Biggs Museum of American Art: Where the Walls do Talk

Dover, Delaware’s Biggs Museum focuses on the art of Delaware and the Delaware River Valley.  But it does so in a unique way, by making furniture and decorative arts the centerpieces of the collection. They’re displayed in a historical timeline reflecting different eras of Delaware’s and America’s story. Starting with the 1700’s, when Delaware was still a happy member of the British Empire, you walk through rooms from colonial, Revolutionary, Victorian, and the modern eras. These aren’t staid displays of chairs sitting in a row with index cards detailing their provenance, but rooms with furniture, paintings, table settings, Grandfather clocks – even mantle pieces – set up and waiting for the people living in the house to appear. While most of the pieces are from upper-class homes – furniture from working-class and poorer homes rarely survived – there are some charming corner cupboards reflecting Pennsylvania’s rural folk art traditions.

Unlike most museums which keep most of their collections in storage, Biggs has almost everything on display. That includes an amazing collection of silver. Between 1700 and 1900, about 65 silversmiths worked in the Delaware Valley. The museum has samples of the work from all but 6 of them. Their cutlery, serving platters, tea and coffee services, vases, candlesticks, and napkin rings gleam on sideboards and tables and inside display cases.

The Delaware Valley was and is home to several different schools of painting. Galleries display samples of the Arden and Rehoboth Beach schools and the Bucks County impressionists, as well as some of the Hudson River landscapes. The Brandywine School is often overlooked, although its influence on popular and commercial artists is seen today. It was all about illustration and is seen in the colorful, action-filled prints found in mostly young adult novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wilmington native Howard Pyle created the style and taught students like N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover. The exhibit of their works is a lot of fun, with the adventures of pirates, princes, and Robin Hood covering the walls. (Pyle is credited for creating our flamboyant, romantic image of pirates. Since few, if any, accurate descriptions or drawings of real pirates exist, he made up costumes that fit the attitude he wanted them to have. Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp, and Captain Morgan have been dressing that way ever since.)

The Biggs Museum of American Art is in downtown Dover near the state house at 406 Federal Street. Admission is free, but donations are very welcome.

For more information on the Biggs Museum. For additional information about Delaware museums.

Photos:  ©Fran Severn

Check out other articles on Delaware Museums by Fran Severn:

The Johnson Victrola Museum

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