Most American coverlets from the Nineteenth Century feature realistic imagery. The popularity of these images reveals their importance to both individual customers and American culture as a whole. For example, buildings from the humble farmhouse to United States Capitol found themselves woven into coverlets, because America was creatively striving to definite itself as architecturally important (visit our current exhibit to see!). Natural images were both beautiful and romantic, and many coverlets pay homage to flowers, leaves, trees, and animals, including common American wildlife to exotic fauna.
No matter what century a person lived in, flowers pushing out of frozen ground have been refreshing signs of spring. Flowers appear frequently in coverlet design for their eye-appealing nature, and in certain instances were included for their symbolic value. The most popular flowers featured in coverlets are lilies, roses, and tulips.
People around the world love their lilies. Originating in ancient Asia, where gardeners bred blooms of all types with grandeur, lilies are featured in art from Greek and old Christian painters. The unity of coverlet weaving and lily imagery was readily welcomed in America. Most coverlets feature abstract renderings of these delicate flowers, inspired by the Madonna Lily and wild field lilies. The McCarl Gallery’s diverse collection also houses examples featuring natural renderings of Lily of the Valley and the Crown Imperial Lily. Most lilies are featured in the Four Lilies pattern, in which four individual flowers are positioned facing outward in a square. The earliest known coverlet featuring the Four Lilies was woven in New York in 1830. Lilies usually represent innocence, especially the return to innocence when someone dies. Color, however, can change this meaning, as it does to other types of flowers. Pink lilies bestow prosperity upon the recipient, while red lilies represent motherly love in China.
Roses began perfecting their beauty before humans were around to enjoy them, probably germinating first around 70 million years ago. With their delicious scent and romantic symbolism, roses are much loved. Of all the patterns woven on American Jacquard coverlets, the Four Roses pattern is among the most common and beloved, though the Four Lilies pattern was certainly a close competitor. As early as 1820, weavers began including this square of four roses in their designs. Rose designs are usually rendered with folk-inspired realism, looking like simplistic versions of the roses coverlet customers may grow in their garden, such as the Rose Gallica, “cabbage” rose, or Tudor Rose. Other rose patterns are depicted in an abstract, sunburst style.
Tulips are a more recent botanical creation which moved from Asia to the Netherlands in the Sixteenth Century. These colorful flowers became so popular, the Dutch demand and economy exploded into “Tulipmania.” Our appreciation for tulips has not waned since. In coverlets, renderings of tulips are stylistically quite varied. Tulips appear in realistic style to folk art to art nouveau, and can be featured with long stems or as flower heads designed in the Four Tulips pattern, as pictured above. As with symbolic interpretation of lilies and roses, it is color that really gives tulips their unique importance. Red tulips symbolize romantic love, while yellow tulips symbolize hopeless love.
Being beautifully designed and amazingly varied, it is no wonder flowers have been beloved artistic subjects for so long. Their prevalence in coverlets confirms once again their timelessness.
Tell us: what is your favorite flower?