Every year the fun-loving Hewitt family toured Europe, where they purchased books, prints, textiles, and objects for their budding collections. This photograph shows the Hewitt sisters, Sarah, Amy, and Eleanor, on a gondola in Venice in the 1880s. Perhaps the inspiration for this birdcage, the Rialto Bridge, is just behind them. The oldest bridge to span the Grand Canal, the Rialto was designed in the late 16th century, with prominent arches and a central portico, like those seen here.


The Hewitt Sisters in gondola, Venice, Italy, ca. 1880

Sarah, Amy, and Eleanor Hewitt. Venice, Italy, 1880s. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

This was not the only birdcage in their collection. In the early years of the museum, they acquired several, hoping they would be stimulating objects for aspiring designers to study such as this Delft example that features cheerful Dutch landscapes, and sporting scenes.

Glazed earthenware frame (a), rectangular with arched top and simple short square feet; vertical metal wires set into frame. White ground with blue glaze decoration of geometrical designs along ceramic cross posts and corners; bottom section comprising panels decorated with landscapes, including boating scene on front panel, ice skaters on rear panel. Removeable ceramic drawer (b), with central metal knob, slides into lower right corner of cage.

Birdcage, Netherlands, 1750-1800; Gift of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt, 1916-19-60-a,b

Birds in birdcages have long cheered up our rooms with their bright feathers and birdsong.  In Renaissance Italy, for example, cages were hung in open windows like ornaments in lieu of tapestries or other textiles.[1]  Exotic birds and their cages remained collectible in the nineteenth century as can be seen in the interior watercolors of the museum’s Thaw Collection. We remain as enchanted with them today, as the Hewitt sisters were in their own Gilded Age.

This birdcage will be shown in the Hewitt Sisters Collect exhibition beginning December 12, 2014.

Tanya Piacentini is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies graduate program at Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

[1] Musacchio, Jacqueline. Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

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