Monday, December 28, 2009

An American Dream in Sheet Metal and Paint

Humble pieces in the folk art collection often have a special meaning to me owing to their connection with an experience in the field. One day back in the early 1990s, I was at work on an upcoming exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum when an invitation came across my desk. It was for an opening of an exhibit of local folk art at the Delaware County Historical Association in Delhi, New York, about an hour away. I always keep my eye open for these little local shows because you never know what you might find. One of the pieces featured in the invitation was a striking metal sculpture of a medieval castle.

I was on the road south to Delhi in about ten minutes. The invitation read that the artist was one Joseph Schoell, and the lady at the reception desk told me over the phone that she thought he lived in nearby Margaretville but didn’t have the address. So I thought, how big could Margaretville be? So I headed off to this little village in the Catskills after viewing the exhibition in Delhi.

You would think that, if you had an artist in your village who produced sheet metal sculptures and placed them on his front lawn, that you would be able to direct a stranger to the house. Not so. I drove around Margaretville for about an hour, looking at front lawns and stopping to ask people if they knew a Joseph Schoell or were aware of his lawn environment. No luck. The receptionist must have gotten it wrong, I figured.

Deflated, I reluctantly headed out of town. On a lark, I tried a shortcut over the hills back to Cooperstown. A few miles out of town I was navigating a long, gentle curve in the road (following the path of a creek on the left) when suddenly, on the right, something colorful caught my eye.

A mailbox, but not just any mailbox. A fanciful and brightly painted metal house, complete with dormers and an American flag. In cut metal letters above the house was the name “J. Schoell.” I felt like I had found the Promised Land.

I stopped, of course, introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. Schoell, who were home, and over time became good friends with the family. I learned that Joseph was an immigrant from Hungary who came to the United States following the failed uprising against the Soviets in 1956, settled on Long Island and got a job as a sheet metal worker. After retirement, he bought a summer house in Margaretville and began making whimsical sculptures to place on the lawn. He would make one a year, in the winter, and bring them out to Margaretville every summer.

We caught him at a good time, as he told me he was now too old to keep the summer house and wanted to sell the sculptures. The museum ended up acquiring several, including a great Statue of Liberty (above) and a fanciful castle (left). The last piece I purchased from Joseph, however, is the one that means the most to me.

It’s the mailbox, the first piece I had laid eyes on. To me it represents the joy of discovery and the reminder that roadside America is the most exciting art exhibition: always open and always free. Seeing this piece in the museum always makes me want to hit the road.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Your Holiday Selections

As most of you know, we recently held a two-week voting period to determine which folk art pieces from this blog would go on view in a special gallery at the Fenimore Art Museum next spring. Using the polling gadget from Blogger, quite a number of readers weighed in and, I think, came up with a brilliant selection of material for us to create a striking “American Folk Art @ Cooperstown” exhibition. Here are the winners:

A Bug’s Life – Oct 1 (featuring our Grasshopper weathervane)

Jewish Origins of Carousel Carving – Sept 28 (featuring a carved piece from the Empire State Carousel at The Farmers’ Museum)

Abraham Lincoln, the Kitchen Companion – Aug 28 (featuring BOTH the life-size statue and the bust of Lincoln by the same artist we received as a result)

Warrior Mermaid – Aug 19 (our great Mary Ann Willson “Maremaid” watercolor)

Knife Box – Oct 15 (this intriguing utilitarian piece will be coming home from the “Through the Eyes of Others” tour in January)

Hudson River Steamboat Collision – Nov 9 (I’m very excited about this piece, which hasn’t been on view in decades!)

A Deaf Artist in Early America – Oct 12 (my favorite folk portrait painter, the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr.)

Hidden Jewell – Nov 23 (our Goddess of Liberty weathervane)

A Canal Runs Through It – Nov 2 (our masterpiece landscape by Thomas Chambers, newly returned from the Chambers exhibition tour)

All in all, you guys really got it right. This is a wonderful selection of works that will allow us to explore a wide range of connections between American folk art and American culture. Since this exhibition will be up all year, we will probably hold another round of voting in the spring to see what pieces get rotated in from the posts I’ve done since mid=December.

