Organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shelton of Lafayette, Louisiana, this exhibition is comprised of hand-wrought silver produced by the Gorham Manufacturing Company between 1897 and the late 1920s. Officially introduced at the influential Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, the Martelé line is now considered one of the most important American expressions of the sinuous Art Nouveau style, comparable to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass creations. The term Martelé is derived from the French word “to hammer” and underscores the significance placed on superior craftsmanship and innovative design.
The Shelton collection includes every important form made in Martelé, including tea and coffee services, vases, candelabra, tankards, platters, and love cups as well as the celebrated Sinclair table service, the only one made in the elegant line. This rare and extraordinary assemblage had never been publicly exhibited before this national tour.
Named after the French verb marteler (to hammer), the handwrought line of silver officially produce by the Gorham Manufacturing Company from 1897 through 1912 is today regarded as the legendary firm’s crowning achievement and one of the most important American expressions of the Art Nouveau style.
Martelé silver departed dramatically from Gorham’s already flourishing line of machine-made flat- and hollowware, reflecting the growing interest in superior craftsmanship and innovative design in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The Providence, Rhode Island–based company—under the direction of Gorham’s ambitious chief executive, Edward Holbrook, and his talented chief designer, William Christmas Codman—began to produce designs for pieces in 1896 and commenced limited production in 1897. However, they waited to announce the introduction of this lavish new line until the prestigious 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, where it was extremely well received. Attendees were attracted to Martelé’s opulent outlines and forms, lush chasing (relief decoration made by punching the silver), and exquisite finish, all of which continue to dazzle viewers a century later.
THE PARIS EXPOSITION OF 1900
Although Gorham began to produce designs for Martelé silver in 1896 and limited production in 1897, the company targeted the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle as the event at which to announce the official launching of its luxurious handwrought line. New international styles were often introduced at world fairs due to enormous press coverage and visitor attendance, in this case over fifty-one million people.
The opening of the exposition in April of 1900 was eagerly awaited by the entire Western world, which anticipated the event as a harbinger of a new century filled with hope and improvement. To that end, the lavish fairgrounds lining the banks of the River Seine were called the “City of Dreams.” The Martelé line was enthusiastically received by both critics and an enamored public at this world exposition. Gorham’s chief executive officer, Edward Holbrook, was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur (the highest civilian honor given by the French government), and the chief designer for the Martelé line, William Christmas Codman, was awarded a gold medal.
History has acknowledged the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle as marking the ascendancy of the Art Nouveau style as the reigning international decorative mode. By exhibiting its new handcrafted line at this event, the Gorham Manufacturing Company assured itself a place in the history of the international Art Nouveau style as well as in the broader context of modernism and the development of twentieth-century design. The Art Nouveau The Martelé line of handwrought silver is now considered one of the most important American expressions of the sinuous international Art Nouveau style, comparable to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass creations.
The primary tenet of the Art Nouveau style was “Art in nature; nature in art,” by which was meant that design inspiration should be derived from such natural sources as vines, foliage, flowers, seaweed, and even small animals. Such inspiration was not supposed to copy natural appearances but to simplify, abstract, and interpret them. The practical application of such thinking produced objects that held in common a swaying, undulating rhythm; energy-charged contours; graceful plays of line; and ornament strategically placed to emphasize the form of the object. Martelé objects were given organic silhouettes and often displayed everted lips with rippling edges and elegantly chased flowers and foliage.
Gorham Manufacturing Company The Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, grew from a small provincial jewelry manufactory founded by Jabez Gorham (1792–1869) in 1831 to the largest producer of sterling silver and silver-plated wares in the world by 1890. During this period of dramatic growth, Gorham distinguished itself by successfully combining the latest technological developments with fine design. For instance, the company was the first to install a steam-powered drop-press in the 1850s, which permitted it to turn out matching flatware of uniform quality at a vastly accelerated rate. The decision to revert to a line of silver crafted entirely by hand therefore appeared slightly ironic. However, in the late 1880s the ambitious and energetic Edward Holbrook took control of the company, and he was determined to make Gorham the preeminent American manufacturer of silver wares. To this end, in 1890 he completed construction of a vast state-of-the-art factory, the world’s largest and most efficient facility for the production of silver and bronze wares. Holbrook also brilliantly foresaw that a well-advertised line of handwrought luxury silver would carry the Gorham name to new heights.