built a stair-step structure on which to exhibit them and painted it white. Cast cacti occupy each step, and a display case sits at the top. Additional casts will occupy white-painted crates on the gallery floor. “A cascading display of preciousness,” Levy calls the installation. A parabolic speaker will hang above the installation, broadcasting ambient sounds recorded in Eaton Canyon, on L.A.’s streets, in The Huntington’s gardens, and in New Mexico. These sounds narrate the movement of species from wild to urban settings, from uncultivated to cultivated environments.

A total of 150 of Levy’s cacti casts will appear in a group exhibition featuring The Huntington’s seven artists-in-residence in November. Photo by Kate Lain.

In November, Levy will lead a trio of hour-long walking tours for the public. (All three tours have sold out.) “This interest in ubiquity and rarity leads into the tours,” she says. “I want to highlight plants that are rare in the wild that might be among us.” She will give one tour in downtown L.A.’s Grand Park, another along the streets in Highland Park, and a third in The Huntington’s Desert Garden. She’ll highlight the origins and uses of certain plants. For instance, the Canary Islands dragon tree, Dracaena draco, grows in the Desert Garden. “The red resin sap was used for incense, and its resin was used for embalming people,” she explains, though this is just one example. “All plants have great stories.”

A different tree has become a protagonist in both Sarita Dougherty’s painting and Olivia Chumacero’s video work. The two artists had been working on a collaborative project in an uncultivated part of The Huntington’s grounds not open to the public, when both connected with the Oaxacan weeping pine, Pinus patula, an elegant tree with drooping limbs and long needles that fall downward, like threads held in an invisible hand. “I remember this pine tree because I used to come rest and eat under it,” says Chumacero, who worked on the grounds in the mid-2000s, when she helped Metabolic Studio transplant trees from the now-razed South Central Farm to The Huntington.

Artist Sarita Dougherty paints in an uncultivated part of The Huntington’s grounds. Photo by Kate Lain.

“I was looking more for an oak tree,” says Dougherty, sitting on a blanket, painting as she speaks. A stand of mugwort between an oak tree and the pine will be the centerpiece of her painting. “But every time I saw the pine, I just thought it was so beautiful that I had to paint it as well.” Earlier in the spring, she painted a California lilac in full bloom. Chumacero filmed this plant, too. Both were drawn to it, even though they hadn’t discussed it.

Dougherty and Chumacero come early on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when it’s quiet, and work in a lightly trodden area of the gardens. Both artists study the healing and nourishing properties of plants—Chumacero’s livelihood comes from leading workshops on indigenous and medicinal species. Since their Huntington residency began, they’ve been interested in the contrast between the cultivated and uncultivated land, and in different definitions of collecting.

Artist Olivia Chumacero records the sound of a waterfall in The Huntington’s Japanese Garden to include in her video work. Photo by Kate Lain.

At first, in the spring, the two artists tried making work in the public, more closely tended gardens. Dougherty finished a few small paintings of plants in bloom, but none of these will be in the group exhibition in November. “We found that the plants back here have so many more stories to tell, maybe because they aren’t as tended to,” Dougherty explains. “So, they’ve made complex relationships with each other. We’re able to see that they’ve been here a really long time.”

“They’re not manicured and cultivated like the rest of the garden,” says Chumacero. She shot video both of the spring bloom and the dormant season. Now she’s editing the footage. The videos, each around five minutes long, will loop on a single monitor installed near Dougherty’s paintings, when the exhibition opens. Chumacero also harvested some long needles from the weeping pine and gave them to basket weaver Cindi Alvitre of the Tongva maritime Ti’at Society. The resulting basket will be in the exhibition as evidence of the symbiotic relationship between humans and plant life.

“Just being back here painting is the best thing,” says artist Sarita Dougherty, as she works in quiet in a lightly trodden area of The Huntington’s grounds. Photo by Kate Lain.

“Just being back here painting is the best thing,” says Dougherty, the pine tree still the most prominent figure in her in-progress painting. “It’s gorgeous, and the plants are so vibrant.” In addition to two paintings, she’s designed a wallpaper that she calls Domestic Flora, based on the native plants and animals in the garden. A strip of it will be installed in the galleries in November. “The idea is that someone could decorate their home based on native flora,” she explains, “because that’s our hope, that we can increase the visibility of these plants and ecosystems.” She continues, “In the eyes of many collectors, the native plants haven’t really had the same value as exotics from other places. So, we’re pulling attention to the amazing beauty of all of these plants that support each other.”

Says Chumacero, “The native flora has evolved on these lands for thousands if not millions of years, and they continue to feed us, keep us in good health, as well as feed all the native pollinators, of which there are thousands here. I am willing to do as much as possible so that they can survive.”

Related content on Verso:

Artists in the Library (Sept. 11, 2017)
Art Inspiring Art (Aug. 9, 2017)
Engaging with the Collections (June 29, 2017)
Women Making Art (March 30, 2017)

The /five initiative is made possible by a generous gift from The Cheng Family Foundation. Additional funding for the second year of /five has been provided by a grant from the Pasadena Art Alliance.

Catherine G. Wagley is a freelance journalist who writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.