Thanks to all who participated in this historic event for our museum. Have a great holiday!!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Champion Bull

We have some magnificent animals at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, and some equally stunning counterparts in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. This bull is one of the best of its type to be found anywhere. One of the biggest too, at 44 ½” long and 31” high. It’s a wood carving, but not meant to be seen by anyone in its current form. That’s because this bull was simply a model for a copper weathervane rather than a finished work of art on its own.

All of the great copper weathervanes, with fully articulated bodies, were originally hand carved in wood by a highly skilled artist. These are rare survivals, since they were not highly valued once the manufactory went out of business. It is very fortunate indeed that this bull was not tossed away. A sharp-eyed dealer named Adele Earnest saved it and we purchased it from her Stony Point Antique Shop in Stony Point, New York in 1954.

The process of taking a wood pattern and creating a copper weathervane required several steps. Nineteenth-century commercial manufacturers followed the steps listed below, with some variations, to produce hollow-bodied copper weathervanes from wooden models like our bull.

How Commercial Weathervanes Were Made
Step One: Artisan carves full-scale model in wood.
Step Two: The model is cut into component parts (see the front view below that shows the bull cut in half down the middle. There are seams for his head, horns, legs, and tail too).

Step Three: Cast iron molds are made from each of the parts of the wood model.

Step Four: Artisan hammers sheet copper into the molds to force the copper into shape.

Step Five: Copper is removed, and additional details are hammered by hand.

Step Six: Copper parts are soldered together, seams smoothed and polished.

Step Seven: Figure mounted on brass tube and gilded.

For any given design, steps one through three had to be done only once. Many weathervanes could be made from the molds before they showed any signs of deterioration.

Large weathervane manufactories such as L. W. Cushing and sons employed professional woodcarvers to carve the patterns. Other artisans would do the metalwork to finish the vane. The weathervane industry is one place where hand craftsmanship and mass production merged to create a large supply of beautifully wrought and decorative vanes to grace houses, barns, and public buildings across the country.

And like so many other folk artists, their cast-offs are as interesting as the finished product.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Grandma Moses Farmstead Preserved

On a recent visit to the Lake George area I came across an article in the local newspaper, The Chronicle, that struck me as worthy of national news. In late November, the Agricultural Stewardship Association, in partnership with Washington County, NY, sought and received funding from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Castanea Foundation to buy development rights to the 171-acre Moses Farm in Eagle Bridge, New York (See April 2008 photo below from the Cambridge Buzz blog). The current owner, Rich Moses, donated the remaining value of the property. It’s interesting that protection for this land came through agencies dedicated to the preservation of farmland rather than through an agency devoted to historic preservation.

Why? Because this tract of land was once owned by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, the most famous American folk artist of all time. These hills and woodlands inspired her art and she in turn brought upstate New York’s beauty to the world.

We did a Grandma Moses exhibition in 2006 at the Fenimore Art Museum and it was enormously successful. Throughout the run of the show I enjoyed sharing stories of this legendary personality. Here are two of my favorite quotes from her:

"A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells."

Of painting, she said, "I don't advise anyone to take it up as a business proposition, unless they really have talent, and are crippled so as to deprive them of physical labor."

There was also the story of Grandma Moses not attending the opening of her first one-person exhibition in New York City, for the reason that she had already seen all the paintings anyway.

My favorite moment of the exhibition season was a visit from Moses’ grandson Carl and his wife Shirley, picturing with me at the top of this post. As I took them through the exhibition, Carl recounted his own stories of his grandmother. One in particular made me chuckle. As a young boy, it was often his duty to bring Grandma’s finished paintings to the train station to ship them to New York. Grandma would hand him the money for the shipping fees and tell him to bring back the change. When he did, she would carefully count it before letting him go. The world-famous artist never stopped being a frugal farm wife.

