Ann Wagner, Winterthur Museum
Congressional Medal of Honor commemorating Stephen Cassin, ca. 1815, gold. Struck by the United States Mint, die engraved by Moritz Furst, (1782-1841), Winterthur Museum bequest of Henry F. du Pont.
By the War of 1812, the United States of America had come of age as a nation among nations. The young republic asserted itself on the international stage when the British Empire impinged on American sovereignty by restricting trade with France, impressing American merchant sailors into the British navy and allying the British Empire with American Indian tribes to thwart American westward expansion. The result was war.
Americans responded to news of each encounter at land and sea— for which the outcome of the war was perilously uncertain—with patriotic fervor and rhetoric. Military champions, especially naval captains, were celebrated as national heroes. They became overnight sensations whose deeds continued to be celebrated for months, even years, after their wartime victories.
During the relatively short period of 1812 to 1818, American silversmiths and jewelers created spectacular presentation silver of superb execution, monumental scale and impressive weight that embodied the neoclassical admiration of heroism and America’s emergence as a naval power during the War of 1812.
The practice of saluting military valor with gold swords began in America with Congress during the revolutionary war. States, cities and groups of private citizens continued the practice. Citizens of the large seacoast cities from Charleston to Boston ordered most of the major commissions. Philadelphia commissioned the most presentation pieces, with Baltimore a close second.
These presentation pieces typically took the form of a large, neoclassically-inspired urn or an extensive tableware service. The Battle of Baltimore in 1814 inspired the lyrics for “The Star-spangled Banner,” as well as tremendous beneficence for the naval offices who kept Fort McHenry out of British hands. Among Baltimore’s honorees was Commodore Stephen Decatur who received a remarkable punch set, consisting of a punchbowl in the shape of a cannonball supported by eagles, beakers, tray and ladle. Andrew Jackson (honored in silver by the admiring ladies of Charleston) repelled the British at the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815, unaware that the Treaty of Ghent had ended hostilities in December of 1814. While modern historic sites commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with musical performances, tall ships and battle reenactments, Ann Wagner will share with us period commemorations of valor in precious metals.
After studying English literature and art history, Ann Wagner graduated from Wheaton College. She earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Washington and served as a curatorial assistant for the Seattle Art Museum, including its collection of American silver. After earning a master’s degree from the Winterthur program, she became Winterthur’s associate curator of decorative arts. Ms Wagner is responsible for curating Winterthur’s collections of silver, brass, iron and other metalwork, as well as related materials, such as lighting and firearms, and organic objects.
Ann Wagner’s current tasks include teaching graduate students, reinstalling the metalwork galleries and preparing a loan exhibition of American decorated tinware for the Brandywine River Museum. She co-authored, with Donald Fennimore, Silversmiths to the Nation: Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner, 1808–1842 (2007), the subject of Ms Wagner’s prior presentation to the Forum, in 2007.