A Brass Menagerie: Metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement, presented at the Bard Graduate Center, was organized and curated by Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, curator of decorative arts at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica, New York, where the exhibition originated. It contained approximately 75 pieces of brass and mixed-metal furniture, as well as accessories ranging from chandeliers and andirons to door hardware, hanging shelves, and clocks. The exhibition continued the Bard Graduate Center’s examination of the Aesthetic Movement, this time with the focus on the United States. It was the first in-depth examination of this multifaceted aspect of the Aesthetic Movement in America.

The Aesthetic Movement was a late 19th-century artistic movement in England and America. Formed in reaction to the so-called philistine tastes of the middle class, it espoused art for art’s sake while denying any social or moral value in art. (Both James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde were advocates, and were thoroughly lampooned in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.) In America the movement was introduced at the American Centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876. It remained popular in this country through the 1880s and was particularly evident in the decorative arts, as manufacturers created innovative and artistic applications of industrial metals that were visually and materially complex and called “art brass” or “artistic bronze goods.”

Many of the most pioneering manufacturers of aesthetic-style metals—such as The Charles Parker Company and Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Co., both of Meriden, Connecticut—were represented in the exhibition by numerous objects that showed the range and diversity of their products. Among the most imaginative decorative arts in the exhibition were Parker Company hanging shelves, tables, and a lamp, all with silver-plated surfaces outlined in brass and embellished by gold- and silver-plated, three-dimensional decoration. The furniture design is an interesting mixture of Anglo-Japanesque and Modern Gothic forms executed in interchangeable machined elements with Japanesque surface finish and ornamentation.

Many motifs found on aesthetic metals were derived from Japanese art, such as the dragon-like creatures and butterflies that adorn a table by Ansonia Copper & Brass Company of Ansonia, Connecticut, or the stylized Japanese crest images and clouds that embellish other tables. The crane motif, also derived from Japanese art and culture, where it symbolizes longevity, pervaded the ornamentation of art brass goods. R. Hollings & Co. of Boston incorporated this theme into an exotic-looking floor lamp made about 1886 and accented by earthenware tiles patented by J. and G. Low Art Tile Works of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Japonisme is even more dominant in the door hardware made during the same period. Richly decorated doorknobs, escutcheons, and hinges that feature fully articulated Japanese figures and architecture highlighted A Brass Menagerie.

Vibrant polychrome ceramics and exotic flourishes drawn from Moorish and Persian designs accented the wares made by other firms, such as tables made by Bradley & Hubbard and lamps by a host of other companies. Art brass maximized industrial mass production techniques and helped to set the stage for 20th-century decorative arts that would also utilize tubular metals and other industrial materials in the creation of decorative household goods.

A fully illustrated catalogue, A Brass Menagerie: Metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement, with the primary essay written by Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, was published by Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute with major funding by the Barrie and Deedee Wigmore Foundation. The catalogue, with more than 100 color images, discusses the development of the American art brass industry, the use of these accessories in the home, and the background on many of the most important manufacturers of these objects.