My good friend Jackie Oak came to town this week to give a lecture about the Shelburne Museum and Electra Havemeyer Webb to the graduate students in my American folk art course. Jackie has been a great folk art scholar for decades; she curated the landmark exhibition “Face To Face: Milton Hopkins and Noah North” for the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts back in the 80s. It was a rich cultural history of folk art, reform movements, and westward migration.
Well, it seems Ms. Oak has a new idea for a folk art project, only this time she’s going to do it for the Fenimore Art Museum in 2012. It’s an idea that has needed to be done since the 1940s. That’s why I’m so excited.
Her subject will be one of the most interesting and influential folk artists of the 19th century. And one of the strangest. The exhibition and catalogue will be about William Matthew Prior.
Here are some facts about Prior to whet your appetite and let you know why this is going to be so exciting.
Prior (1806-1873) was born in Maine and learned to paint there, then moved to Boston where he and his in-laws and friends formed a large painting studio where they all worked in a similar style. It has taken scholars years to sort out who did what.
Prior was an ardent abolitionist, and did more portraits of African Americans than anyone else, and at a time when it was not always safe to do so. His portraits of black subjects include William Whipper from our collection at the upper right, Mrs. Lawson from the Shelburne Museum at the upper left, and Three Sisters of the Copeland Famiy above.
Prior was also one of the great folk painters of children, and often captured their likenesses in vibrant colors and lively compositions, such as the patriotic image of the Flye children at the left.
Prior was a follower of the religious leader William Miller; many of the portraits he painted were done with the artist’s firm belief that the world was going to end in 1844. The Fenimore Art Museum owns Prior’s portrait of Miller!
Prior was the first (and maybe the only) artist to develop a price scale and offer simpler portraits for ¼ price, thus making likenesses accessible to the working class.
Prior advertised that he could paint portraits “by spirit effect” and capture likenesses of people long dead, like ship captains lost at sea. His wife advertised as a clairvoyant.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course. And Jackie is the perfect cultural historian to bring it all out. But I wanted all of you to hear it here first. Stay tuned.