To Paint without Thinking

The exhibition “Frederick Hammersley: To Paint without Thinking” runs from Oct. 21, 2017, to Jan. 22, 2018, in the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. Co-curated by James Glisson¸ the Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art at The Huntington, and Alan Phenix, scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalog from which this excerpt is taken.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), Study for Seedling, #4 1967, Page 20 of Notebook #3, Bound fabric-covered sketchbook with graphite and ink, 8 1/16 x 6 1/2 in. Getty Research Institute. Copyright Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), a longtime resident of Los Angeles and later of Albuquerque, is best known for his geometric paintings, which the critic Jules Langser in 1959 grouped with other works he called “hard edge” paintings. The elegant simplicity of Hammersley’s paintings, however, was the result of a rigorous process of refinement, worked out in a set of sketchbooks and archival materials now at the Getty Research Institute. These Notebooks, as he designated them, reveal him running through possibilities until he happened upon the solution.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), Studies for Adam & Eve, #2 1970, and Seedling, #4 1967, Page 25 of Composition Book, Sketchbook with graphite and colored pencil, 10 7/8 x 8 1/4 in., Getty Research Institute. Copyright Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

The page where he tests out options for the composition of Adam & Eve shows that he used the Notebooks to resolve the precise geometric composition and to establish a basic color scheme, which he fine-tuned later as he mixed and applied paint. Although he still had to make choices as he executed his paintings, the studies in the Notebooks, like a set of instructions, largely guided him. By figuring out the big decisions before he began the paintings, Hammersley could sit down and focus on applying the paint with a palette knife to achieve his fantastically crisp edges, which he did by hand without the aid of masking tape. In the “geometrics,” as he called his geometric paintings, he could “paint without thinking” because the thinking, so to speak, had been done in the Notebooks. The questions of what to paint was settled, and he had to worry only about the how.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), Seedling, #4 1967, Screenprint, ed. 17/29, Sheet: 17 x 12 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation. 2015.10.26. Copyright Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

When I first saw the Hammersley archival material at the Getty in January 2014, I immediately wanted to organize an exhibition around it. On that afternoon I looked, in a rush, through hundreds of small lithographs, examined dozens of color swatches, leafed through the artist’s Notebooks, and passed my eyes over his sheets of titles. The sheer quantity of materials and the evident care the artist had lavished on creating and preserving them impressed on me that they were neither mere records nor material ancillary to his paintings. This exhibition is the first to highlight the archival trove Hammersley left in his home/studio at the time of his death, and to argue from its abundant evidence that the artist was profoundly concerned with the process by which he created artworks—the technical elements he used (canvas, paints, and varnishes and their application) and the decision making, all the choices that, little by little, bring an artwork into the world.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), Adam & Eve, #2 1970, Oil on linen on Masonite, 44 x 44 in., Collection Palm Springs Art Museum, Gift of L.J. Cella and museum purchase with funds derived from deaccession funds. Copyright Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

To complement the exhibition, The Huntington has published Frederick Hammersley: To Paint without Thinking, an illustrated catalog edited by James Glisson, with contributions from Alan Phenix, scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute; Kathleen Shields, executive director at the Frederick Hammersley Foundation; and Nancy Zastudil, administrative director at the Frederick Hammersley Foundation. The catalog is available for purchase online at the Huntington Store.

The presentation of the exhibition “Frederick Hammersley: To Paint without Thinking” at The Huntington has received generous support from the Frederick Hammersley Foundation and the Susan and Stephen Chandler Endowment for Exhibitions of American Art. The exhibition catalog has received generous support from the Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

James Glisson is the Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art at The Huntington.

The Rise of the Newspaper

Manuscript newsletters from London, 1689–1710. Huntington Manuscript 30659, f. 115. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Between 1600 and 1900, the newspaper began to occupy a central position in the modern societies of Europe and North America. These publications helped make information current and critical, legitimate and public. They served as the focal point of daily reading, as the frame for opinion-gathering and opinion-making, as the inevitable site of publicity.

To explore the emergence of the newspaper and its eventual monopoly on public information, we have organized a conference titled “The Rise of the Newspaper in Europe & America: 1600–1900.” The Huntington Library has major holdings in periodical writing—both newspapers and journals—from 17th-century manuscript “news-letters” to the mass circulation dailies of 19th-century Britain and the United States. The conference will take place on October 13 and 14, 2017, in The Huntington’s Rothenberg Hall.

It is only now, in the early 21st century, with the newspaper’s gradual but steady loss of dominance, that we are finally beginning to calculate our debt to it and see more clearly its historical trajectory. By going back to the epoch when the newspaper rose to media centrality—aided by new printing technologies, the postal system, the railroad, and the telegraph—we can better understand the basis of its importance and value and its widespread impact, both positive and negative.

The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, No. 1190, August 17, 1776. London: Printed by R. Haswell. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Here are a few of the topics that our conference will explore.

The Newspaper’s Invention
Although many early print forms, from royal proclamations to broadsides and ballads, transmit news in an occasional way, the newspaper is characterized by reliable, periodic publication. How is the newspaper at its origins linked with commerce, politics, and events of enormous consequence, including the American and French Revolutions? Is the newspaper’s claim to truth fundamental or specious? How is it implicated in one of its most familiar features, the advertisement? And how did readers deal with the introduction of the newspaper, which, according to the scholar Andrew Pettegree, “offered what must have seemed like random pieces from a jigsaw, and an incomplete jigsaw at that.”

Fashioning the Reader Interface
Over its long history, newspapers went from a two-column to an eight-column layout; introduced the headline; pushed ads off the front page; systematized the byline; and then incorporated more and more subgenres, such as book reviews, human-interest stories, excerpts from books, and advice columns. Then, with the penny press, they became pocketable and inexpensive. What were the factors that produced the changing face and steady expansion of the newspaper?

The Spectator, London, England, March 13, 1711. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Sensation vs. Objectivity
ISIS videos are just the latest examples of the news appeal of gruesome acts and disasters of all kinds. While crime and collective disasters were present in the earliest newspapers, the introduction of the telegraph and the news services that used it allowed disasters from around the world to become part of the daily read. Charles Dickens, among others, condemned this aspect of 19th-century American newspapers. Have newspapers—perhaps in some eras more than others—engendered a sense that we live in uniquely dangerous times? On the other side of the spectrum, how should we understand the newspapers’ mid-19th-century turn from partisanship to “objectivity”?

