Snake pitcher

1885
Gorham Manufacturing Company (active 1865–1961)


Object Place: Providence, Rhode Island, United States

Dimensions

Overall: 25.4 x 19.4 x 13.2 cm, 1.01 kg (10 x 7 5/8 x 5 3/16 in., 2.23 lb.) Other (base): 9.5 cm, 1.01 (3 3/4 in., 1010.4 gm)

Accession Number

1983.331

Medium or Technique

Silver

On View

Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Gallery (Gallery 228)

Collections

Americas

Classifications

Silver hollowware

This raised body and functional elements, such as the handle and spout, are formed by the coiled bodies of two intertwining snakes, created through repoussé work. The handle is soldered in place.


Although the designer and silversmith are unknown, this snake pitcher is unquestionably an American masterpiece produced during a period of great experimentation and imaginative adaptations of traditional forms. During the 1870s and 1880s, Gorham produced trompe l’oeil “napkins” on plates, “silk” shawls wrapped around pitchers, and applied three-dimensional floral and vegetal elements made to scale, such as the pepper plant on a Gorham tea caddy (cat. no. 241). These objects of fantasy and whimsy relate closely to this pitcher, which represents two coiled life-size snakes. Few other examples of this vessel are known,1 yet it epitomizes a pervasive fascination in the United States for the exotic and fantastic. It is reminiscent of contemporary snake jewelry, and this particular reptilian motif may have been derived from Egyptian imagery. It may reflect the renewed interest of Victorian audiences in the circumstances of Cleopatra’s death, the result of a lethal self-induced asp bite.
No less masterful than the overall form of the pitcher is the silversmith’s skillful handling of each surface detail. The body of the pitcher was raised and subsequently repousséd to create the desired contour and to form the bodies of the two snakes. The vessel was filled with molten pitch, which quickly hardened, allowing the silversmith to chase the delicate scales and other exterior surface details. When the work was complete, the pitch was melted and poured out.
The scratch marks indicate that the factory net price for this item was $160.

This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.

Markings

On bottom: "[lion] G [within an escutcheon] [anchor] /STERLING/ 1295/ [boar's head]. Lightly scratched on base "ISE".

Provenance

Original ownership unknown; by 1983 in San Francisco, where purchased by David Firestone for Firestone and Parsons, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts; 1983, purchased from Firestone and Parsons by the MFA.

Credit Line

Edwin E. Jack Fund