When I first started working here at the Fenimore Art Museum back in the 1980s, I hated this piece. It seemed like a second-rate, somewhat creepy figural carving of a farmer. Maybe it was the glass eyes that made it seem as if there was something not quite right about this character. At any rate, I have never exhibited the piece, and have, for long stretches, completely forgotten that it even existed.
But you know, something about doing this blog has made me rethink a lot of my initial reactions to the lesser known works in our folk art collection. It’s such a useful exercise to go back and look carefully at pieces you thought you knew and then write something coherent about them. I may be coming around to liking the 54” tall piece known only as “Merry Farmer.”
We know almost nothing about him. The research file is nearly empty, except for a 1966 letter from the dealer who sold us the carving. No ordinary dealer. It was Adele Earnest, who along with her partner Cordelia Hamilton ran the Stony Point Antique Gallery in Stony Point, New York. She also sold us our great Bull weathervane pattern I blogged about some time ago. Highly respected for her knowledge of folk sculpture, Ms. Earnest was a founding trustee of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, and wrote two books on American folk art.
Anyway, this is what she wrote to Lou Jones, our Director, about this piece in 1966:
A "farmer" came into our hands the other day and naturally I thought of you. Wondered whether you could use him in association with any of your exhibits. He is wood-carved. The body and heard are one piece with the arms separate and swiveled. Don't know what he held in his hand - the hoe is ours. The color is good: - blue overhauls, red kerchief. Eyes are glass marbles. Had been used as a sign for a feed and grain store.
The last sentence got me to looking at this carving again. As an example of an outdoor sign for an agricultural enterprise it is a rare survival. And getting it out of storage and taking another good look at it led me to realize that it is actually a pretty good carving. Still a little scary to some, but forthright and authentic. I wish there were photos of it in situ at the feed and grain store. I can see why Ms. Earnest was attracted to the piece, although I think it’s hysterical that she gave it a hoe to hold.