Readers as Agents and Consumers
Newspapers have a complex and inconsistent relationship with their readers. They both influence and reflect public opinion. They may welcome reader participation (letters to the editor) or exclude it (by race, gender, class, and overt censorship). Does the newspaper build or damage community? Does it create “imagined communities” or foster social fragmentation? How can the serious aims of newspapers (such as criticism of culture) be reconciled with their use primarily as entertainment?

The goal of the conference is to foster dialogue among scholars of the newspaper from history, literary studies, and media studies. Can the historical study of the newspaper give us terms with which to parry strident accusations of “fake news”?

You can listen to the conference presentations on SoundCloud.

You can read more about the conference program on The Huntington’s website.

William Warner is professor of English at UC Santa Barbara. Rachael Scarborough King is assistant professor of English at UC Santa Barbara.

A Using Book

Detail of a scruffy 15th-century manuscript in The Huntington’s collections containing a variety of sources that speak to the history and geography of England. It is referred to as Huntington manuscript 19960—or simply “HM 19960.” The upper corners of some pages in the manuscript became very worn over time. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

All medieval manuscripts are valuable. But some sell for much more than others, with prices reaching well into the tens of millions. Beauty is one common reason a text might fetch a higher price. Finely decorated medieval books have the allure of jewelry, with their intricate miniature paintings, ornate illuminated initials, and gilded pages.

As a scholar of medieval English literature, I also find value in other ways. Lately, I’ve been spending time with a 15th-century manuscript in The Huntington’s collections containing a variety of sources that speak to the history and geography of England. It is referred to as Huntington manuscript 19960—or simply “HM 19960.”

Long ago, ink was spilled across this page of HM 19960. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

It’s a little worse for wear and was probably not a particularly beautiful book to begin with. As I delved more deeply into this manuscript, I was reminded of a term that ranch hands use to describe a good working horse—an animal that may not be much of a looker, but it carries you around dutifully, day after day, and gets the job done: a “using horse.” I’ve started referring to HM 19960 as a “using book.”

Manuscripts can become damaged by exposure to all sorts of things—fire, water, mold, bookworms. But this particular book looks slightly rough because it was touched, read, paged through, and written on by its various owners down the centuries. It isn’t illustrated, and in fact, after the first few pages, no one bothered to come back through and fill in the remaining spaces that the scribe left for the initials. Red ink is used occasionally for emphasis and for two small illustrations, but the text is otherwise undecorated. It is written in a cursive handwriting style—that is, individual letters within a word are often joined together, an indication of relative haste. (Scribal time is money!) The quality of the parchment also varies: some pages are quite thick and hard to turn, while others are so thin as to be nearly transparent. On some pages, the hair follicles of the animal skin that was used to produce the parchment are very prominent.

In the margin, a small, dark letter “e” floats next to the text, underneath a faded marginal annotation. This letter acts a guide for the artist, who would come through to fill in the spaces left for initial letters (in this case, to complete the name “Ebraucus”), but this work has not been finished in this manuscript. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In many ways, however, this “using book” is even more evocative to me as a reader and researcher than an expensive, beautifully decorated manuscript. It has marginal annotations and shows signs of wear from repeated reading. Who was this reader and annotator? We can’t be entirely sure, although the composition of the text is linked in a prefatory note to the English nobleman and scholar John Tiptoft (1427–1470). Someone has signed “Sheldwych” under the chronological list of major events from English history at the beginning of the book, but we don’t know who that is.

What I can say is that whoever wrote the annotations was especially interested in the early history of England, which is also how I came to find this manuscript. The annotator’s notes cluster excitedly around the passages that narrate the legends surrounding England’s foundation, supposedly by Brutus, a refugee from the fall of Troy. My current book project focuses on how legends about the early history of England informed the changing ideas of what it meant to be English during the transition from the medieval to the early modern period. In this sense, I have something in common with the long-dead reader and annotator of this manuscript: we were both reading English history to think about where the thing we call “England” came from. The only difference is that the long-dead reader was doing so in real time, while I’m following his breadcrumbs nearly 600 years later.

Faint annotations in the right margin, on a page that gives an account of some of the early descendants of Brutus, the legendary founder of England. In the top margin, a note records that King David was the king in Judea at this time—a detail that appears in the main body of the text about three-quarters of the way down the page. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

On an even more personal level, I’m literally following his fingerprints. On the left-hand side of the book, there sometimes appears the ghost of a thumb, or, depending on how you think about it, the thumb of a ghost. Many leaves of this manuscript are soiled, and in one photo, you can see a page that is visibly smudged in the middle, where a reader would hold his thumb to keep the book open. Many pages are also dirty and worn on the upper corners, where readers have reached to turn the page.

These days, we hold manuscripts open with book weights and cradles, not hands and fingers, and we turn pages with extreme care. Our goal is to leave no marks on these irreplaceable objects.

Soiling in the left margin from many years of use. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The traces left by previous generations of readers, however, are precious to me not only for the information they give about who owned, copied, or read the book, but also because they remind us that the book was a personal object owned by a member of a household, rather than a research library. Seeing these personal traces reminds me that even changes in a concept as vast and abstract as what it means to be “English” were driven by individuals—by the actions of specific, real people—reading, thinking, and writing.

I do, however, have a confession to make. It is standard practice for researchers to wash their hands before handling manuscripts. But, on the days I handled this one, I washed my hands afterward, too.

