Actually, I encountered one of our trustees, Jeff Pressman, who told me about the artwork. The piece that caught Jeff’s eye is a large watercolor and ink drawing of the world by a young female student probably as part of her course of study at an academy. Always anxious about the prospect of someone buying things like this out from under me, I immediately hopped the subway to The American Antiques Show and sought out the booth of Sam Herrup, where this piece was hung.
It was even more spectacular than I had imagined. The young artist, Mary Hollister, had produced a stunning rendition of both hemispheres of the world on two large sheets of paper. Her work included a fanciful outline of all of the various countries filled in with vibrant strokes of watercolor, and embellished with lively calligraphic inscriptions on the margins. At the top of the Western Hemisphere she included an American eagle, and above the Eastern Hemisphere she put a hot air balloon; symbols of home as well as of adventure in far-off lands. The entire work is covered with minute penwork marking everything from the waves in the oceans to the edges of the picture.
We know from Mary’s inscription that she lived in Ballston, New York (north of Albany) and completed this work on March 24, 1832. She even included her instructor’s name, S. Cole. But here’s the really startling thing about the piece: Mary Hollister was born in Burnt Hills, New York on May 8, 1820, making her just 11 years old when she painted this folk art masterpiece.
We have a good number of strikingly beautiful schoolgirl pieces in our collection, and they always amaze me when I see the age of the girls who produced them. Most of our pieces are needlework pictures, so this map watercolor stands out by virtue of its medium and its size (it measures 23 ¼ “ x 38 ¼ ”).
So now Mary Hollister’s map of the world is now installed in our main folk art gallery, and she joins our roster of superb nineteenth-century schoolgirl artists, a small-town, preteen girl with an astonishingly sophisticated worldview.
Paul D'Ambrosio is President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and oversees one of the best folk art collections in the United States. He has organized exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor of American Folk Art in the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies and the author of numerous books and articles about American folk art.