Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Little Peacock

Here is an object that is more familiar to most as a logo than as a real artifact. It is small carving of a peacock, just about 10” high, made of several pieces of wood and painted in muted tones to mimic the bird’s plumage. It stands on a small carved base with two articulated legs, one positioned slightly ahead of the other as if the bird was walking. The base itself is fascinating; it has a hole in the middle presumably for a dowel or rod, as if it was meant to swivel. But it also has a hole in the front whose purpose is unknown.

The most prominent feature of this little carving is the peacock’s tail, which is magnificent even on such a small scale. The tail, a separate piece of wood, has a lively scalloped edge and is scored along the wood grain to give it texture. Most important, the unknown artist of this piece turned the tail parallel to the body to give it the maximum visual impact when view from the side. It is this distinctive profile that has given this bird its greatest fame. We have over the years used the peacock as a logo for our educational programs and activities, including the annual Seminars on American Culture back in the 1950s.

Very little is known of the peacock’s origins, unfortunately. It was purchased for the Fenimore Art Museum from the Boston dealer Isabel Carleton Wilde in the 1950s, but she left no record of where she acquired the piece. Wilde was a very influential figure in the early appreciation of American folk Art, and items from her collection are highly prized. This peacock is proof of her keen eye for the most seemingly humble pieces of folk sculpture.

So what was it? A small weathervane? Or a toy of some sort? There is no easy way to tell, but one thing is for sure: our little peacock occupies an oversized place in the field of American folk art. These birds always get attention when they show their feathers.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mare and Foal

Let’s face it; people love folk art not just for the vibrancy of its patterns and colors, but also for its simple and enduring charm. The best folk art speaks of relationships of the heart. We have many such pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, but few speak to this basic human need as well or as directly as our well-known Mare and Foal weathervane.

As weathervanes go, this piece (about 31”long) is pretty simple. It consists of a flat, one inch thick piece of wood that was marked and cut into the silhouette of a draft horse sometime around 1850. Sometime later, someone added a miniature version of the horse at the back of the vane, perhaps to balance it properly so that it swung in the wind better. You can tell the small horse is a later addition (perhaps even by a different artist) by looking closely at the construction of the vane as well as the manner of carving. The smaller horse rests on a separate piece of wood that has been joined to the main body of the vane, and it is carved in the round rather than as a flat silhouette like its larger counterpart.

The smaller horse does much more than balance the vane, however. It clearly evokes a small foal chasing after its mother; just the sort of image that tugs at the heartstrings. It is perhaps this quality that first drew the attention of the great folk art collector Jean Lipman when she first saw the piece in Wakefield, Rhode Island in 1947. Not only is the silhouette pleasing and evocative, but the artist also incised the vane, adding manes to both horses and a proud smile of the face of the mother. It must have been irresistible.

What is somewhat unusual for a Lipman piece is that this weathervane was not undiscovered at the time she purchased it. In fact, it had caught the attention of an artist for the WPA who rendered the vane in watercolor for the Index of American Design in the 1930s, and it was exhibited at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1940s. I guess we can count ourselves fortunate that the piece was not acquired prior to Mrs. Lipman finding it on one of her legendary New England jaunts.

I’ve added some fine art examples of the same subject here (by Edwin Cooper and Basil Bradley, respectively) for two reasons: to show that the idea of a mare and foal was not unheard of in the art world of the nineteenth century; and to demonstrate that the unknown folk artist could produce, even with a saw and a block of wood, as good a representation of this subject as anyone. Maybe better.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The face only a folklorist could love

Portrait painters always strive to make their subjects beautiful, but sometimes they have so little to work with that there is no hiding the unfortunate physical traits that the sitters were born with. This portrait of a young boy is perhaps the most startling example in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Painted about 1860, and measuring about 24” x 20”, he has to be the homeliest kid I have ever seen committed to canvas. The palette and composition don’t help, either. Painted in drab tones and standing on a non-descript Victorian chair, the painting just couldn’t be duller.

And yet, more compelling. Everyone who sees this likeness is drawn to it. The reaction is instantaneously emotional. Maybe out of pity; I'm not sure.

One of the conundrums about this piece is the question of how and why it entered our collection. We know from its accession number that it came to us in 1948, along with a group of folk art pieces acquired from the estate of Modernist sculptor Elie Nadelman. I blogged about the Nadelman acquisition in a post for the Fenimore Art Museum Blog some time ago, but I’ll briefly relate the story here.

The gist of it is that our former Director, Louis C. Jones, and our great benefactor, Stephen C. Clark, went to Riverdale-on-Hudson to view the estate in 1948. There was an entire house full of folk art; hundreds of pieces. Clark asked Jones if he could choose any 12, which ones would they be? Jones took some time and made his picks, to which Clark replied “I agree with you on 11 of them. Let’s buy 13.”

Given what I know about the respective tastes of Dr. Jones and Mr. Clark, I’m guessing that this boy was the one piece Clark would not have put on his list. Lou Jones, however, saw the qualities in this picture that art connoisseurs could not. Without strong colors or patterns or important details or evidence of masterful technique, this painting captures the personality of a child in ways that much better works don’t.

So what’s the lesson? You have to be open-minded enough to see these works through the eyes of people who are not necessarily art historians. Jones was a folklorist; he saw in this piece a forthright representation of the tastes and values of ordinary people. Clark, for his part, respected Jones' taste and conceded the choice.