Leah Klement is a Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations postdoctoral instructor and 2016–18 long-term fellow at The Huntington.

Tiffany: Inspired by Nature

Tiffany Studios, Flowerform Vase, Favrile glass, 19 × 6 in. Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott, © David Schlegel, courtesy of Paul Doros. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

If you poke around in your cabinets at home, you’ll probably find some glass vases tucked away inside. You might even take them out sometimes to hold flowers picked up on a sunny, farmer’s market morning. I have a whole cabinet of these empty vessels, just waiting for their moment to shine.

Some people collect glass vases not for their utility, but for their beauty—or even their historic importance. The exhibition “Tiffany Favrile Glass: Masterworks from the Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott” opens Oct. 7, 2017, and continues through Feb. 26, 2018, in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. It features 32 historically significant glass vases designed and produced by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his team of craftspeople. (The photos in this post showcase some of my favorite items in the exhibition.)

Following his great success designing stained-glass windows, Tiffany, in the early 1890s, opened his own glasshouse in Corona, Queens, New York. There, under the leadership of English glassworker Arthur J. Nash, Tiffany’s team fashioned exquisite handmade blown-glass forms composed of Favrile glass. (Tiffany coined the name “Favrile,” taking it from the Old English word fabrile, or hand-wrought.) Tiffany’s glassmakers used a process that treated molten glass with metallic oxides, creating luminous hues within the glass.

Tiffany Studios, Peacock Vase, Favrile glass, 11 7/8 × 5 3/8 in. Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott, © David Schlegel, courtesy of Paul Doros. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The exhibition surveys the full range of Tiffany’s Favrile glass vase production, from experimental pieces made in the 1890s to the widely admired peacock vases produced in the early years of the 20th century.

For the colors and shapes of some vases, Tiffany found direct inspiration in nature. In a vase shaped like a flower, for example, Tiffany and his craftspeople rhymed the typical form of a vase with the stem, leaves, and petals of a lily.

Tiffany’s peacock-inspired vases feature fine threads of sparkly glass, known as Aventurine glass, manipulated to mimic peacock feathers. One of Tiffany’s favorite decorative motifs, the peacock carried ancient associations with immortality and featured prominently in fancy decorative interiors of the late 19th century. This vase also shows the beautiful, multicolored iridescence perfected in Tiffany’s studios by his gaffers (a glass industry term for master craftspeople).

Tiffany Studios, Aquamarine Vase, Favrile glass, 17 1/8 × 6 in. Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott, © David Schlegel, courtesy of Paul Doros. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Also on display is perhaps the tallest surviving example of a Tiffany vase in the Aquamarine style, which his glass studios began producing in the 1910s. Tiffany sent one of his gaffers to Bermuda in 1913 to examine marine life through a glass-bottomed boat. On his return, the Tiffany studios attempted to reproduce in glass the effect of peering through seawater.

Creating this type of vase was a two-step process. First, the decorative elements—here, orange fish flitting through seaweed—were made by heating colored glass rods and forming them into organic shapes. Then, the shapes were encased in a large mass of blue-green glass. The effect is stunning, and even more so in person.

Come by the Scott Galleries of American Art to check them out yourself. You may be inspired to find beauty in that cabinet of old vases back at home!

“Tiffany Favrile Glass: Masterworks from the Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott” opens Oct. 7, 2017, and continues through Feb. 26, 2018, in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

You can watch a video about the Aquamarine vase on display in this exhibition on YouTube.

Chad Alligood is the Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington.

Inside Secrets

Bottom left: Lady’s Work Table, ca. 1810. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, and Eastern White pine, with silk sewing bag (recent replacement), 30 1/4 x 18 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. (76.8 x 47.6 x 36.8 cm.) Gift of Dr. Arthur Bond Cecil and Mrs. Henrietta Smith Cecil.The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

I’m a junior at Princeton University studying art history, with minors in European cultural studies and humanistic studies. I spent the summer as an intern in The Huntington’s American art collections to gain a deeper understanding of how an art museum functions.

One of my projects was preparing object files for 18th- and 19th-century furniture in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. In preparation, I took a tour with Hal Nelson, the former curator of American Decorative Arts at The Huntington, just before he retired. He opened several pieces of furniture so I could see their interiors. It was fascinating to see the hidden parts of these objects!

For preservation reasons, inside compartments of furniture generally can’t be displayed. I figured that visitors would be interested in learning about these unseen elements and seeing some photos of them.

Here are some of the secrets I discovered about two tables and a secretary.

The Lady’s Work Table (circa 1810), a small table with a large pouch underneath, was used for writing and sewing, though I was confused about exactly how. What part did women write on? How was the pouch accessed?

Left: Opening to a reconstruction of a 19th-century silk pouch that would have held needleworks in progress. Right: A writing tablet covered with green baize. Lady’s Work Table, ca. 1810. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, and Eastern White pine, with silk sewing bag. Gift of Dr. Arthur Bond Cecil and Mrs. Henrietta Smith Cecil. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photos by Kate Lain.

It turns out that the first drawer contains a writing tablet covered with green baize—a woolen material sometimes used on billiard tables and card tables—that can be lifted at an angle. The fabric kept pens from embossing the wood of the table. There are also small compartments to hold writing instruments, such as ink bottles.

The second drawer is bare now, but it once held compartments to store sewing tools. Underneath this drawer is a thin wooden frame; when the frame is pulled, it reveals the opening to a silk pouch—a reconstruction of a 19th-century pouch that would have held needleworks in progress.

The worktable is lightweight and easily transported, which allowed women to move the table to take advantage of good lighting. It belonged in a parlor or sitting room where guests were entertained. The worktable showed off a woman’s skills and education—something to impress suitors. A young woman’s education in this era included two types of sewing: plain sewing (useful sewing needed to run a household) and fancy needlework (decorative sewing that let women display their artistic talents).