You can learn more about Grandma Moses on the Galerie St. Etienne website. And now, thanks to the efforts of Carl’s son Rich Moses, you will always be able to see the land she loved just as she saw and painted it seventy years ago.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Full Circle: Rediscovering a Carousel from my Youth

In 1800, an advertisement for a peculiar device appeared in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper. The ad stated that the device was also in use in New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia. It promised to bring “innocent pleasure” and “great satisfaction” and that doctors recommended it as an aid to the circulation of the blood.

The device, derived from those popular in Europe, was an early form of carousel, a “circus ride” with wooden horses. By the mid-19th century, these devices (often consisting of niches and horses that were crude by later standards) appeared in seaside resorts and urban parks.

An 18-year-old German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1864 changed all that. Gustav Dentzel first opened a cabinet shop and then, influenced by his father Michael Dentzel (who built carousels in Germany), formed the G. A. Dentzel Company in 1867. The young Dentzel pioneered the industry in America, employing the most talented carvers who made elegant horses and a whimsical array of other animals, often with lavish carved decoration. His business prospered for decades.

In 1903, the Philadelphia businessman Henry Auchy hired some of Dentzel’s best carvers and formed the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. This firm also had a long and successful history, and helped popularize the Philadelphia style of richly decorated, elegant and refined carousel carving that could be seen in many late 19th-century city parks.

You probably rode one of these carousels as a kid, although very few working examples exist today. Both of these points were driven home to me on a recent shopping trip to the Carousel Mall in Syracuse. The carousel there is one I’ve often admired, and sometimes ridden, especially after having kids. It was built in 1909 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company as their 18th carousel. They had been in business 6 years, so that means they created about three carousels per year. At 54 feet in diameter, and with 42 horses and several bench rides, along with ornate rounding boards, it’s no wonder that it took master carver Leo Zollar some time to produce this carousel.

As I read about its history, which included amusement parks in Louisville, Kentucky, Worcester, Massachusetts, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, I found out something startling. This was the very same carousel that ran at Roseland Park in Canandaigua, New York from 1941 until the park closed in 1985.

It was then I realized that I had ridden this carousel forty years ago. Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid, we used to make the one-hour drive from our cottage in the Finger Lakes to Roseland Park for the day. It was a great park, and one of my favorite rides was the carousel. This carousel.

Considering what I now do for a living, it seems fitting that this great masterpiece of folk art touched my life at such a young age. That I can relive this experience today with my own children is somewhat of a miracle. It is another reminder of the potency of artistry that stems from ordinary people and directly addresses their needs and desires.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Millions In It!"

Folk art often has its roots in the popular culture of its time, and as often as not the folk artist surpasses his or her source material in aesthetic power. Such is the case with the Fenimore Art Museum's unforgettable shop figure “Colonel Sellers” a sculptural marvel created by an unknown artist sometime after the 1870s.

The character of Colonel Sellers has an interesting history. He was a minor comic character in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel The Gilded Age. The novel satirized the lust for wealth, primarily from land speculation. Colonel Sellers lived in poverty but with big dreams of striking it rich in patent medicines, corn speculation, or hog farming. He figured if the corn speculation didn’t work out, he could feed the corn to the hogs. It wasn’t hard to figure out that the Colonel was not destined for riches, and yet he was appealing in his undaunted optimism.

It was the play that far outstripped the novel in popularity, largely because of Colonel Sellers. The first theatrical performances had the Colonel in the background as intended, but he was so well played by actor John T. Raymond that Twain and Warner rewrote the play with Sellers as the main character. It was even renamed “Colonel Sellers.”

Raymond played the character of Colonel Sellers onstage more than a thousand times. He posed as the character in a popular cabinet card (above left), and this pose was copied by the artist J.S. Hartley as a statuette. Somewhere along the line, our unidentified shop figure carver saw either the photo or the statuette or an engraving of one of the other. I’m guessing it was the cabinet card, as the carver mimicked the light tan pants and dark coat. He carved a likeness in wood, 58” tall, and identified the character on the base (above right) along with his signature phrase, “Millions in it!”

