Here’s a good Curatorial Tall Tale from the research files. We have had this painting of the Buck Farm by F.H. Sweet in our collection since 1961. I’ve never exhibited it, but recalled reading somewhere that there was something unusual about the artist. Just today I went back to the file and found a note from 1964, which read:
This week a lady visitor told the guide that she was adopted into the Buck family at the age of five years and lived in this house until her marriage. She remembers Mr. Sweet, the artist, who came along the road one day and asked to paint the house. He was born without arms and painted this and another just like it, with his feet.
True story. Not.
Some years later one of the students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program conducted interviews with Buck family members and even found Sweet’s niece living just a short distance away in Mohawk, New York, near Utica. Here’s what the student found out:
Frank H. Sweet was born in Middleville, about 10 miles north of Mohawk, date unknown but most definitely with both arms intact. As a youth his right side was paralyzed by an overdose of medicine. He worked in Glens Falls as a bookkeeper for a time, and then moved back to the Mohawk Valley. At some point he started painting for a living, getting buggy rides from the family he lived with and apparently painting or sketching local farms from the buggy, using his left hand. He died before 1940 and is buried in Middleville Cemetery in Herkimer County.
This painting of the Buck Farm (seen in its entirety at the top) was painted in Salisbury Center, just a few miles north of Mohawk, about 1915. Mr. Buck was a builder of stone fences and used oxen to haul the stone. The object on the red barn (seen in the detail above) is a pair of ox horns. Buck also ran a slaughterhouse, processing the meat in the red barn and storing in the barn on the left side of the painting.
And so Frank H. Sweet joins a long list of folk artists with disabilities that have been documented traveling the back roads of 19th-century America plying their trade, including such legendary figures as John Brewster, Jr. and Joseph Whiting Stock. It says a lot about early 20th-century sensibilities that he was remembered as a kind of sideshow figure, supposedly painting with is feet. Good solid research has put his brush back in his hand, where it belongs. And it won’t be long before this painting goes up on the walls of our folk art gallery here at the Fenimore Art Museum.