This panel is the fourteenth in a series of twenty-four panels that make up “El Dorado”, a scenic wallpaper produced by the French wallpaper company Zuber et Cie. It depicts four landscape views that represent the Four Continents: America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. America is represented by a view of the town of Córdoba in Mexico, Africa by a view of the Pyramids and a decaying Egyptian temple with a sphinx, Asia by a view of the Bosporus Strait with the Hagia Sophia, and Europe by an overgrown staircase overlooking an Alpine lake and a ruined castle on a hill. The panel here represents part of the America scene, looking in on Córdoba’s iconic two-towered cathedral and the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains. The city here looks to be in a desert mountain range, while in actuality the area is quite tropical and more hilly than mountainous. Obviously, this view, like the other three, is somewhat imaginary, meant less to reflect real life than to evoke an idea of an idyllic “American” scene. Each scene is framed on either side by flowers meant to reflect local plants, such as the cacti seen in this panel. There is no sign of human life, though there are a few animals, including peacocks, deer, and a pheasant. Much like the mythic city named in the title, these views are meant to reflect a sort of ideal world, a calm and precious wonderland of unimaginable natural and manmade richness.
Zuber et Cie. is perhaps the oldest continuously operating wallpaper company. Founded in the 1797, it soon became famous for producing elaborate scenic wallpapers, like this one, many of which were sold in the US. Though this version was produced in the early twentieth century, the “El Dorado” paper was originally designed in 1848. The series originally took two years to produce, since it was printed entirely by hand using woodblocks. In fact, this particular wallpaper requires 1,554 blocks to produce all 24 panels, which, when combined, creates a scene 42 feet long and 6 feet tall that uses 210 distinct colors. The company has preserved every block and still uses them to produce this wallpaper today, and the blocks themselves have been deemed “monuments historiques” by the French government. The Cooper Hewitt has a complete set of the “El Dorado” panels whose technical virtuosity and idyllic beauty still impresses us over 150 years after the first set was made.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.