But it’s the style of our carving that’s so captivating. Sharp, clean lines. A vigorous posture and gesture. This figure definitely would have caught the attention of passersby, especially on the streets of Sellersville, Pennsylvania (about a half hour north of Philadelphia), where it was reportedly found. How could you not buy patent medicines from this man?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bring Me the Head of Abraham Lincoln

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about our large seated carving of Abraham Lincoln by the woodcarver Frank Moran of Vermont. That post caught the attention of a fellow blogger Kevin Duffy, whose blog, Candler Arts, is one of my favorites. Kevin wrote to me and told me that he had often visited the Fenimore Art Museum and admired our Lincoln. When a bust of Lincoln carved in 1933 by Moran came on the market, he jumped at the chance to buy it. He wrote his own post on the bust back in September.

Well, I’m happy to report that because we both connected in the blogosphere the head of Lincoln has come to Cooperstown to join our statue in the permanent collection of American folk art. It’s a great addition to our representation of Moran’s work. Done about a decade before our seated portrait, the bust of Lincoln has a completely different carving style, much folkier in the quizzical expression on Lincoln’s face. You can now imagine the evolution from this fairly straightforward representation to a more monumental style realized in the larger work.

Frank Moran was one of the great folk carvers of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln is one of the great folk heroes in self-taught art. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War it is especially appropriate that our Lincoln iconography is expanding. Many thanks to Kevin for catching my post and doing one of his own on the piece that now has a home in Cooperstown.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Vote For Me :-)

Well, we're a few days into the voting for the Blog-Readers' Choice exhibition and early results are coming in nicely. There are still alot of people visiting this site and not voting; I'm going to assume that you are waiting and thinking about how to cast your vote, since there are still 10 days to go.
Anyway, on this snowy Saturday in Upstate New York I thought I would just post this not-so-subtle reminder that I need your input to have a great exhibit next year that represents YOUR preferences. So go to the boxes at the right and select your choices. I want to hear from you, regardless of where you are from (for some reason I am very popular in Sweden, England, and Pakistan; thanks for dropping in from that far away!).

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Karolina Danek, the Jewel of Worcester

It’s hard to describe the first time I met Karolina Danek. I had heard from a colleague in the field that she created unique religious paintings and had them all gathered together in a large room in her house. This was the early 1990s, and I was on the lookout for great contemporary folk art to help round out our largely 19th-century collection. So I found out where she lived and headed out on the road.

She lived in a drab part of Worcester, Massachusetts. All of the houses looked the same, a typical working-class neighborhood but since it was late fall there were no people out on the street. It was grey and overcast. I had called Karolina beforehand, of course, and when she greeted me at the door she was very cordial and eager to show her work to any interested person. She knew I was from a museum.

I vaguely recall walking through a couple of non-descript rooms before turning a corner and coming face to face with a sight that made my eyes pop out. In the main rooms of the house, in place of furniture, there were several dozen paintings of all sizes staring back at me. Historical figures, saints, Christ figures, the (Polish) Pope John Paul II, and other likenesses and scenes. They glittered like Tut’s tomb.

Karolina’s story was as fascinating as the artworks. She was born in 1913 and grew up in Poland, where she married and had children. The family survived World War II, but Karolina had some close calls. Once, when a bomb killed a German officer, the Nazis executed some 60 locals in retribution. Karolina narrowly escaped by jumping a fence and hiding out in an attic. She lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for several years before coming the United States in 1950.

Settling in a Polish neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, Karolina took a job at a show factory and sold jewelry on the side. Over the course of her working life Karolina also ran a Rock ‘n Roll club for teenagers and operated a pool hall. She also ran a gift shop where she began in the 1970s to paint scenes of Poland to use as backdrops for her window displays.

As she was nearing retirement, Karolina took up oil painting with zeal. Her work was very good – her brother was an icon painter and restorer – but not distinctive enough to catch the attention of dealers, collectors, or museums. Then she had a brainstorm. After years of selling jewelry at a local store she hit upon the idea of adding “jewels” (mostly craft jewelry applied with Elmer’s glue) to her iconic images to echo the gilded and jeweled icons of her native land.

