This neo-classical wallpaper frieze is a broad horizontal band meant to decorate a wall near the ceiling. I was immediately drawn to the three-dimensional quality of the block-print, as well as the intricate details that can be seen in the wings, imagery on the urn, and adornments on the confronted figures. The various Greek and Roman motifs have been hand-printed in tan with a carved wood block on a dark blue background. In the 18th century, motifs such as these were derived from copies or paintings at Herculaneum and from various collections of engravings of Greek and Roman monuments. Particularly in France and England, the rediscovery of Pompeii brought a new interest in classic architecture, furniture forms, and decorative designs. The two confronting figures are depicted with women’s breasts, eagle’s wings, lion’s feet, a serpent’s tail, and a human head. In Greek tradition, this is the imagery for the sphinx, which was considered the most majestic and malevolent creature. In the frieze, the two sphinxes seem to be guarding the central focal object, the urn. The urn represents noble simplicity, beauty, and was a simple sign of the much-admired ancient world. Sprouting from below the urn and from the sphinxes serpent tails are scrolling acanthus leaves, which create a nice juxtaposition to the rigid figures.
Emily Fitzgerald is a student in the History of Decorative Arts & Design graduate Program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.