Written by Jasmine Keegan
The United Nations has designated 2022 the International Year of Glass. Cooper Hewitt is celebrating the occasion with a yearlong series of posts focused on the medium of glass and museum conservation.
Dutch glass artisans reached high levels of skill in ornamentation during the 18th century, as demonstrated in these beautifully decorated glasses. These examples from Cooper Hewitt’s collection, including a galloping horse on a drinking glass and two birthing scenes played out across a pair of cups, give perceptive insight into Dutch life of that time. The frequent appearance of glass drinking vessels in contemporary paintings of the 18th century hint at the important role such objects played in cultural life. The imagery on such cups often leaned toward patriotic, national, or civic subjects, which expressed patriotism for this newly independent state. For example, the horse pictured here was a commonly used image that symbolized the independence from Spain won by the Dutch Republic during the 17th century with the end of the Eighty Years War.
Such engraved vessels were created for the luxury market and often given as gifts. This pair of cups is known as confinement cups, which were presented to mothers after they had given birth. These vessels may have been used to drink kandeel, a fortifying wine-based mixture. Surprisingly, women were not only featured on decorated glasses, but also served as glass engravers during this period. This was due in part to glass engraving not being seen as a professional activity.
With the glass surface being colorless and almost featureless, the creation of captivating images is all the more impressive. Cooper Hewitt’s glasses present two different techniques of working. The horse image was created through a uniquely Dutch process refined by Dutch artisans known as diamond stippling. The image was achieved through tiny pits in the glass surface, generated by hitting the glass with a diamond-tipped tool. This method results in a slight sheen due to the tiny losses on the glass caused by the impact of the diamond. As this method was not made by a machine, but rather by hand, very close examination reveals varying sizes and shapes to the pits, which reveal the engraver’s individual artistry and technical skill.
Conversely, the confinement cups feature scenes created by copper wheel engraving. This technique relies on a rotating machine called a lathe, which turns a small copper wheel. When brought to the glass surface along with an abrasive powder, the glass is cut with very precise lines and striations. The glass workers powered the lathe with a foot treadle, also allowing them good control over the speed of the cutting. When complete, and if done well, the cut design displays greater depth and modeling and has a true sculptural effect. Taken together, these Dutch glasses celebrate both the personal and public life of 18th-century Dutch society, as well as the virtuoso skills at play in their creation.
Jasmine Keegan is a pre-program intern in conservation at Cooper Hewitt, having previously held internships at The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2020 with a degree in art history.
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