Sunday, June 27, 2010

Girl with a Squirrel

Show figure carvers of the late nineteenth century were the most dynamic advertisers of their day. They created large, often life sized, sculptural figures for businesses to place on the sidewalk in front of their businesses to attract customers. Naturally, the carvers sought every advantage in capturing attention; in particular, they looked to popular culture to appropriate images that would be instantly recognizable.  The life size figure of a Lady of Fashion in the Fenimore Art Museum collection is a great example of this phenomenon.
Generations of visitors to the museum have looked at this figure and asked, “Why does she have a squirrel on her head?” The answer is a couple of layers deep.  In the early 1870s, the printmaking firm of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives published a lithograph poking fun at women’s fashions of the times. The print, called “Girl of the Period,” showed a modern young woman in a fashionable dress (complete with bustle in the rear and the forward-leaning “Grecian Bend”) with a hat that seemingly included a live squirrel. The inclusion of the squirrel was meant to lampoon the use (over-use?) of animal fur in the extravagant hats of the era. 

It’s worth noting that the young lady is also smoking a cigarette. Show figure carvers like Samuel Robb of New York (the artist who likely carved our figure) catered mainly to establishments that sold tobacco. The most ubiquitous figures for advertising tobacconists’ shops was, of course, the cigar store Indian. But by the 1870s the carvers had gotten much more creative in an attempt to catch the attention of a public that had gotten used to the Native American figures. Hence, the plethora of new figures that included everything from baseball players to Santa Claus.
The demand for these figures can be judged by the output of the carving shops. Robb’s main competitor (and former teacher), Thomas V. Brooks of New York, advertised that his shop  could produce about 200 figures a year, and he always had about 100 figures on the showroom floor at any one time. The figures went out to locations across the country, where they graced the sidewalks of small towns and cities just about everywhere.
Although most commercial folk art forms from the nineteenth century were replaced by technology (such as the camera, which eliminated the need for folk portraiture), these show figures had a very different nemesis: they were legislated out of existence. By the turn of the century, new ordinances designed to make urban areas safer and cleaner banned large obstructions from sidewalks.  Untold numbers of these great carvings were discarded. A lucky few were collected by visionaries who saw their artistic value and importance to a national culture that was rapidly disappearing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Hero of New Orleans

America’s popular heroes owe a large measure of their immortality to the everyday artists who made their images ubiquitous. We have in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection an example of a watercolor and ink rendering that memorializes one of the great moments in the career of a military figure and politician, indeed the event that made him an American icon.

In December 1814 and January 1815, General Andrew Jackson won critical encounters against a larger British force to secure New Orleans (and the entire Louisiana Purchase, comprising most of the American West) from falling into enemy hands. Although the battles largely took place after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, the American victories persuaded the British to comply with the treaty without the need for additional hostilities.

Jackson became an immediate hero; the country began celebrating January 8th as the anniversary of the battle, and nine years later Jackson ascended to the presidency of the United States. It was during his campaign for a second term in 1832 that a Connecticut printmaker named Daniel Wright Kellogg issued a lithograph that showed Jackson, “The Hero of New Orleans,” (above) astride a rearing horse reminiscent of the famous image of Napoleon crossing the Alps painted by Jacques Louis David in 1805 (below). Kellogg’s prints found their way into homes across the United States, and helped to solidify Jackson’s military legacy as well as his political future.

Somehow, one such print found its way into the hands of a young woman named Betsy Wellman, and she was inspired enough by the subject and composition that she decided to make her own version (see the image at the top of this post). And what she created is amazing. Jackson’s horse is drawn in intricate calligraphic flourishes and tight stippling, while his saddle blanket and bags are recast in bright, bold patterns of color and line. The result is a perfect blend of watercolor highlights on a confidently rendered ink drawing. A homegrown hero brought to life with artistic techniques known to every schoolchild.

We actually own another version of the same subject by an unidentified artist (above), probably done at about the same time as Betsy Wellman’s (ca. 1840). This drawing really emphasizes the calligraphy, which gives it a more lively appearance but without the bold composition.

Taken together, the two folk art pieces show how ordinary people, borrowing from other artists and using their distinctive skills, greatly embellished the visual legacy of the arts in America. At the same time, they may have had an important role in shaping the country’s political future. It’s hard to trump a folk hero.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bringing Eliza Back Down to Earth

This striking portrait of a young girl seated in a rocker in front of a landscape scene has been the subject of debate here for many years. She is identified as Eliza smith of Providence, Rhode Island, painted probably in the 1830s on a canvas measuring about 36” x 27”. We do know a bit about Eliza from an article published in the journal Rhode Island History in 1978. She was born in 1831, grew up in Providence, and became a well-known schoolteacher in that town from 1860 to 1889. Eliza never married, and when she died in 1901 she left her possessions, including this portrait, to friends, as she had no descendants.

