Edward Colonna designed jewelry and railroad cars. He was also a graphic artist, an interior decorator and an architect. This diversity is possible when ornamentation is your game, and at the turn of the century, Colonna was a leading light of the French art-nouveau style of decoration.
At the Renwick, a show of 134 examples of Colonna's work covers 60 years, when he worked at various times as a designer for Louis C. Tiffany in New York, the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal and L'Art Nouveau store in Paris.
During his five years with L'Art Nouveau, he produced his best work. It was this gallery that coined the name of the new experimental style of art that was characterized by long, sinuous lines. In Colonna's art nouveau, stylized orchids and columbine are persistent images, petals curving toward petals in rhythmic symmetry. Colonna's line was elegant, graceful.
Pendants, brooches, purse frames and snuff bottles embody leisure and materialism, and the way Colonna decorated them shows the versatility of the "whiplash" lines of art nouveau. There wasn't a place the sensual flourishes couldn't be used, and he used them everywhere, from stenciled ceilings in a railway coach to Tiffany glass vases to dog collars. In the exhibit, where examples are lacking, faded photos of train stations and building interiors he designed fill the gaps.
In the Art Nouveau pavilion at the World's Fair in 1900, Colonna won a silver medal for a reception room that doubled as a music room; a music cabinet he designed for it is on display at the Renwick.
This was a high point for art nouveau. It wasn't long before the public became disenchanted with the rich ornamentation and thought it old-fashioned. It was one of those cases of finding your audience, and losing it. Colonna spent his later years mostly confined to bed by illness, designing samplers and monograms and carving small pieces of alabaster he had trouble exhibiting.
EDWARD COLONNA, AMERICAN ART NOUVEAU DESIGNER -- At the Renwick Gallery through August 19.