Wallace Nutting At Auction

Wallace Nutting Wallace Nutting

Michael Ivankovich Auction is going to have a sale of Wallace Nutting photographs and furniture in conjunction with the Wallace Nutting Collectors Club Annual Convention. Based on the website, this Auction will feature nearly 100 select pictures from the Dick and Dottie Manville Collection, along with many other great items from more than 30 other consignors. With the rising of Americana in the sluggish antiques market, would Colonial Revival artifacts embrace its own revival?

My first encounterance with Wallace Nutting was not from his hand-tinted photos nor from detail-oriented reproduction furniture. Last Summer, in the classes about curatorial practice in furnishing Period Rooms, I learned that Nutting played an important role in establishing the Victorian version of the Colonial period, which subsequently influenced generations of curators and scholars to such a degree that the frugal authenticity would look counterintuitive to most visitors. Thus in the Brooklyn Museum, labels about the period rooms have been re-written to reflect the up-to-date scholarly findings, or to some degree justify the practice of de-Victorianization. 

The majority of lots  in the upcoming auctions are hand-tinted photos on platinum  paper coated with amyl acetate to prevent water-color from penetrating into the paper, some of which bear Wallace Nutting’s signature. Scholars have known that Nutting encouraged the colorist workers to imitate his own signature, so the signature should not be taken seriously in measuring the quality and rarity of these photographs. The estimated price for the majority of the photos is under 150 dollars each. Probably no one knows how many hand-tinted photos still exist. But Nutting claimed that “about ten million of my pictures hang in American homes” and during his heyday of his business, he sold about $1000 worth of photographs per day. 

Nutting didn’t consider these photos artworks or himself an artist; nevertheless he instilled the Yankee superiority and the aesthetic and moral values of  early times into the public at the age of immigration influx and industrialization. A lot of such photos, because of the symbolism, thus look contrived and formulaic. In his autobiography, Nutting admitted that it was his wife who came with the idea of putting a young woman in the background of almost every picture. He said, “those ‘Colonial’ pictures she has made attractive by providing fair young women decked out in finery or the sweetly homely garb of the ancient day. We have learned an added fact. “No one cares for an interior without a person posed in it. The person must be a woman and in the background. If she is prominent, nobody wants the picture, but she must be in it.”  (At the height of the production, Nutting hired one hundred young female colorist who worked and lived in an adjacent studio converted from a barn. These were probably the same women who sat in the hearth or stood the stairways in those photos. ) 

“The added facts” were not just a few. Braided rugs, a 20th century invention, which appeared in almost every picture were added because of the fact that they were made by his wife Mariet. Nor would the rifle be placed over the mantel or clocks in hallways. On the other hand, they are concepts and idealism in quintessential Colonial Revival. One hundred years after these pictures were taken, they became sough-after not only because what they tried to imitate or failed to convey to some degree, but also because what they reflected the preference of their own age.

The Endless Battle of the Sea by Wallace Nutting, Platinotype
The Endless Battle of the Sea by Wallace Nutting, Platinotype

Early in Nutting’s career before his hand-colored photo business started, he took landscape photos when riding a bicycle on New England country roads. Those photos, which I didn’t find any in the upcoming auction, were of exceptional quality. In those hobby photos, he was not a moral preacher in the guise of a photographer but truly spoke of himself. The transcendental quietude quality in them is no different from those later commercial productions with regard to its retrospective reaction to the social upheaval of rapid industrialization, but in these pictures, his response to the costal scenes was suggestive, subdued and expressive in the similar vein of Tonalism school which was also at the national style of the time. 

Wallace Nutting’s greatest legacy is his recognition of the values of colonial architecture and his devoted efforts in restoring and preserving these properties. Period rooms, as a way of preservation, came to the museums at the expense of losing its geographical and cultural context. What Nutting had done, by buying the properties and furnishing them with proper furniture, a widely adopted practice nowadays, was unconventional and unprecedented in his times.  Thus as an antiquarian with the love of colonial America, Wallace Nutting can be regarded as the father of preservation movement in America. 

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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