High culture, low humor and exquisite craftsmanship are all on display in "Uncorked! Wine, Objects & Tradition," a current exhibition at the Winterthur Galleries in Wilmington, Del.
The show consists of more than 350 objects organized in six thematic groupings that show the many ways wine (and other alcoholic beverages) have been integrated into American (and English) culture from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. Many of the exhibits are directly related to wine-drinking—bottles, glasses, coolers, and so forth—while others place wine in larger contexts, such as a 1760 ink drawing of Charleston gentlemen conversing around a table covered with the remains of a bibulous dinner, or an 1820 porcelain cider jug decorated with a portrait of George Washington.
The show testifies that wine was more than a pleasant drink or a sign of good taste. Beginning in the late 17th century, the rise of interest in and appreciation for the ideals of classical Greece and Rome stimulated new ideas in architecture, the arts, culture and politics. Wine, highly valued in ancient Greece, assumed a privileged role in the neo-classical culture that helped birth the American Revolution.
Exhibition curator Leslie Grigsby, Winterthur's Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass, uses creative juxtaposition of the objects to illustrate larger issues. For instance, three decanters, all from the early 19th century, are displayed side by side. Though similar in design, they differ in the quality of their materials and workmanship: an English example in hand-cut lead crystal would have been used in a wealthy home; a U.S. imitation in molded glass would have been accessible to the American middle class; and a Portuguese version in bottle glass would have been even less expensive.
"This group illustrates how wine culture spread through very different social levels," explained Grigsby.
Despite its scholarly and artistic reach, the exhibition is not without humor. An 18th century engraving shows a gentleman who has fallen into a drunken sleep in his chair. Two maids stand next to him, giggling as one dips his hand into a bowl of warm water. The inscription hints what will happen next:
Forbear dear Girls! for Pity’s sake
Have Mercy on a Sleeping Rake!
As in the Bowl his Hand you’ve got.
You’ll make him soon do – You know what.
The objects were all drawn from Winterthur's collections (including a few promised gifts). And while Grigsby noted that "there were hundreds more objects in the running," the results offer an insight into taste and interests of founder Henry Francis du Pont. For example, there are punch bowls displayed throughout the exhibition. "Mr. du Pont loved them," Grigsby said. "We have more than 200 at Winterthur." On the other hand, there are only three corkscrews in the show. "I think we only have five altogether," she said.
Du Pont makes a cameo appearance. His initials are inscribed on a leather-covered picnic case, made in the early 20th century. "We don't know for sure," Grigsby said, "but we believe this was used to carry wine, perhaps when Mr. du Pont was traveling."
Gerret Copeland, owner of Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley and a member of the du Pont family, had no doubts. "Knowing Harry, I can assure you it was," said Copeland, who was visiting the exhibition, to which he and his wife, Tatiana, are donors. "He had five wine cellars in and around Winterthur, and he was an ardent foe of Prohibition. And most likely, they were very fine bottles."
"Uncorked" remains on view until Jan. 6, 2013, and makes an engaging part of a visit to the historic house museum and its beautiful gardens. For those who can't make the trip to the Brandywine Valley, an overview is displayed on the exhibition's Web site, uncorked.winterthur.org.