MFA Boston displays two iconic Harriet Powers quilts together for the first time

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MFA Boston displays two iconic Harriet Powers quilts together for the first time
Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910), Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Maxim Karolik. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, brings together the only two extant quilts made by Harriet Powers (1837–1910), displaying the iconic works together for the very first time since they were made by the artist in the 19th century. The famous Pictorial quilt (1895–98) from the MFA’s collection and the Bible quilt (1885–86), on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, are being featured in Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories. Uniting the only two surviving quilts by Powers—a formerly enslaved woman from Athens, Georgia—will shed new light on her extraordinary artistic and storytelling talents.

Powers, an African American woman who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, exhibited the Bible quilt at the Northeast Georgia Fair in 1886, where it was spotted by Jennie Smith, a white art teacher at a girls’ school. Smith unsuccessfully tried to purchase the quilt from Powers for $10. Several years later, she managed to buy it for $5 from a reluctant Powers, who was forced to part with the “darling offspring of her brain” due to financial hardship. Smith arranged for it to be exhibited at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, where it received attention and was noted in the press—possibly setting the stage for the commission that later became the MFA’s quilt, though the specific origins remain unclear.

The Pictorial quilt is thought to have been commissioned by a group of “faculty ladies” at Atlanta University, and given—together with Powers’s descriptions of each of the 15 squares—as a gift to a retiring trustee, a Presbyterian minister who later passed it down to his son. For much of the 20th century, the Pictorial quilt was tacked to the wall of the stairway landing in their family's summer cottage in Westport, Massachusetts. It entered the MFA’s collection in 1964.

The works are among the highlights of Fabric of a Nation, which explores how the quilt, which is often seen today as a timeless, quintessentially “American” art form, has in fact continuously evolved alongside the U.S., shaped by a broadly underrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds. Dating from the 17th century to 2021, the 50 masterpieces on view reveal a rich—and richly complicated—story of the nation’s shared history, contributing to the evolving conversation about what defines the American experience.

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