The mahogany Card Table is displayed beneath Sailing Ships off the New England Coast, circa 1855, by Fitz Henry Lane. Card Table, mid 19th Century. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany with satinwood and holly inlay, 29 3/8 x 34 x 18 5/8 in. (74.6 x 86.4 x 47.3 cm.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

The mid-19th-century mahogany Card Table is one of many such tables collected by Henry E. Huntington. When closed, it shows a wavy design that matches the seascape hanging above it (Sailing Ships off the New England Coast, circa 1855, by Fitz Henry Lane). The inlay of the table is what I find most beautiful. When the table is open, you discover an inlaid satinwood playing card in each corner. Each card is an ace of a different suit—a red heart, a red diamond, a black club, and a black spade.

Left: The surface of Card Table has a wavy design that matches the seascape that hangs above it in the gallery. Right: The fully opened Card Table reveals inlaid satinwood playing cards in each corner. Card Table, mid 19th Century. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany with satinwood and holly inlay. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photos by Kate Lain.

All of the card tables at The Huntington are shown in a closed state—partly because, when folded open, they take up twice the space. People would have played cards on this larger surface. Historically, the tables were meant to be closed and pushed against a wall when not in use.

Many Americans in the 17th and 18th century looked down upon playing cards because they were linked so closely to the dangers of gambling. But they were still very popular, and Edmond Hoyle’s Games (several editions of which are at The Huntington) was first published in the U.S. in 1796. By the mid-19th century, card games had become better regarded and even fashionable, with people in various social classes playing them. Popular games likely played on this table included whist, loo, faro, and quadrille.

Desk and Bookcase, 1765–1775. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany, 100 x 40 x 23 1/2 in. (254 x 101.6 x 59.7 cm.). Gail–Oxford Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

The Desk and Bookcase (1765–1775), also referred to as a secretary, is full of secrets. The desk contains four pigeonhole compartments, eight small drawers, and a wooden door that leads to a lockable box called a prospect, which can be removed from the desk entirely. Some of the prospects inside secretaries were so well hidden that they were not rediscovered until the 20th century.

This secretary was a precursor to filing systems and safes. In an era when money was kept at home, not in banks, paper records had more importance, and it was common to use a promissory note as a kind of IOU. Precious documents and valuables would have been kept locked inside such a piece of furniture. Looking at the secretary from the outside, I never would have expected to find so many wonderful secret compartments inside.

Left: the desk. Right: the bookcase. Desk and Bookcase, 1765–1775. Unknown maker, American. Mahogany. Gail–Oxford Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

As a fun side note, there are several inscriptions inside the Desk and Bookcase. One reads “Harvard College” (where it was kept for a while), and others reveal names of past owners, including “T. Greenleaf 1804,” a wealthy merchant and sheriff.

There are many more hidden elements in decorative arts items at The Huntington. I found these three pieces particularly fascinating because they either showcase aesthetically beautiful elements or make an object’s function clearer.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my behind-the-scenes description. Just a reminder: please don’t touch any of these works. These pieces were handled by experienced curators when they were photographed for this story, and The Huntington wants these art objects to last well into the future!

Julia Cury, an undergraduate at Princeton University, served as a curatorial intern in the American art collections at The Huntington.

Our Own Dawson City

Detail of a page from Alfred and Charles O’Meara’s photograph album showing a street scene in the bustling boomtown of Dawson City, June 1899. Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

When creative filmmakers set their sights on illuminating neglected corners of history, magic can happen. Such is the case with Bill Morrison’s riveting new documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, which weaves a story about the interconnections between Hollywood and the Klondike gold rush boomtown—prompted by the 1978 discovery of a huge stash of silent films preserved in permafrost in a buried municipal swimming pool. As I watched the movie and realized that its story intersected with The Huntington’s collections, its magic cast an even more powerful spell. I could hardly wait to get back to the Library’s archives to take a fresh look at our own trove of photographs of Dawson City.

The 1896 discovery of gold in Rabbit Creek—a tributary of the Klondike River in Yukon Territory, Canada—set off the fabled Klondike gold rush. Within a few months, an estimated 100,000 prospectors began traveling north with visions of glittering yellow ore and riches beyond their imaginations.

A page from Alfred and Charles O’Meara’s photograph album showing the men on the summit of the hazardous Chilkoot Pass and at Lake Lindeman, May 1899. Stampeders tackled the pass by climbing the so-called “golden staircase,” 1,500 steps carved into the snow and ice. At the end of the pass was Lake Lindeman, near the headwaters of the Yukon River. Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The first archival nugget I retrieved was a photo journal compiled by a pair of intrepid prospectors, Alfred and Charles O’Meara, during a grueling 600-mile trek from Dyea, Alaska, through the Yukon territory of Canada that ended at Dawson City. It was 1899, at the height of the gold rush, and the city’s population had swelled to between 30,000 and 40,000.

In a series of 49 small format, amateur photographs with neatly handwritten captions, the album records the determined stampeders’ adventures through steep mountain passes, across treacherous lakes, and down river rapids before they finally reached Dawson City, on whose outskirts the pair staked their apparently unsuccessful claim.

This photograph likely depicts J. H. F. Ahlert and C. L. Forsha in their Ahlert & Forsha grocery store in Dawson City in 1910. Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

While researching this photo album, I made a surprising discovery. The Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has a nearly identical photo album in their collections. In fact, it was through their copy that I learned Alfred and Charles’ surnames, since, curiously, the handwritten title page of Yale’s album is signed while The Huntington’s is not. I find it intriguing that there would be two near-identical copies of the same album, each with meticulously handwritten captions. (But that’s a mystery to be solved at another time.)

