In Focus

The Codman Silver Dressing Table and Stool

The Codman silver dressing table and stool is an extraordinary monument in the history of American silversmithing and metalwork. Made of solid silver, this dressing set is an opulent icon of craftsmanship, epitomizing the late 19th-century taste and summing up the exuberance and extravagance of the Gilded Age.

Gorham Manufacturing Co., of Providence, Rhode Island, produced this silver Martelé dressing set in 1899 as the showpiece of its display at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The company, which had prospered up to the turn of the 20th century, was introducing a new luxury line of fashionable, richly detailed handmade silver goods. The dressing set's production reveals two years of close collaboration between chief designer William C. Codman, silversmith Joseph E. Straker, and chaser Robert Bain. While stylistically art nouveau, this Martelé (French for "hammered") dressing set also evokes the ideals of handmade pieces of the arts and crafts movement. Craftsmen working on this object were trained at Gorham's own school to ensure they were skilled in the traditional methods of metalworking. As with any Martelé piece, the dressing set preserves visible hammer marks made during fabrication. Finishing of the surface consisted of hand polishing and oxidation with sulfur, which imparted a bluish cast to the 950/1000 fine sterling silver and caused the chased ornaments to stand out from the background.

The dressing set was constructed from 1,253 troy ounces of silver, an amount unparalleled even in that era of extreme richness. Its retail price was nearly $10,000 (the equivalent of more than $200,000 today). Yet the true value lies not as much in the cost of materials as in the beauty of execution. Lavish and exquisite, the dressing set was designed using symbols of morning and evening, the times of day when it would be used. On the table's highly decorative silver surface, a geometric pattern intertwines with vines, leaves, and flowers. The mirror support is the most ornate, showing a very high relief decoration consisting of foliage and flowers. An owl with wings spread occupies the bottom center, as if reigning over night. On either side are fair longhaired women with open wings, and putti emerging from flowers. At the top center of the mirror support, Aurora, the nude goddess of dawn, stands with her hair streaming into the morning light; her figure is a gem of miniature sculpture. Two peacocks with intricately shaped tails flank the goddess. Swans spread their wings over the table's front corners. The cabriole legs finish in high-relief ball-and-claw webbed feet. Cherubs and flowers, accurately rendered in each blossom, leaf, and tendril, have volume and detail well beyond the normal attainment of the chaser's craft. The stool's decoration shows the same characteristics as the table but in a more subdued tone. All four feet are ball-and-claw webbed, with organic decoration surmounting the legs. Small cartouches in high relief mark the center of each side of the stool's skirt, while the unornamented areas show evidence of Martelé.

This dazzling masterpiece received ecstatic reviews at the 1900 Paris Exposition, and the public was mesmerized by its richness and beauty. Critics prized Gorham's silverware, with the stunning table and stool garnering the most attention. Even the president of France, Emile Loubet, singled it out. Gorham was awarded the Grand Prix for its silverwork, and the firm's president, Edward Holbrook, was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. The designer, William C. Codman, won a gold medal.

After returning to America, the dressing set was acquired by Thomas S. Lawson, a self-made Boston tycoon with an interest in the arts. Spending millions on his Massachusetts estate, Dreamworld, he collected "art treasures of great value and rich variety," which made him the perfect owner of this uniquely opulent work of art. In 1920, after Lawson's financial setbacks, the silver furniture was transferred to Simon Swigg, President of the Tremont Trust Co. of Boston, where it remained until 1991, when it was sold to Christie's. After being displayed in the Dallas Museum of Art's landmark exhibition Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor, it went on loan for four years to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 2000 the Codman silver dressing table and stool was purchased for the Dallas Museum of Art by The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable, the Museum's Curator of Decorative Arts, and was soon thereafter unveiled in the Museum's exhibition Out of the Vault: Silver and Gold Treasures. The table, mirror, and stool substantially enrich the Dallas Museum of Art's renowned collection of 19th- and 20th-century American silver and serve as a wonderful tool for educating the public about American silver, conspicuous consumption, and the Gilded Age.

Excerpt from

Cristina Stancioiu, "The Codman Silver Dressing Table and Stool," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), pamphlet 84.