William C. Codman ( British, 1839 - 1921 )
Gorham Manufacturing Company ( American, 1831 )
In the last decade of the 19th century, the Gorham Manufacturing Company and Tiffany & Co. were the preeminent American silver firms, whose exceptional works were lauded at major international expositions. The Nautilus Centerpiece, produced especially for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, is a tour-de-force that reflects the skill of Gorham designers and silversmiths.
The elaborate Beaux Arts style of the centerpiece suggests Classical and Renaissance influences, especially that of 16th century South German mounted nautilus shells. Designed as a yachting trophy, it is profuse with materials, motifs, and mythological figures associated with the sea. It portrays the birth of Venus, the goddess of love, who rises from the sea surrounded by masks of the sea god Neptune and raises aloft a nautilus shell. Atop the shell sits Nike, the goddess of victory, her wings and arms outstretched in a gesture of triumph.
Partially gilded and inlaid with semiprecious stones, including pearls, turquoise, jade, garnet, tourmaline, and amethyst, the execution of the centerpiece required over 400 hours of skilled labor. Gorham was so pleased with the centerpiece that it reproduced the original design drawing in numerous books and pamphlets distributed at the fair and provided the image to newspapers for publication.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Nautilus Centerpiece," Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 221.
Charles L. Venable, Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art; New York, New York; Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 336.
The focal point of Abraham Hendricksz van Beyeren's Still Life with Landscape (1987.3) is an example of the Renaissance nautilus cups that inspired the Nautilus Centerpiece designed by William C. Codman and executed by Gorham Manufacturing Company. Van Beyeren likely owned this nautilus cup, as it appears in several of his paintings.
The scallop shell base of the Nautilus Centerpiece is supported by four feet, two in the form of a cresting wave and two in the form of a dolphin. A third dolphin dives and entwines Venus as she rises form the sea. With bulging foreheads, upturned snouts, and scales, these dolphins reveal the influence of the Renaissance, rather than the 19th century. Jean Baptise Marie Pierre's The Abduction of Venus (1989.133.FA) features a fanciful dolphin similar to those on the Nautilus Centerpiece.
Watch a video about Gorham Manufacturing Company