Anne Bradstreet was a woman who knew the Garden of Eden well. She chased its deer, smelled its flowers, brushed against the long and brilliant tail feathers of its birds. If she ate its forbidden fruit, her God was merciful, because she never lost her Eden.
Bradstreet's Eden was one she re-created, in a chair seat during the 17th century. With deft hands and an unswerving vision, she embroidered the seat in crewelwork (a rope-like stitch), wool thread on linen and cotton twill.
Almost three centuries later, another woman also lived briefly in Bradstreet's Eden. With as great care as her 17th century predecessor, Suzanne E. Chapman meticulously painted the chair seat in watercolor, exactly the way it looked after all those years, joyfully recording the still bright colors, the ever-strong stitches.
Someone -- Anne herself, or her descendant Samuel, who gave the work to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts -- had gently removed the nails that held it to the chair frame, leaving behind only tiny holes. The fabric is a bit frayed on the edge. Chapman delighted in painting every thread. You could almost trim them off with scissors.
So true was the rendering that a visitor to "The Index of American Design: Watercolors of Textiles and Costume" at the National Gallery of Art the other day took a great deal of convincing before she'd believe she was looking at a painting and not Bradstreet's crewelwork itself.
In a brochure accompanying the show, Nancy E. Allyn explains the process: "Chapman's method was to draw the object on a piece of sturdy paper . . . she wet the paper and mounted it on top of a clean, damp blotter so that the paper would remain wet for the entire working period. She then applied color. Watercolor is a fairly unforgiving medium; once applied, the color permanently stains the paper . . . By keeping the paper damp for hours at a time, the applied color remained wet and could be lifted if necessary or pushed around, or blended into other colors."
Chapman's watercolor painting is one of 98 displayed in the gallery's West Building through July 13. Any of them could be mistaken for the object rather than its portrait -- for such were the talents of the more than 1,000 artists of the Index of American Design, a Depression-era federal work project to record American decorative arts from colonial days through the 19th century.
You can almost feel the fold of a cotton homespun tablecloth made in Salem, Mass., circa 1825-35 and rendered by Paul Ward in the late 1930s. And in 1941, Carl Buergerness not only carefully detailed the lace and the ivory handle of a 19th century parasol, but also showed where its covering had split.
In 1838 Maria Wever embroidered a cotton towel with a Pennsylvania Dutch plant design and the legend "When this you see remember me" for the fortunate Samuel Weaver. In 1939, Charlotte Angus rendered the towel with such attention that you can see the wrinkles, the folds and even its dark age lines.
Susanna Brown was only 12 in 1776 when she crewel embroidered stick figures of red-coated British and blue-uniformed Revolutionary soldiers. And for the record, artist Mae Clark has faithfully shown every stitch, as well as the yellowing and wear.
The show is a rare public treat because usually the renderings are carefully shielded from light in acid-free blue boxes of the National Gallery's archives. Many scholars do make appointments with Laurie Weitzenkorn, Index assistant curator, to study them. And every so often, one of the artists who worked on the project comes in to talk with Weitzenkorn or discuss the difficult techniques with artist Charlie Ritchie, Index research assistant.
The National Gallery acquired the 17,000 renderings in 1943. Director J. Carter Brown calls the Index both an archive and a collection of art, "a lasting example of government sponsorship of the arts and cultural history."
High-minded sentiments aside, the renderings are among the most charming of the gallery's possessions. The artists' trompe l'oeil skills delight not only experts in art and antiques, but also people who wander in the Index rooms by mistake.