Part of why the Gibson House Museum serves as such an integral part of Boston’s historical landscape is its ability to capture, under one roof, the shifts in decorative and sociopolitical trends in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Upon visiting the museum, you will likely notice a distinct change in decorative moods depending on which room you are in. The entrance hall, for example, is primarily decorated in the 1860s Renaissance Revival style that would have been popular in Gibson matriarch Catherine Hammond Gibson’s time. The console table and matching mirror to your left as you walk into the museum are both carved in ebonized black walnut, which would have been an expensive and highly desirable material. Placed in the first room the Gibsons’ guests would see, this Renaissance Revival furniture would have showcased the family’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, an older, revered age of artistic innovation and achievement.
After Catherine Gibson’s death in 1888, her son Charles and his wife Rosamond Warren Gibson began to redecorate and modernize parts of the house, including the entrance hall. The beautiful Japanese “leather” wallpaper, one of the highlights of the house, was Rosamond’s choice and serves as a rather bright contrast to the room’s darker, more authoritative palette. The wallpaper, gilded and embossed with gold flowers and fruits, adds an airier feel to the entrance hall that resists the severity of Catherine’s Renaissance Revival style. The Aesthetic Movement that appeared in America during the 1870s heavily influenced this design choice and others like it in the house. It rose to popularity under the motto “Art for art’s sake” and called into question the notion that art had to convey a concrete sociopolitical message. Instead, Aestheticism, as its name might suggest, placed value on the craftsmanship and detail of decorative art. It prided itself on delicacy, prioritizing lighter colors and fabrics over the heavier and darker Victorian materials.
The 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia, was absolutely integral to the rise of the Aesthetic Movement. It hosted manufacturers and dealers from thirty-eight nations and was the first world fair of its kind to be hosted in the United States. While the exhibition succeeded in showcasing America’s growing industrial and economic might, it also introduced the country as being a hub for artistic innovation and creativity. The sheer number of the exhibition’s East-Asian manufacturers combined with the recent opening of trade between Japan and the western world in 1854 also triggered a sort of obsession for Japanese ceramics, prints, and designs. At the Gibson House, this design interest is reflected in both the dining room and the music room. The Centennial Exhibition and the Aesthetic Movement it fostered were nothing short of revolutionary in that they allowed the general public, including families like the Gibsons, to invest in a type of cross-cultural exchange, as well as to blur the line between domestic and artistic space.
by Tiara Sharma, museum guide and intern
“The 1876 Centennial Exhibition.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1997. http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/orient/centen.htm. Accessed 19 July 2017.
Burke, Doreen Bolger. In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.
MacCarthy, Fiona. “The Aesthetic Movement.” The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/mar/26/aestheticism-exhibition-victoria-albert-museum. Accessed 19 July 2017.
Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. “Centennial Exhibition (1876).” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2013, philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/centennial/. Accessed 28 July 2017.