Lessons from furniture and teapots - things Americans made

New World Visions: American Art and the Metropolitan Museum (Part I). Documentary on American culture from 1650 to 1840. Produced by WNET, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the BBC. Home Vision. To you or me, a chest - even a Chippendale high chest - may be a piece of furniture. To Prof. Vincent Scully, it's ``a building, a being, and a force of nature, all at once. The ultimate in household gods!''

Such remarkable views of everyday objects are what makes this 58-minute study of American craftsmanship and art so fascinating.

Mr. Scully, who teaches art history at Yale University, is an erudite host on an engrossing cultural journey through early phases of America's artistic growth. The show is based in the American Wing of New York's Metropolitan Museum - in which Scully moves from room to room - but also hops to Boston, New York, Washington, and even the Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass., where he says ``colonial culture ended and the United States began.''

Household pieces, portraits, architecture, paintings, and other physical evidence are the waymarks. America's earliest creative expression was in craftsmen's objects, Scully points out, while the country was evolving its own artistic sense, especially its landscape tradition in painting. These still influence our artistic sense and create an integrated culture, Scully says, as he provides an almost nonstop flow of insights about the things Americans made and what they tell us.

This program was televised nationally last March and now makes a highly worthwhile video. It's definitely designed as a lesson, but Scully's analytical virtuosity makes it an often diverting one. His vigorous, straight-talking tone suggests good sense and credibility - even when he's drawing astonishing inferences from the apparently obvious.

Take that familiar Copley portrait of Paul Revere holding a silver teapot he's made and cradling his chin with his right hand: You may have felt that this canvas was a strikingly vital image of a believable human caught up in the physical world of his craft, eyes reflecting the sass and resourcefulness that sent him on his famous ride.

Show the same portrait to Scully, and ``it's as if Paul Revere knows himself as a whole.'' His body ``is shaped like a pot; he's as potlike as a teapot. ... Copley is making a person like the furniture, like the silver, like the work of art through which he identifies himself.''

Or let Scully walk you into the Metropolitan's Van Rensselaer room, ``inhabited by its creaturelike tables and chairs.'' There, as elsewhere in this program, you'll feel the electricity and realize there's a story - even a revelation - in the objects people live with.

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