Sometimes the simplest forms of folk art are the best and most memorable. Here is a fireboard I saw in a historical society in rural New Hampshire this spring. It could hardly be more straightforward in design and execution. The unknown artist divided his picture space into two parts with a horizon line, and filled in the broad areas of color with the strong green for the ground and a brilliant orange-red for the sky. Fences on the margins and an island in the middle ground add interest to the scene.
The piece has considerable visual appeal, however, from the next step; the artist filled the entire space with flowing, undulating trees. They are fantastical creations, and the way they spread to all areas of the picture space gives this painting the feel of an imagined, verdant paradise.
The artist may have been Rufus Porter, the itinerant mural painter I have blogged about previously. Or he may have been one of Porter’s many followers who read his articles in Scientific American on how to execute these simple landscapes. They painted scenes like this on walls as well as on these board-and-batten fireplace enclosures called fireboards.
Compare the New Hampshire piece with the Fenimore Art Museum's famous “Bear and Pears” fireboard, also from New Hampshire. In ours, the artist also felt the need to fill the space with the trees, but used the varied heights of the trees to accomplish this. A different approach, but just as appealing in its own way.
It is my guess that these firebaords were painted in the second quarter of the 19th century, or about 1825-1850. Imagine what they must have looked like in an interior that may have also included painted walls (with landscapes scenes, as I illustrated in my previous Rufus Porter post -- see my labels at the right), painted furniture, and family portraits. It must have been, to our eyes, a chaotic riot of color and design. It’s important to remember that the 19th century did not become austere until we made it so in the early 20th.