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.