The result was stunning, as you can see. But Karolina had even bigger dreams. It was one of her overarching goals to create huge, nine-foot-tall images of Christ and the twelve Apostles and display them in a natural setting, with trees, grass, and flowers. She had hoped to complete this work by the new millennium in 2000. Shortly after I met her she moved from Worcester to Caribou in northern Maine, with the intent to purchase an old church building to house this group of religious paintings.

It never happened. Karolina died in 1997 at the age of 84. But her life’s work, hundreds of passionate, expressive paintings, grace many public and private art collections, including the one now in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (upper right and detail at right). She never referred to the painting we own as an artwork. To her it was her “Holy Mother.” It is a magnificent piece that is as infused with devotion as the formidable soul who created it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Blog Reader's Choice Poll Now Open!

The polls are open for our Blog Reader's Choice exhibition! See the list at right, and select your favorites to be included in our Fenimore Art Museum exhibition in 2010. You may vote for more than one item.

As I mentioned yesterday, this voting period will run for two weeks, and will end on Tuesday, December 15, at noon. IMPORTANT: IF YOU EXPERIENCE ANY TROUBLE VOTING, PLEASE CONTACT ME AT

In the meantime, stay tuned for more great coontent. i will continue to post, of course, although these new posts will not appear on the poll. I may do another poll over the winter to see if you all would like to select some mid-year replacements in the exhibition.

Our galleries are ready and waiting! All we need is you. So vote!



Monday, November 30, 2009

Voting Starts Tomorrow!!!

Tomorrow, December 1st, marks the start of our two-week voting period to decide which folk art pieces from the Fenimore Art Museum collection go on view in our galleries next spring. As in the test run a couple of weeks ago, your choices will appear in a polling gadget on the right side of this page. I will list the blog posts by date so you can easily find them and read them again if that helps you decide.

Please bear in mind that I had one reader who had difficulty voting using Firefox, but no trouble when he switched to Internet Explorer. So if you have trouble, see if this helps.

In the meantime, here is the list you will see tomorrow, listed by date. Thanks for helping us shape a great new folk art exhibit! I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Headless Bodies: Myth or Fiction? – Aug 14
If these walls could talk – Aug 17
Warrior Mermaid – Aug 19
Limner on the Lam – Aug 20
Abraham Lincoln, the Kitchen Companion – Aug 28
The Negro Portrayed as “a Beast” – Aug 31
Vegetarian Lumberjack – Sept 3
Fasanella’s Labor of Love – Sept 7
The African American Cigar Store Indian – Sept 14
Did F.H. Sweet Paint with his Feet? – Sept 17
Where there’s Smoke – Sept 24
Jewish Origins of Carousel Carving – Sept 28
A Bug’s Life – Oct 1
Framed in Maine – Oct 4
Folk Art in Moby Dick – Oct 8
A Deaf Artist in Early America – Oct 12
Knife Box – Oct 15
Edgar Tolson – Oct 26
The Limner Makes a House Call – Oct 29
A Canal Runs Through It – Nov 2
Yankee Stadium – Nov 5
Hudson River Steamboat Collision – Nov 9
Clementine Hunter – Nov 12
Two Heads are Better than One – Nov 17
Chance Encounter – Nov 19
Hidden Jewell – Nov 23
Mistake of Epic Proportions – Nov 26

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Mistake of Epic Proportions

When it comes to scholarship on works of art, nothing trumps common sense. A couple of days ago I was reminded of this while walking through our storage facility and glancing across the room at a large ship’s figurehead that we have had in the Fenimore Art Museum collection for many years. I’ve seen it many times, of course, and have never really given it the attention it deserves. This time, I did a double-take.

The figurehead came to us from the Jean and Howard Lipman Collection, and was said to depict Hercules. In fact, it came with a great history: it was reportedly made for the ship “Herculean” out of Kingston, Massachusetts, built in 1839 and used primarily for the shipment of cotton from the southern United States to New England and on to Europe. According to the history of the ship, during one particular voyage in 1849 the Herculean put into port at Glasgow, Scotland with numerous leaks. These leaks were allegedly caused by having too much weight in the bow owing to the 800 lb. figurehead mounted there. When the ship returned to Boston the figurehead was said to have been removed and replaced with a smaller, lighter billet-head.
The figurehead’s story from that point on is remarkably detailed. Sources say it was brought to the Holmes shipyard, where the Herculean was built, and mounted to the second story of the rigging and sail loft. After the building was torn down, the figurehead lay in the sand among the cast-off timbers of the yard for years until it was rescued by a local man who placed it among the shrubs of his garden in Kingston. After a time there it disappeared.

