Earlier this month when the Kentucky Historical Society sent us information on its upcoming exhibition Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures opening June 6, I was delighted to see several outstanding examples of 19th-century American decorative art. The exhibition, organized by the guest curator Estill Curtis Pennington, highlights the five distinct styles that emerged in the period from 1800-1920: Federal, Greek revival, rococo revival, gothic revival, and aesthetic. The exhibition is appropriately being mounted in the Old State Capital building of the Historical Society campus—one of the region’s finest examples of Greek revival architecture.
Among the works included, one piece truly stands out: a massive stained oak cabinet dating from around 1892, which was hand-carved by the Kentucky woodcarver Kate E. Perry Mosher (1837-1926). It is representative of the important trends in arts and crafts education and industrial art training in the latter half of the 19th century, when many women took up woodworking tools—long considered the domain of men. Born in Warsaw, Kentucky, Mosher studied with the artist Benn Pitman, and was among the most skilled to emerge in this field. Her works were shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1877 she help to found the Covington Art Club (in Covington, Kentucky), a woman’s art and literary association.
Her aptitude for intricately and accurately carved foliage is striking and is fully evident in the Historical Society’s cabinet—from the tall stalks that flank the cabinet’s doors, to the various borders that articulate each member of the piece. Mosher’s carving has great depth and tactility, but also, unlike much of the conventionalized design of the period, is remarkably animated.
Known examples of Mosher’s work include a dining room set that was owned by United States Senator Richard P. Ernst and used in his Washington residence, and carvings—ten wall panels and three altar panels—for the Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, Kentucky, which are still on display. The Kentucky Historical Society is fortunate to have in its collection two additional works by Mosher—a frame and a wall pocket—as well as photographic and archival materials relating to the artist. For more information visit their website and library catalogue.
If you know more about Kate Mosher or other American female woodcarvers, please tell us by leaving a comment below!
Image: Cabinet by Kate Mosher, 1892. Stained oak; height 80, width 64, and depth 15 1/4 inches. Kentucky Historical Society, donated by Marian Gex Graham (1996.5), conservation made possible through the Kentucky Treasures Endowment Fund.