Getting hitched

By GREG COOK  |  July 23, 2008
Picasso has trouble keeping up with the
treasures here.
The exhibit was organized by Peabody Essex textiles and costumes curator Paula Bradstreet Richter, whose eye for such things is so sharp that the marquee artists here — Picasso, Chagall, Jacob Lawrence, William Hogarth, Winslow Homer, Alex Katz, Augustus Saint-Gaudens — have trouble keeping up. Or maybe she doesn’t have quite the eye for the marquee stuff, though I like Claes Oldenburg’s crisp 1966 white plaster of Paris cake slices called Wedding Souvenir. The show also makes stabs at critiquing gender politics and patriarchy, but these artworks are too blunt, too blithe, to hit home. Aren’t there some acid Barbara Krueger pieces that should be here?

But marvel at wedding traditions from around the globe. Wodaabee Wedding (1999), from Italian photographers Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone, shows men in Niger doing a ritual courting dance with their faces painted ocher, black rings around their eyes and mouths, and white stripes down their noses. To unfamiliar eyes, it feels like something from a dream. A 1762 painting shows the blasting cannons of an armada of ships as a barge ferries 17-year-old German princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to England to meet her betrothed, King George III. Indian photographer Dayanita Singh’s recent images document extravagant Indian wedding stages that could be the sets of movie musicals. A tunic-like wedding huipil in the traditional style of the Mayan women of Chiapas is woven with elaborate brocaded patterns. A gold-colored Chinese bridal headdress from the early 20th century is decorated with turquoise dragons and orange pompons.

Then the exhibit stops you in your tracks with something like the diamond-encrusted, velvet-lined nuptial crown that Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt (later Empress Alexandra) wore at her wedding to the last tsar of Russia, Emperor Nicholas II, in St. Petersburg in 1894. Forced to abdicate in 1917 by the Russian Revolution, they were executed the following year. The crown was seized by the Bolsheviks and eventually acquired by an American collector, so it makes an appearance here.

Contrast its glitter with the white-on-white silk and cotton quilt (1827–1828) from New Jersey Quaker Rachel Goodwin Woodnutt. She pieced together the large quilt from swatches of Quaker wedding dresses. The silk squares shimmer. She stitched in a basket of fruit at center, and patterns of leaves and flowers. It’s a tour de force.

The most touching works are courtship pieces that speak of love and longing and things not working out — like Boston miniature painter Sarah Goodridge’s 1828 Beauty Revealed. It’s tiny and hidden in a dark case, so it’s easy to miss. Purported to be a self-portrait, the watercolor on ivory shows her pale nude breasts swathed in twisting white cloth. It’s intimate, sexy, surreal, and perhaps a secret token of an unfulfilled love.

“The portrait descended in the family of statesman Daniel Webster, whom Goodridge painted at least a dozen times,” the wall text explains. “Painted in 1828, Webster, aged 44, had been recently widowed, and the 40-year-old artist traveled to Washington presumably to visit him. While the couple did not marry, Webster’s family referred to Goodridge as his fiancée and found this miniature among his possessions.”

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