It was one of the most dramatic “rescue stories” in American folk art. An iconic painting one small step away from the dumpster, spotted by knowledgeable collectors of the period. What happened became one of the collector’s favorite stories about one of her favorite pieces, the Fenimore Art Museum’s “Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine.”
The collector was Jean Lipman, who was also Editor of Art in America in the 1930 and 1940s. She had a thorough grounding in modern art and had written a feature on Stephen C. Clark’s collection (Clark, of course, was the main benefactor of the Fenimore Art Museum). Lipman had been collecting American folk art seriously since about 1938, meticulously recording each purchase in a little black notebook (now in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York).
It was late in 1941, just about the time when the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, when Mrs. Lipman was on one of her week-long treks from her home in western Connecticut to Maine, scouring the countryside for folk art. She happened upon one of those “open barn” shops in Norway, Maine, about 40 miles north of Portland. An unassuming picture caught her eye; an eye honed by eyes of assessing the bold abstractions of modern art and the similar flattened and patterned compositions found in folk art. It was a townscape, oil on canvas, cheaply framed. Mrs. Lipman inquired about the price. Fifty cents was the answer: for the frame, of course. The “painting” was free.
The rest is folk art history. Mrs. Lipman bought the picture (or rather, the frame) and published it in her seminal book, American Primitive Painting, in 1942, and it became a star. Since the 1940s it has been in numerous exhibitions in the United States and Europe, appeared on the cover of Antiques Magazine, and was featured as a Christmas postage stamp by the U. S. Postal Service in 1969. Research has uncovered its source image, a 19th-century chromolithograph “copied” by the unknown artist.
And in the end, the Fenimore Art Museum benefited from Mrs. Lipman’s luck and acumen. When she negotiated the sale of her collection in 1950 to Stephen Clark (whose intention was to give the collection to us), Mrs. Lipman boldly asked him to pay her double what she had paid for each item.
The price to Mr. Clark for this icon: one dollar. To this day, I wouldn’t dream of replacing the frame.