We acquired the figurehead from Mr. and Mrs. Lipman in 1950. It is not known when or where they purchased it, along with the history above. It’s a great story, and the residents of Kingston were delighted to find the piece in our galleries, with the label detailing its history, in 1953.

The problem is simple. Look at the figurehead.

A toga? A scroll in the right hand? I’m not a classically trained scholar, but I have no recollection of ever hearing about or reading the Writings of Hercules, or the Speeches of Hercules. I’m not even sure he could read or write. Common sense tells me that this figurehead cannot be Hercules, and the connection with the Herculean must have a glitch somewhere.

Fred Fried, the preeminent scholar of folk sculpture in the 1970s, agreed when he saw this figurehead in 1970. A note from him tucked away in our research file states that he felt that carvers, even folk carvers, had a pretty good sense of their iconography. Look, for example, at the Hercules figurehead from the U.S.S. Ohio, now on display in Stony Brook (above).
Now that’s Hercules.

So who do we have? A Roman statesman, perhaps. That’s a problem we now have to confront. When we do, hopefully common sense will guide us.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hidden Jewell

It was a gilded age, to be sure. Lavish mansions in cities large and small, palatial homes by the sea, even large and prosperous farm complexes dotting the rural landscape. The late nineteenth century was definitely a time when homes, furnishings, and decorative accessories became elaborate and highly ornate. This was particularly true of one area of folk art that could be seen virtually anywhere in America: weathervanes.

Weathervanes of the Gilded Age were largely produced by large companies like L. W. Cushing & Sons of Waltham, Massachusetts and J. W. Fiske of New York. These manufacturers employed craftsmen to create copper vanes in a wide variety of types and styles in multiple sizes (often covered in gold leaf; that’s the “gilded” part) to be sold in catalogues that were distributed everywhere. They were mass-produced, but still hand crafted, thus maintaining a connection with the idea and spirit of folk art. As you might imagine, these vanes are highly prized, and have been for decades. You can forget about buying an authentic one with a solid provenance, unless you have too much money to sit around reading folk art blogs. Some bold thieves have even tried to steal these vanes from cupolas and steeples from helicopters, but this is not recommended. It is an act of air piracy and a Federal crime.

We have, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, two prime examples of this form of American sculpture. The first is a grasshopper weathervane attributed to L. W. Cushing & Sons and made about 1885. I highlighted this piece in my October 1 post.

The other example, our Goddess of Liberty weathervane, has an even more interesting history. It was thought to be by Cushing too, but it has a patent date of September 1865 on its base. Cushing did not go into the weathervane business until 1867, when he bought an established business at auction. That business belonged to the pioneer of the commercial weathervane business, Alvin Jewell. Jewell started manufacturing weathervanes in 1852, along with other cast-iron and brass products for the home. He was the first to market his weathervanes in catalogues, and his repertoire included the Goddess of Liberty. Tragically, Jewell died in a fall from a scaffold in 1867 (this must have been an occupational hazard). When Cushing bought the business, he also purchased all of Jewell’s molds, thus enabling himself to reproduce all of the favorite vanes. That’s why it is so hard to tell a Cushing from a Jewell. See, for example, the Cushing version of the Goddess of Liberty in his 1883 catalogue at upper left.

