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The Viking Revival and American Design at the Turn-of-the-Century

Local plants and maritime motifs adorned the wares of Marblehead Pottery (1904-1936), a small studio located in the coastal Massachusetts town of the same name. Like many turn-of-the century American pottery firms, Marblehead stressed both the regional and national character of its style through selected subject matter and a palette inspired by the surrounding landscape. Yet, American ceramicists of this period often yielded to foreign influence despite their supposed resistance (see Martin Eidelberg’s “Myths of Style and Nationalism”). This vase (ca. 1910-1920), currently on view in our American galleries, illustrates Marblehead’s assimilation of European imagery. Drawn from medieval Scandinavia, the vase’s pattern consists of five identical Viking longships in a single decorative band. Interestingly, Marblehead’s designers embraced Viking iconography for its patriotic value.

vase; Marblehead Pottery; 1910-1920; Harold Victor Decorative Arts Fund; 1994.81

Viking-inspired motifs adorned the arts and crafts of Scandinavia, particularly Norway and Sweden, in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. This style of ornamentation, called Viking Revival or Dragon Style, developed from a collective enthusiasm for the Icelandic eddas and sagas in the Nordic countries and Great Britain. Studies of this heroic literature began in the seventeenth-century and gained considerable momentum during the nationalistic fervor of the nineteenth-century. Archaeological excavations near the Oslofjord in Norway unearthed the Tune (in 1867), Gokstad (in 1880), and Oseberg (in 1904-05) Viking ships, which further encouraged popular interest in the intrepid seafarers and provided material evidence of their technological advancements as shipwrights.

In America, Nordic studies were stimulated by Rasmus Bjørn Anderson (1846-1936), a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Building on the scholarship of Dane Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864), Anderson wrote an alternate history of America’s discovery and reminded his audience that Leif Erikson preceded Christopher Columbus by nearly five hundred years. Anderson’s narrative appealed to recent Scandinavian immigrants, as well as long-established residents, who preferred the tale of Leif Erikson’s harmonious arrival to Columbus’ more controversial conquest (see J. M. Mancini’s “Discovering Viking America”). Anderson’s text encouraged others, such as Professor Eben Horsford (1818-1893) of Harvard, to investigate America’s Viking origins. Citing place-names akin to Old Norse and archaeological “discoveries” in the area, Horsford made the dubious assertion that Erikson had settled in the Charles River Basin in Massachusetts, instead of Newfoundland.

Anne Whitney, "Leif, the Discoverer," 1887.

According to J. M. Mancini and others, New Englanders embraced this discovery theory in the literary and visual arts. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the famous poem “The Skeleton in Armor” (1841) after armor-clad human remains (purportedly belonging to a Norse settler) were found in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1832. Civic leaders memorialized Viking explorers in public statuary, such as Anne Whitney’s Leif, the Discoverer (1887) erected in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, and Viking imagery adorned architectural and interior designs in New England. Tobacco heiress Catherine Lorillard Wolfe (1828-1887) commissioned a Viking-inspired decorative program from William Morris (1834-1896), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), and Walter Crane (1845-1915) for her Newport summer estate, appropriately called Vinland (now Salve Regina University’s McAuley Hall). A paperweight (1919; Museum of Fine Arts Boston) created Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club (1908-1942) further attests to the ubiquity of Viking iconography in American home décor. The work, which is reminiscent of the IMA’s Marblehead vase, bears the design of a single longship.

Paper weight; Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club, active 1908-1942; Decorated by Celia Goodman; Brighton, Massachusetts, U.S.; 1988.9; Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

All of this furor was very much a product of a time and place, when America strongly wanted to associate itself with Nordic history and folklore.  Consequently, the longship and similar motifs became emblems of nationalism in the United States. However, this would not have happened had there not been some underlying basis.

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