According to our records there once was a card attached to the reverse that read” Eliza smith Born Stuart St. Providence 1827./Taught for 40 years in the schools of Johnson, R.I./Painting by pastor of Broad Street Christian Church, 1832.” Unfortunately this card was lost prior to our acquiring the painting, but it is worth noting the inaccuracies in the information when compared to the research on Eliza. The pastor of the Broad Street Christian Church in the 1830s has been identified as Rev. Elijah W. Burrows, but it is hard to name him as the artist based on a card we have never seen and that included so many factual errors. So the painting remains unattributed to any known artist.

It is the picture itself, however, that has caused the controversy I alluded to above. Take a look at the setting for Eliza’s portrait. The artist has placed her in what appears to be a room interior, clearly indicated by the patterned carpet and baseboard. Behind Eliza there is a landscape with a turbulent sky, distant hills, and several buildings including a church. The buildings have not been identified as any known structures in Providence.

The weird thing about the painting is that the floor and baseboard do not seem to bear any visual relation to the landscape scene behind the sitter. There is no corner to the scenery to correspond with the baseboard below. This makes it seem as if Eliza is floating in a shallow box over a landscape of personal importance to her. A number of commentators on this work have described the artist’s presentation as “mysterious” and “almost psychological” in the rendering of a floating room. Suuporting this theory is the presence of a strip of brown paint along the bottom of the painting, which makes it appear that the "baseboard" was actually four sides of a tray in which Eliza sits (or hovers).

I think there is a far simpler explanation for what we’re seeing here. As we have seen in previous posts, there was a real passion for painted walls in nineteenth-century America, and many of those wall murals were fully realized landscapes in imitation of French scenic wallpaper. I think the artist of Eliza’s portrait recreated such a wall mural and simply avoided the difficult perspective challenge of turning the corner on the scenery.

An easy and effective solution to an artistic problem that the untrained artist couldn’t solve any other way. And a reminder that the ways we have been taught to “read” artworks in the twentieth century have very little bearing on how they were created in the century preceding it. It was the Victorian Age, after all, when the realm of the subconscious was buried deep beneath the hard soil of propriety.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Blue House

So many of the little pictures in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection are treasure troves of historical information, we tend to forget that there are many that offer a distinctly visual experience despite the lack of detail or information about their origins. Anyone with a taste for modern art would argue, of course, that it is precisely the lack of detail that makes these works so important and so appealing. Such is the case with “Blue House,” an enigmatic but unforgettable watercolor and pen piece done in 1847 and measuring only 13" x 16".

I’ve always admired this piece, but never gave it the attention it deserves because there just isn’t much to say about its history. It is dated, obviously, and initialed by the artist, whose full name is unknown. Jean Lipman acquired the piece from a dealer outside of Richmond, Virginia in 1941, with the notation that it might possibly be of Pennsylvania origin. We’ve never been able to add to that paltry amount of data on “Blue House.”

There is much to be gained, however, if one just looks. It is a striking design pattern, with the rigid geometry of the house and fences all executed in a beautiful monochromatic blue. The artist took great pains to make the flourishes subtle; look at the places where the lines intersect on the house’s outside walls, windows, doorway, and even the artist’s initials and you will find distinct checkerboard patterns in miniature.

The great thing about this piece is that the geometry is very gently softened by more organic lines, especially in the trees, which are done with calligraphic swirls and small hatch marks. Likewise, the large crescent moon and stars at the upper right and the sphere (full moon? Or sun?) at the upper left introduce nature into this representational abstraction.

Lipman felt that “Blue House” was reminiscent of a whole body of female folk art widely practiced in the nineteenth century: cross-stitch samplers. In those works the geometry is imposed by the medium, as you can see from the examples in the collections of both the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown. It seems likely that “Blue House” was done by a young woman in a female academy where needlework and watercolor skills were thought to be essential to the education of a young lady.

It says a lot that these anonymous young women produced work that the early modernist painters of a century later would admire and emulate. They knew, as we all do now, that artists of all kinds had for a long time turned to abstraction to order their world, even here in America.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Mobile Masterpieces: Art Cars

I ran into my former folk art student Kat Bevington today and it reminded me that she had written a great blog post about Art Cars for my Cooperstown Graduate Program class last fall. I haven't posted it yet because the post and images were on an old laptop that went kaput over the winter. A little digging into my old email turned up the post, however, and I found some good images she references in the text, so here it is.