In this case, however, we have the patent date as proof. Since Jewell was the only one making these goddesses in 1865, we now realize that we may have the only documented Goddess of Liberty by this important innovator. A Jewell indeed.
The images of the 1883 L. W. Cushing & Sons catalogues are courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A chance encounter brings a folk art masterpiece to Cooperstown

The most historically important piece in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection may never have been known if not for the chance encounter of two remarkable women on a hot summer day in Cooperstown in 1954. The setting was our then-annual Seminars on American Culture, a program that brought together national scholars and local historians for course and workshops in American history, art, and culture. The two women: the legendary folk art scholar Nina Fletcher Little (whose collection is now owned by Historic New England); and Mabel Parker Smith, County Historian for Greene County, on the Hudson River south of Albany.

Nina Little (1899 -1993) had the reputation of being an astute collector of all things New England, and she often scoured the countryside herself in search of overlooked items of great historical importance. She had even picked through the antique shops of upstate New York in order to “rescue” those New England pieces that had migrated westward. Mrs. Little had also written seminal studies of American folk art in the 1940s and 1950s.

Mabel Smith (1903-1996), if less well-known, was no less interesting. She had been a journalist in the New York State Capital, in fact the only woman with a permanent desk in the Capital press room. She covered the trial of gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond and the impeachment proceedings against New York City Mayor James J. Walker. She also had a keen interest in the history of her home county, which had been settled by the Dutch in the 17th century, and had been through many local homes in the process of researching the county’s long history.

Well, on that summer day in Cooperstown, Mrs. Smith sat in on a course given by Mrs. Little on American folk art, listening to her discuss painted overmantels. These were scenes painted on board meant to be set into the panel above an 18th- or 19th-century fireplace mantel. Mrs. Little wondered aloud why, despite their prevalence in New England, she had never found an overmantel in New York State.

The casual remark immediately struck a chord in Mrs. Smith, who had recently visited the home of two elderly descendents of the Van Bergen family who told her they had an old overmantel dating from their family home’s early days. After the Seminars, she went back to the house to see it again, and was convinced that it was an authentic New York State overmantel. She brought it to the attention of our then-Director Louis c. Jones, who had the museum purchase the piece for $100 even though it was too dirty to make out much detail.

It was only after cleaning and researching the Van Bergen Overmantel (which is fully seven feet long and 16” high) that its true historical value came to light.

Painted about 1732, it is the earliest known scene of everyday life in America.

It is the ONLY scene of everyday from 18th-century Dutch New York.

It is the earliest known view of the Catskill Mountains, which were to play such a prominent role in the Hudson River School landscapes of a century later.

It depicts a complete social stratification, from the prosperous landowner and his family, to their indentured servants and slaves, and even shows Indians from a neighboring tribe who traded with the Dutch. For a large, detailed image of the whole piece, follow this link.

To say that Mabel Parker Smith was proud of her find would be an understatement. She often told the story of her discovery in interviews and newspaper articles published locally. And when she passed away at the age of 93, visitors to her wake were probably not surprised to see a large color reproduction of the Van Bergen Overmantel stretched along the length of her casket.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two heads are better than one

It appears that the Blogger polling gadget is working fine, with 20 voted so far and the results viewable at the right. I set the gadget to accept votes until 4 pm today, so by all means give it a try if you are so inclined. As I said in my post from Sunday, the real voting starts on TUESDAY, DECEMBER 1ST. Meanwhile, here's a new post.

This painting is truly one of our horrors. It is an 1840s portrait that depicts an unidentified gentleman holding a cane. You can tell by the way that it was painted that the artist had no particular talent in either naturalistic rendering or bold, colorful patterning of shapes and forms. There’s no realism, and no visual interest. Plus, the man scowls at the viewer like sitting for his portrait was a form of torture.

The painting was found in Rhode Island in the 1940s by Agnes Halsey Jones, the wife of our former director Louis c. Jones. She admitted to me some years ago that the only reason she bought this was that she was new to the field and had just discovered “primitives,” as folk art was then called. So she bought everything she found. She was quick to say that this work was a piece of junk, really, and not worthy of the Fenimore Art Museum collection.

Except for one small detail. Actually two details, that make this painting raise the eyebrows of every folk art specialist who has seen it, including me.
Take a look at the back. The painting was never relined so you are able to see the original reverse of the canvas. It’s different from any others that I have ever seen in my 27 years of looking at this material.

There are two painted heads on the back, one at the top and the other, upside down, at the bottom. The one at the top is clearly a woman, and the one at the bottom a child. The artist apparently used the reverse of the canvas to practice two other portraits, perhaps of the man’s wife and child. He even coated the surface of the reverse with a grey ground, a common practice for the design surface on the front to make the porous canvas surface readily hold paint.

With the reverse of the painting as it is, this artwork must be considered a rare surviving piece of evidence of the working methods of a folk painter. And worth keeping. But not exhibiting any time soon. We don’t make it a practice to scare small children.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Testing Polling Gadget for Blog-Curated Exhibition!

I mentioned in my post for Sunday, November 1 that I would be organizing the Fenimore Art Museum's first-ever blog-curated exhibition scheduled to open in the Spring of 2010. The content of this exhibition will be determined by you, the blog readers. I know from my stats that there are alot of you, some 3,300 per month, and new readers all the time. You will have the opportunity to vote for your favorite post, and the posts that get the most votes will be included in the exhibition along with the object most closely representing the content and, of course, the wording from the actual post as it appears in this blog.

In preparation for the actual voting, which will take place the first two weeks of December, I am testing the Blogger polling gadget for the next two days to see if it will work for this purpose. It appears at the right. Please note that I have included the dates of these posts so you can go back and reread them. I will probably include more posts in the actual voting.

So go ahead and vote for your favorite, but remember IT WON'T COUNT FOR REAL THIS TIME. I'll give you plenty of warning when the real voting begins. In the meantime, I'll at least know that the gadget works and that you all are interested enough to vote in large numbers.

You only get one vote (I may change that to three if you all think that is better).

Thanks for voting! And drop me a comment if you have better ideas on how to do this.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Clementine Hunter's Black Crucifixion

Simple, raw emotive power. The ability to form, in a few stark lines, an indelible impression representing a lifetime of experience. While much of the folk art in the Fenimore Art Museum possesses an intricacy and workmanship that can only be admired, virtually none has the impact of one small (15 1/4" square), unassuming piece: Clementine Hunter’s Black Crucifixion, painted sometime in the 1950s. And it’s not just the style. Hunter’s Jesus is black, and a woman.

Clementine Hunter had seen a lot of years, more than 100, actually. She was born in 1886 or 1887 at Hidden Hill Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, and grew up picking cotton. She worked for more than 75 years at nearby Melrose Plantation, not only in the cotton fields but also in the laundry and kitchen. The mistress of Melrose, Cammie Henry, made her home into a lively gathering place for artists, critics, and other cultural figures. By sheer happenstance, one of the visitors to Melrose in the 1950s left behind some discarded paints and brushes. Finding these items, Clementine did her first painting on an old window shade. It was the first of 4,000 works she would complete before her death in 1988.

Hunter’s subjects are usually memories of plantation life; weddings, funerals, baptisms, and cotton picking (lower right). In many of these works she includes a depiction of the “African House,” an old slaves’ quarters (designed and built by slaves; see below) on the grounds of Melorse. Painting in thick, expressive brush strokes, Hunter developed ways to enliven her works with color and composition. Rows of cotton pickers, for example, are often stacked vertically. She signed her work with her initials, writing the “C” backwards in deference to her mistress, whose initials were the same.

Few critics discuss her crucifixions, but they are her most powerful works. The one in our collection clearly shows a black woman on the cross, hands seemingly missing, suggesting mutilation. Blood drips from the nailed wrists and feet. She is flanked by angels signifying redemption. This is not an image you will forget any time soon.

Most critics refer to Hunter as a memory artist, and few of her paintings hint at the nature of her existence. Nor did she make much of it in the scores of interviews conducted with her over the years. Most of her work celebrates a good, long life.
But in a few pictures she quietly reminds us of the pain she must have witnessed and felt. Keep in mind that between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute, 335 African Americans were lynched in Louisiana alone. Hundreds more, of course, in neighboring states. Clementine Hunter must have heard of these atrocities and, perhaps, alluded to them in her black crucifixions. Only when we establish this context can we appreciate the transcendent spirit of her art.
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