Gold Mine

Gold Mine

With an online preview yesterday, curator John Stuart Gordon saw a golden opportunity to mine the meaning beneath the metal that stars in his new exhibition, Gold in America: Artistry, Memory, Power, opening today at the Yale University Art Gallery along with two other shows and the gallery itself.

“What is it about gold?” he asked. “What is it about this naturally occurring material that resists corrosion and that seems to glow from within? We’ve turned these attributes into metaphors for permanence, constancy, purity, divinity,” as well as for beauty (the golden ratio) and balance (the golden mean). “We try to live to a gold standard,” he continued, “by following the golden rule in hopes that we’ll live to see our golden years—that is, if we have the golden touch. Gold is also a stand-in for what we covet and for what we fight for—or I guess you could say what we fight over. Porcelain and ivory, those materials of contest, were called white gold, and oil, such a big topic these days, is black gold. What is it about gold that embodies so much of the good and bad of our civilization?”

As Gordon quickly acknowledged, that question was more a prompt than a premise—too expansive to try to answer in a half-hour lecture. But he did take us a little of the way, by relating stories surrounding a handful of objects plucked from the much larger show.

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To my eye, the finest demonstration of the Artistry in the exhibition’s title was a Gilded Age coffee service, whose four golden vessels—coffee pot, cream pitcher, sugar bowl and tray—appeared polished to a mirror shine. Gordon described the set, by Tiffany and Company, as “restrained yet opulent” with “minimal decoration lets its substantial use of gold speak for itself”—and also as a representation of the era’s notoriously concentrated wealth. It was a wedding gift to the already well-heeled Alice Belin on her 1915 marriage to gun powder heir Pierre du Pont, who, Gordon noted, “would eventually transform DuPont into one of the most important chemical companies in the world.”

Evincing the title’s Memory was a circular pendant that held particular significance to its husband-and-wife commissioners, depicting a memorial scene for two sons they’d lost in infancy. “At the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries, there was a fashion for mourning jewelry,” Gordon explained, which “often… included paintings in watercolor on ivory, decorated with pearls or gold or hair or other material that, like gold, does not rot or fade.” This example, less than two inches in diameter, features all of those materials, including locks of the boys’ hair, one brown and one blond, depicting the tender branches of willow trees.

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As for the Power, a set of nine spoons engraved with the letter H, “the only known gold flatware to survive from the colonial period,” shimmered in the gallery’s light, and yet they also were cast in the shadow of the domination exerted and facilitated by the person scholars believe the H stands for: Hugh Hall. “One of the wealthiest merchants in Boston in the early 18th century,” Hall’s business was “importing rum, sugar and enslaved people.” Gordon showed two sample pages from a 1729 ledger listing the names of Barbadians Hall and others had sold to New England families.

According to Gordon, the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of early American gold is one of the largest anywhere. This seems in part because there isn’t enough extant material to form many large collections. “Gold rarely survives” history, Gordon says—or at least, the objects it’s been used to make rarely do. A golden object is an obvious target for theft, refashioning or currency exchange, all of which can easily sentence the object to the melting pot. This dynamic stands in contrast to the symbolic “permanence” and “constancy” with which Gordon noted the material is commonly imbued. About half of the objects in the exhibition are jewelry, he estimates, because jewelry are the exception to the rule: “very personal things” that tend to be “transferred between generations and treasured.” (They also tend to be small, with even smaller inscriptions—two reasons the gallery plans to lend visitors magnifying glasses.)

Jewelry or not, all the objects in Gold in America can now be treasured by the general public—for the beauty they display, the humanity they reveal and the history they tell.

Gold in America: Artistry, Memory, Power
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm through July 10, 2022
(203) 432-0600…

Written by Dan Mims. Images provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery. Image 1 features Coffee Service for Alice Belin du Pont, designed 1910–11 by Tiffany and Company. Image 2 features Memorial for Solomon and Joseph Hays, 1801.

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