September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Vincent Scully

“Our Puritan ancestors were among the most ruthless genocides of all, and surely the most sanctimonious,” writes Scully of the early American settlers who devastated the Indians’ culture as well as the Indians themselves. Since those early days, however, Americans have shown more passion for preserving the tangible manifestations of Indian culture, and Scully, Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, exploits that passion in this far-ranging book. He uses as his springboard the collection of the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, tracing the development of this country’s paintings, sculpture, architecture, furniture and urban design from the 1600s to World War I. In the text, adapted from Scully’s 1985 public television series, he points out that the wooden homes the first New Englanders built protected them against the elements. The homes offered psychological protections as well, giving the colonists, he explains, “an image of fireplace and shelter that somehow never seems quite to die out of the American consciousness.” The silver teapots, urns, beakers and bowls the colonists displayed sanctified their domesticity and pride of possession. Scully eyes the early 18th century’s Queen Anne chairs, with their tense, linear shape, like a passionate anatomist. Designed to receive the human form, they are creatures of a high order. He credits art critic John Russell with first using the term “household gods” to describe them. Of their cabriole legs, Scully writes, “They bend, almost crouch and they terminate in feet of one kind or another. Eventually many of them become ball-and-claw feet, clutching and full of power.” (If Americans once worshiped furniture, Scully argues, our true sacred places are now such shrines as the Gettysburg battlefield and the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials.) In his text, Scully brilliantly relates one discipline to another, pointing out similarities between, say, Wins-low Homer’s dark, surging seascapes and the looming, shingle style houses of the 1870s and 1880s. His eye for detail is sharp. In John Singer Sargent’s 1897 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes, he notes that Mrs. Stokes, in a white-duck skirt, a straw boater in her hand, “seems to be blocking her husband’s sex with her hat.” At times the book reads more like a script than a text. Scully, like an articulate bird on the wing, also flies along at a breakneck pace, disdaining chapters. They might break his organic flow of ideas. But they would also give the reader a structure in which to think and dream. Then again, how many books offer such inspiration to thin and dream in the first place? (New York Graphic Society, $35)

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