Continuing on my armchair Yukon adventure, I arrived next at our collection of mainly commercial photographs, compiled by Dawson City grocer John H. F. Ahlert. While the O’Meara photo album presented a private perspective, this collection of 55 larger format images shows many of the same locations at the same time-period from the viewpoint of professional photographers, including Eric Hegg, P. E. Larss, and Joseph Duclos. The publication of such extraordinary images by these and other photographers helped burnish the legend of the Klondike “stampede” that had already gripped the national imagination. Among the images of the colorful characters inhabiting Dawson City is an informal portrait of the dashing millionaire Alexander “Big Alex” MacDonald, known as the “Gold King of the Klondike.”

Alexander “Big Alex” MacDonald in Dawson City, ca. 1900. Known as the “Gold King of the Klondike”, MacDonald made millions during the Gold Rush yet died in 1909 in a small cabin in Dawson City, alone and in debt. Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Naturally, this being the Huntington Library, these two collections hardly encompass the entirety of our Klondike gold rush material. Among many other items, there are rare books, such as Alaska and the Klondike gold fields…Practical instructions for fortune seekers (ca. 1897); the diary of one J. Franklin Zimmerman, detailing his 1898 fortune-seeking journey to Dawson; and a folding map from 1897, showing the most direct routes from San Francisco to Alaska and the Klondike.

As recounted in Morrison’s film and elsewhere, most of the prospectors came back empty handed. The Huntington holds the papers of one of the most celebrated of these unsuccessful gold seekers, Jack London (1876–1916). He set out for the Klondike with hopes of striking it rich. He returned home with treasure of another sort—the inspiration for many of his most celebrated books and short stories, including White Fang and To Build a Fire. And The Huntington is that much richer for it.

Joseph E.N. Duclos (1863–1917) and Per Edward Larss (1863–1941) in front of their Dawson City photography studio, with dog team and Larss & Duclos sled, around 1898. Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Anita Weaver is a curatorial assistant in the Library’s curatorial department.

Contested Visions of the Southern California Desert

The Protection Alternative in the Bureau of Land Management’s 1980 draft environmental impact statement for the California Desert Conservation Area favors “controlled use” areas—in green—that maximize protection of landscape and wildlife and minimize human impacts. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Just a couple of hours east of Los Angeles is a vast expanse that few Californians know by name: the California Desert Conservation Area, which contains roughly 25 million acres—or one-quarter of the state’s land mass. The region stretches from the Arizona and Nevada state lines to the San Gabriel Mountains and from the Owens Valley to Mexico. It includes such familiar sites as Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve, alongside lesser-known places like the Pinto Mountains and Surprise Canyon wildernesses.

Roughly half of this area comprises federal lands, and in 1976, Congress designated that those lands be managed under a single plan overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Ever since, the California Desert Conservation Area has been riven with controversy as the Bureau has tried to satisfy the varied interests of energy companies, Native Americans, conservationists, off-road vehicle users, and many thousands more who have visited or lived in the Southern California desert.

Under the Balanced Alternative, greens recede, making room for yellow and orange “limited use” and “moderate use” areas. In this version, such human activities as motorized recreation and livestock grazing spread through much of the desert. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The story of that ongoing controversy, and of administrative attempts to sort through it, has been recorded in maps, many of which can be found among The Huntington’s Frank Wheat Papers. Wheat (1921–2000) was a California attorney and political activist who, as a Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund volunteer, championed the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 and fought for better protection of the California Desert Conservation Area.

Using maps to render the California Desert Conservation Area in two dimensions was a political act, one that emphasized particular uses or threats with bright colors and stark lines. Maps projected particular sets of values onto a geographical space and suggested what those perspectives might mean for posterity.

The Use Alternative features only limited green areas and a greater concentration of brown “intensive use” areas, making room for energy facilities and extractive industry. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

During my year at The Huntington, I have been exploring the role that an administrative tool called an environmental impact statement has played in how Americans think about and manage their relationship to nature. Required by law for any “major action” involving a federal agency, these statements document the potential environmental impacts of federal plans and policies and suggest alternative paths. In other words, they try to predict several possible futures.

At times they do this visually, by providing maps that lay out what different futures might look like from above. The Bureau of Land Management’s 1980 draft environmental impact statement for managing the California Desert Conservation Area presents three maps of the region, with green and yellow blocks indicating relatively restricted human use of the land and orange and brown blocks indicating relatively intense use. Three management alternatives—Protection, Balanced, and Use—show a landscape of greens and yellows that give way to oranges and then to browns, as parks and wilderness areas recede and industrial infrastructure spreads in the mapmakers’ imagination.

These three maps in the Bureau of Land Management’s 1980 draft environmental impact statement for the California Desert Conservation Area show the consequences of each plan for energy production and transmission. Under the Protection Alternative (left), power plants and utility corridors are few and far between. Under the Balanced Alternative (center), power plants multiply, as does the possibility of such alternative energy sources as wind and geothermal. The Use Alternative (right) conceives of the desert as an important site of energy production and transmission, a source of power for Southern California. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Click here to enlarge image.

Another set of maps in the draft environmental impact statement zero in on energy production and transmission, with scattered power plants and a light network of yellow transmission corridors under Protection and a much heavier presence for both under Use.

Administrative documents offer a relatively tidy presentation of what possible futures might lay in store for a management area. The Frank Wheat Papers also reveal a messier story. Environmental impact statements are public documents and often trigger heated debate. The many interest groups fighting for influence over the California Desert Conservation Area presented their own visions of what could happen to the Southern Californian desert.

