Winterthur Fellows routinely conduct original research on objects and topics of their choice. For example, assignments might involve comparing two similar objects, examining an item’s provenance, or assessing the significance of part of Winterthur’s collection. These in-depth projects, and the public presentations that accompany them, enable students to develop and refine their own interests as material culture scholars. Additionally, this work often supplements the priorities or objectives of curators and conservators, thus connecting their work to a larger interpretive agenda.
The investigation skills learned in these projects are frequently the basis for future projects, including the thesis. Read below to discover how two students research interests, both developed during their first year, lead one to New Jersey, and the other England.
George Washington and American Memory
During Summer Institute, our orientation course to the program, each student “adopts” an object from the collection, and uses Winterthur’s collections to research its origins and stylistic history. Fellows continue to develop our research in the fall semester in the Early American Material Life course.
My own Summer Institute object led me on a fascinating research journey that eventually led to a paper presentation at the Rutgers University Susman Conference for graduate research. I chose an allegorical wax picture entitled “In Memory of Washington” because I am interested in both George Washington and national memory. During Summer Institute, I researched the artist, a German immigrant named Johann Christian Rauschner. I expanded on my preliminary research by exploring the place of wax objects and patriotic artwork in early nineteenth-century American homes. Probate inventories in the Winterthur library were a particularly useful resource. Finally, I researched wax artwork in Europe ranging from portraits to funeral masks to life-size figures.
My research revealed how one object contains connections to broader historical themes and influences. This one wax picture had ties to Freemasonry, national identity, the evolution of the Presidency, and artistic depictions of death. By the end of the semester, I had collected information that told a story of the American people borrowing European artistic traditions to form their own national iconography and character. Presenting that story at the Susman Conference was a very rewarding experience. It was great to see that other attendees appreciated the connections I had made, and to hear their own ideas about this aspect of American history.
—Sarah LaVigne, Class of 2011
Susanna Passavant and Transatlantic Jewelry
During my first year of the Winterthur program, I embarked on several research opportunities that revolved around accessories—specifically, items of feminine adornment from the 18th to 19th centuries. The first of these projects was an exhibition on shoes, inspired by two pairs of 18th-century women’s shoes in the Winterthur collection. This project first piqued my interest in accessories as vehicles of personal expression. For the second project during the textiles block of connoisseurship, I photographed, catalogued, and analyzed the museum’s entire collection of fans, which spans ca. 1730 to 1875. This research alerted me to similar items in the Winterthur collection—including their holdings of 180 pieces of jewelry.
When it came time to select a thesis topic, I knew that jewelry would provide the broadest scope for research. Few scholars have completed studies of jewelry during the past 20 years. Therefore, I began searching through Winterthur’s many resources—including object records, the library, rare books collection, and manuscript collection—for a specific angle. Currently, my research focuses broadly on the transatlantic trade of jewelry between England and America in the 18th century. A key player in this narrative, and the focus of my recent research in London, is Miss Susanna Passavant of Ludgate Hill, London, a savvy and intelligent businesswoman who exported fine jewelry to George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. As my thesis develops over the coming year, I will no doubt draw upon other research opportunities, my classmates, and Winterthur’s fabulous resources for support and inspiration.
—Louisa Brouwer, Class of 2011