The other lesson? Sometimes 13 can be a lucky number.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Folk Art in the Tower of London

As reported in my July 9 post, on my recent trip to London I encountered striking examples of English traditional crafts in the most unlikely places. Today’s focus is on the wood carvers of Britain, a group whose output was as illustrious as that of the more well-known stone masons who fashioned the cathedrals and monuments we see throughout Europe. The wood carvers were just as skilled, but their work does not survive in the same numbers owing to the fragility of their chosen medium.

The wood carvings that fascinated me the most in London were from a centuries-old display tucked away in the recesses of the Tower of London. As you may know, the Tower is a large complex consisting of many buildings constructed over the course of nearly a millennium. The central building (seen at the top of this post) is the earliest, and is known as the White Tower. In a room on one of the upper floors of this structure I found a series of carvings that were much more interesting than the Royal Armor that most people were viewing in adjacent galleries.

These carvings were associated with a display of British Royalty first created in the old royal palace at Greenwich in the 16th century, and moved to the Tower by 1660. The display was called the Line of Kings, and consisted of sculpted equestrian statues of the succession of English kings up to the present day (see the illustration of the display from 1660 above, second from top). Additional figures and horses were added over the years, employing the leading carvers of the day (whom the labels do not identify), until the late 18th century.

The carved horses are magnificent, and very reminiscent of the carousel figures we know so well in the United States. These animals truly project the power and authority of their former “riders” (the labels give no indication of the current location of the figures of the kings themselves) and the sculptors went to great lengths to show realistic poses and musculature.

Off to one side of this display is something really strange: a case full of carved mahogany heads (below). Human heads. At first I thought this may be the kings, but the label told me that they were in fact a sculpted King’s Guard, a 136-man unit added in the early 19th century to “attend” the Line of Kings. All that remains today are the heads and hands.

These 17th-century horses and 19th-century heads attest to the continuity of the European carving traditions that immigrants brought to America’s shores from the time we were an English colony. We see their contributions to American folk art in ship carving, commercial sculpture (show figures such as cigar store Indians), carousel horses, and circus carvings. This is just another clear indication that even the humblest of our folk art forms has an illustrious ancestry.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Gloucester Limner

It’s always interesting when old friends come up for sale. On my Spring trip with the American Folk Art Society to Portsmouth, New Hampshire I found out that a painting I have known since the early 1980s was on the market. It is set to be sold at the M. Austin and Jill R. Fine Collection sale at Northeast Auctions on August 7 as lot 578.

Not that I’m interested in buying it, although I would be if we didn’t have two other related portraits in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. The Fine portrait, marked “J. B.,” is actually one of a group of four known likenesses, all depicting children and all dated 1784, identified by descendants as residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This group includes our portraits of brother and sister John and Priscilla Wharff (or Wharf) illustrated here, and a portrait of Dorcas Lufkin in the collection of a descendant of the sitter.

At least three of these portraits show the young sitters in oblong ovals with drop-shadow lettering giving their initials in the upper corners and their ages in the lower corners. They all depict children between one and six years of age holding gender-appropriate props. The unidentified artist’s rendering of facial features is strikingly similar in each; the sitters all have almond-shaped eyes that are slightly misaligned, small mouths with cupid’s-bow lips, noses that appear flat against their faces, and ears that extend outward parallel to the picture plane. Their hands are rendered simply with dark outlines and gently bending fingers. Of the known portraits, “J.B.” is distinctive for its inclusion of a genre element in the charming vignette of the boy feeding his dog, and for the inclusion of articulated trees in the background.

Some scholars have suggested a stylistic relationship between this group of portraits and the work of Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822), but a number of factors weigh against an attribution. Hathaway was presumably born in Freetown, Rhode Island, and lived most of his life in Duxbury, in southeastern Massachusetts both far from Gloucester on the North Shore. His earliest known portraits, dated to about 1790, are considerably more highly developed than the ones depicted here (see “Lady with Her Pets,” 1790, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), below. It seems unlikely that a fourteen-year-old boy would be plying a portrait painter’s trade far from home in 1784.

Whoever it was that painted these likenesses – Northeast Auctions has now dubbed the artist the “Gloucester Limner" – there are bound to be more of these 18th-century gems waiting to be discovered. My hope is that one of them will have either a signature or a family history that will lead us to a new name in the history of early American folk art.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Folk Art Skyline of London

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, owing mainly to a great vacation trip I recently took to London. It was a family vacation, not a business trip, but as always I kept an eye out for great examples of folk art that would be useful and interesting comparisons to the traditions we have here in the United States.

I was not disappointed. Although the majority of the art shown in London museums reflects the voracious collecting of the British Empire (including cultures from across the span of recorded history and from around the globe) and in particular the enormous decorative arts collections of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 19th century (mostly in the Victoria and Albert Museum), there were examples of folk art to be seen.

Only not in museums. Londoners, unlike Americans, live with their folk art in plain sight every day. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the stunning array of gilded weathervanes that grace the skyline of the capital. Anywhere you happen to be in London, all you have to do is point your camera skyward and the chances are pretty good that you will catch a glint of sunlight (yes, we had great weather all week!) reflecting off a large weathervane.

You can find these vanes on churches, public buildings, row houses, and businesses. Since I was not able to see any up close I could not tell how many of them were old, but my guess would be that a good number are at least 19th-century examples. This is very different from what you would expect in an American city. It is also a reminder that the weathervane tradition is European in origin, and the weathervane industry in the United States followed the industrial model of England in particular.

So I hope you enjoy these snapshots of the beautiful artworks that may seem incidental to Londoners, but were remarkable integrations of art into everyday life when seen through my American eyes. In the coming weeks I’ll post more of what I saw on vacation, including some wonderful sculptures tucked away like prisoners in the Tower of London.

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