The California Desert Coalition opposed greater restrictions on desert use in the late 1980s. The Coalition’s map highlights the number and the extent of potential federal landholdings. By including military installations and already-existing parks and wilderness, the map depicts a desert overwhelmingly under federal control. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The California Desert Coalition—a loose federation of ranchers, public land inholders, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts—published a map in the late 1980s that marked the borders of all federal lands with urgent red lines. By including military properties and already-existing parks and wilderness areas, the Desert Coalition created a view of the future that seemed crowded by federal control, in which dune buggies and property owners would struggle to navigate narrow corridors between heavily restricted zones.

A San Bernardino County supervisor testifying against increased protections for the California Desert Conservation Area in 1989 provided maps with superimpositions designed to show just how vast the areas were that would be ceded to federal agencies.

Testifying in the late 1980s against expanded protection for the California Desert Conservation Area, a San Bernardino County supervisor offered stark illustrations of the relative size of the county and the acreage under consideration within it. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The conservationists of the California Desert Protection League, meanwhile, illustrated their aspirations for protected areas by using muted tones that suggested fluidity. Mountains and highways run in and out of public lands as wildlife and natural resources would. Their map suggests that borders are permeable rather than restrictive, and that different interests can enjoy the desert alongside one another.

Like the arguments attending so many projects and places that involve environmental impact statements, the debate over the Southern California desert comes down to a balanced relationship between human use and conservation. That issue will not be resolved any time soon. The California Desert Conservation Area has inspired—and continues to inspire—contested visions of its future and, by extension, the future of Southern California.

By drawing back to include all of Southern California the California Desert Protection League’s map presented a less all-encompassing federal presence, and a sense of balance between major cities and places less dominated by human presence. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Keith Woodhouse is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University and the 2016–17 Dana and David Dornsife Fellow at The Huntington.

For They Are Excellent Fellows

A total of 155 long-term and short-term fellows will pursue research projects at The Huntington this academic year. Photo by Martha Benedict.

This is one of the most exhilarating times at The Huntington—when the new cadre of research fellows arrive on our beautiful campus to explore our collections and take part in the intellectual life of this institution. For the current academic year, we will have 25 long-term fellows (a record-high number) in residence at The Huntington for nine to 12 months. In addition, 130 short-term fellows will have anywhere from one to five months to pursue their projects at The Huntington. This year, we were delighted to award a total of more than $1.8 million dollars to our grantees. (The full list of long-term and short-term fellows can be found here.)

The long-term research fellows include two recipients of National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships who will take up their awards at The Huntington: Catherine Roach and Andrew Lipman.

Roach, who is an associate professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, investigates how people lived with, exhibited, and interpreted art in the 18th and 19th centuries, with an emphasis on British painting and urban exhibition culture. In 2010, she curated Seeing Double: Portraits, Copies and Exhibitions in 1820s London at the Yale Center for British Art. Her first book, Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain, was published by Routledge in 2016, and she is currently at work on her second book, a history of the groundbreaking 19th-century exhibition society, the British Institution.

Catherine Roach, associate professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, is writing a history of the British Institution, a groundbreaking 19th-century exhibition society. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

“I am familiar with The Huntington’s holdings thanks to the Robert R. Wark Fellowship that I held in January of 2009, while completing my doctoral dissertation,” says Roach. “This time, I’ll study works in The Huntington’s art collections that were exhibited at the British Institution, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and I’ll explore the Library’s holdings, which include a unique annotated copy of the Catalogue Raisonée, a satire on the British Institution that caused a scandal in London’s artistic circles when it was published in 1815. Also relevant to my project are The Huntington’s collections of correspondence between the painter David Wilkie and the engraver Abraham Raimbach, both of whom had extensive dealings with the Institution, and between William Sothebey and Institution founder Sir George Beaumont, as well as the sales and collection catalogues relating to patrons of the Institution, including Baron Northwick, Caleb Whitefoord, the Duke of Bedford, and John Julius Angerstein.”

The research interests of Andrew Lipman—assistant professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University—include the Atlantic World, early America, Native Americans, violence, technology, and the environment. His first book, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, received several honors, including the Bancroft Prize in American History.

Lipman is currently working on a book titled Squanto’s Odyssey, which is about the Wampanoag man known as Tisquantum or “Squanto.” Born and raised in the coastal community of Patuxet (now Plymouth, Massachusetts), his early years are obscure. Tisquantum and two dozen other Indian men were abducted in 1614, six years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. His captor was an English captain named Thomas Hunt who hoped to sell him and his fellow Wampanoags as slaves in Spain.

Andrew Lipman—assistant professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University—is writing a book about the Wampanoag man known as Tisquantum or “Squanto” who, as a diplomat and translator, negotiated an alliance between Mayflower settlers and Wampanoags in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Tisquantum’s kidnapping marked the beginning of a true odyssey, with as many twists and turns as the original voyage of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca. Over the next eight years of his life, the Wampanoag wanderer would be freed from his captors in Málaga, Spain, and end up as a potential convert in a Catholic monastery. Later he would become a servant in a wealthy London merchant household and find his way back onto a ship to North America, where he accompanied traders on the rugged coast of Newfoundland. Then, most famously, he returned to his homelands to became a diplomat and translator who helped negotiate an alliance between the English and Wampanoags. Even after his death in 1622, his journey continued. American historians in the 19th century made him a handy helpmate in a story of national origins, and later, revisionist scholars and indigenous activists recast him as an early hero of Native resistance.

“At The Huntington,” says Lipman, “I’ll use collections of maps and sources on early modern seafaring to craft a vivid picture of shipboard experiences of enslaved Indians. The Huntington has over two dozen charts of the Atlantic Ocean dating to the 16th and 17th centuries that help trace where and when explorers mapped the coastline. And it has rare accounts of early sea voyages, like Luis de la Cruz’s Yinstrucion y avisos excelentes delas derotas y carrer Delas Yndias and Robert Widdrington’s Log-book of the voyage of the Red Dragon, from England to Africa & South America. The Library also holds correspondence of the single most important figure in early English empire, Walter Raleigh, dating from 1580 to 1618, along with some selected papers of the Virginia Company of London. These holdings and others at The Huntington will greatly inform Squanto’s Odyssey.”

Roach and Lipman are among 540 applicants for fellowships this year who underwent a competitive process to obtain grants: only nine percent of the long-term applications were successful. The success rate for short-term applicants was 37 percent, and approximately 36 percent of the short-term awards were made to doctoral candidates—underlining The Huntington’s commitment to young scholars early in their careers.

Steve Hindle is interim president and W. M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at The Huntington.

A Stunning and Sacred Cape

The exhibition “Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin” runs from Sept. 16, 2017, to Jan. 8, 2018, in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. In this edited excerpt from the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Visual Voyages (Yale University Press, 2017), Daniela Bleichmar, associate professor of art history and history at the University of Southern California and co-curator of the exhibition, focuses on a 17th-century feathered cape created by the Tupinambá people of Brazil. The item is on loan from the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire of Brussels. Bleichmar discusses how European explorers attached meaning to this object that may have differed from its creator’s intent.

Europeans prized feathered capes like this 17th century example for their stunning beauty. For the Tupinambá people of Brazil who produced it, the meaning was more profound. Birds were sacred creatures with divine forces. By wearing the cape, a shaman could mediate between the living and the dead. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Sometimes, when walking through the hushed rooms of a museum, you come upon an object that stops you in your tracks. Take, for instance, this stunner: a red cape, six feet tall, made entirely of bird feathers. It is beautiful to behold: big, bright, intricately textured. You come closer, and your eyes widen as you realize that it was made by tying thousands of individual feathers together, one by one, using a fine rope to create a dense yet supple net.

A label tersely identifies the object as a “Tupinambá feather cape, Brazil, 17th century” and informs you that it is made of “feathers and vegetable fibers.” Now you grasp that this object is roughly 300 years old and was created by indigenous people in South America. Glad as you are for this information, you notice that the label is much vaguer than those you have seen for Western works, which identify the individual artist by name and also provide the title of the work and the year and city where it was created.

Layers of brightly colored feathers were also used to make hoods, and arm and leg bands.

Only eleven Tupinambá feather capes from the 16th and 17th centuries exist today, and most, unlike this one, have suffered significant physical damage over time. Every single one of these objects is held in a European collection. The capes bring up a host of interesting questions: Why did the Tupinambá make them? How did these people understand these impressive objects? How, when, and why did the capes travel to Europe? And, in what type of institution are they—or should they be—today? In an art museum? An ethnographic museum? A natural history museum? In Europe, or back in Brazil?

As it turns out, these capes have long fascinated observers. We do not have testimonies from the Tupinambá who made or wore them in the 16th and 17th centuries, but we do have accounts written by European observers at the time. André Thévet (1516–1590), a French writer who lived briefly in Brazil in the 1550s, wrote: “There are many birds of diverse kinds, with strange feathers, some as red as fine scarlet, others white, ashy, and other colors. And with these feathers the wild men or Indians, make hats, and garments, either for to cover them[selves] or for beauty. [They use them w]hen they go a warfare [sic] or when they have any skirmish with their enemies.”

Tupinambá feather cape, Brazil, 17th century, feathers and vegetable fibers, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, AAM 5783.

Thévet understood the feather objects within European categories: as luxury garments used for special occasions, such as combat. Feather garments became inextricably linked, in the European imagination, with Native American peoples, though more often seen as signs of primitive culture or “idolatry”—the word that Europeans used for native religion—than of magnificence.

According to modern ethnohistorians and anthropologists, the Tupinambá did not understand feather capes and caps primarily as luxury items used to denote rank or privilege, as Europeans did. Nor did they consider them according to the European category of “works of art.” Rather, the Tupinambá approached feather garments within the context of religion or shamanism. They thought of birds as sacred beings that could incarnate divine forces and also mediate between the living and the dead, the material and the immaterial. When shamans wore feather garments for ritual occasions, they were not simply putting on a beautiful costume: they were transforming themselves into birdlike creatures that, through dance and song, invoked powerful forces.

Most of our knowledge about 16th and 17th century Tupinambá feathered capes comes from accounts written by European observers, not the Tupinambá people themselves.

The value of the feather cape resided not primarily in its manufacture and aesthetic qualities, impressive as both were, but rather in its material (feathers) and ritual use. The Tupinambá feather cape is thus much more than a strikingly beautiful object. It allows us to consider questions related to craftsmanship and technique, the intertwined histories of Native Americans and Europeans, the relationships between humans and animals, and much more.

The cape is a time traveler. And it is also an invitation for us to explore, to go on an aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural voyage to try to understand how people at that time and place interacted with the natural world and made meaning of it and of each other.

“Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin” is a sweeping international loan exhibition that explores how the depiction of Latin American nature contributed to art and science between the late 1400s and the mid-1800s. It features more than 150 paintings, rare books, illustrated manuscripts, prints, and drawings from The Huntington’s holdings as well as from dozens of other collections. Many of these works are on view in the United States for the first time. The catalog, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (Yale University Press, 2017), is available at the Huntington Store.

Daniela Bleichmar is associate professor of art history and history at the University of Southern California.