Americans love their cars. Sometimes that love turns into a different emotion, the kind that expresses its self in 10,000 pens glued to the hood, a flame thrower on the roof, or two hundred and fifty plastic singing fish and lobsters mounted to the side. Art Cars are definitely attention-getting. If art is in the eye of the beholder, any auto enthusiast should get a kick out of Art Cars. Not to be confused with parade floats, these drivable works of wonder are registered, insured automobiles created by artists from various backgrounds from self-taught folk artists to custom car experts. Rather than create a “cherry” version of the car’s past glory, Art Car artists create crazy rides using paint and a variety of interesting objects. Interestingly, unlike in other car groups, almost half of the artists are female.

If you ever find yourself near San Francisco, Houston, Minneapolis, or Baltimore, treat yourself to an Art Car event. These festivals and parades showcase over 100 unique auto creations from all over the United States and Canada. Notable wild wheels from past events include the Glass Quilt, a VW Bug elaborately covered with marbles, and the Red Stiletto, a bright red high heel-shaped vehicle dubbed “the sexiest car ever.” In addition to decorated vehicles and their respective owners of in matching costume, the festivals commonly feature live music performances, food, film screenings, fashion shows, dancing, and kids workshops where kids can create an Art Car from scratch.

Art Cars are as diverse as the people that make them. They give owners who have a passion for art and cars with an outlet for personal expression. Many Art Car artists see their cars as an extension of their identity and personality, adding new meaning to the concept of “you are what you drive.” Philo Northrup, a Car Art enthusiast, is quoted in the September 22, 1997, issue of Wired News as saying “You cross a line where you are saying ‘creativity and self-expression are more important than resale value.’” Art Cars provide artists with a way to incorporate art into their everyday lives as they drive their vehicles to work, to the store, and on the highway. These mobile masterpieces also add to part of the broader goal to expose contemporary art by self taught artists – bringing folk art to the folk.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Celebrated Dancing Stump of Calaveras County

There is, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, a large group of paintings that can loosely be described as scenes of everyday life. These held great appeal for the museum in its early days when they were being collected for Cooperstown. The museum’s parent organization, the New York State Historical Association, had a long-standing involvement with local history through programs such as the Seminars on American Culture and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies. The latter offered a Master’s degree not only in History Museum Studies but also in American Folklife. And so we have been handed down an important legacy in these works that depict the moments of history that are too often left out of the history books.

When considering these paintings it is important to remember that the nineteenth century, when many of them were painted, was actually a period of rapid change in America. Modes of communication expanded greatly, much like today, and thus our assumptions about the “local-ness” of the images we are seeing can be more complicated than we imagine. This is particularly true of one painting in our collection, entitled Dance on a Sequoia Stump, found in Massachusetts and signed by an artist known only as F. R. Bennett probably around 1875.

Research into this painting in the 1960s quickly identified it as a depiction of a well-known event that took place thousands of miles away, in Calaveras County, California in the 1850s. This region of giant and ancient Sequoia forests is best known as the setting for Mark Twain’s classic “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1867. Thirteen years prior to that, however, in July 1854, something else happened that was thought to be quite remarkable at the time: a huge sequoia known only as the Big Tree was felled. Local accounts stated that the tree was more than 1,300 years old, had bark that was nearly 18 inches thick, and had a total diameter of twenty-five feet!

According to an 1888 publication titled Heart of the Sierras, the tree had gotten along fine until some vandals remove the bark to the height of thirty feet, in order to make a room for exhibition at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. This bark removal killed the tree, which was later felled to create souvenirs. It supposed took five men twenty-two days to fell the tree using pump-augers. Afterward, on July 4, 1854, the locals held a cotillion on the stump, and maintained that the remnant of the noble tree was so large it could accommodate thirty-two dancers.

Why did Bennett paint a scene so far removed from his probable home state of Massachusetts? He likely got the idea from a stereopticon, a form of photography meant to be viewed through a special viewer to give the image a three-dimensional effect. Yes, 3-D is not a new phenomenon. These images were distributed across the country and helped blur the line between local and national, as did other forms of popular culture such as the lithograph. Folk artists eager to find recognizable images for their paintings often borrowed from these sources to guide their compositions.

Some artists, however, were more literal than others: when F. R. Bennett carefully delineated his stump dancers, he made sure that the count was exactly thirty-two.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin