Thursday, December 30, 2010

Big Church Little Church

Here is a small piece from the top shelf. In museum lingo, that means an object that is stored in an out-of-the-way location, in this case literally the top shelf of a tall shelving unit. Items way up there are difficult to see and examine, as it requires the use of a ladder to get close enough to see them. Like the Salon exhibitions of old, those things that are at eye level tend to get the most attention, while those that are closer to the floor or “skied” (placed high) tend to get only fleeting glances.
I have glanced at this little church a number of times, and finally decided to brave the climb up the ladder to check it out more closely. As usual, I was surprised at what I found out.

It’s a delightful piece of homemade folk art. Someone, probably a local carpenter, made this realistic little building around the turn of the twentieth century with simple but clever joinery, incising, and planing. It stands about 14 inches high, and has a hinge at the back to allow it to be opened. You can see from the slot at the apex of the roof that this was made as a donation box. It is badly painted, perhaps later than when it was made, but it is beautiful nonetheless. 

The story behind is a nice one too, and quite relevant to our museum. According to the donor, Donald Molloy of Fort Myers, Florida, it was given to him by his grandmother, Viola E. Smith Lance, in about the late 1970s. She had received it from the Matthews family of Cornwallville, New York in the early years of the twentieth century. According to her recollections, Mrs. Matthews was a wealthy woman from New York City who spent her summers in the Catskill Mountains. She was very devoted to the church in Cornwallville, and made it a habit to keep this homemade donation box on her porch during the week so her well-off friends could contribute to the church’s collection any time they visited her. 
The church Mrs. Matthews used this box to collect donations for? It is the very one now located at the end of the village green at The Farmers’ Museum. This building originally served a congregation in East Durham, and was moved to Cornwallville to serve the Methodist Episcopal congregation there, and was purchased by the museum and moved to Cooperstown in 1964.

Along the way, the church collected more than money. It acquired a history, both tangible and intangible, that is still catching up with it today. This little piece of folk art  way up on the shelf rightly belongs with our Cornwallville Church. Despite its size, the little donation box adds great depth and meaning to the church, and reminds us how every great historical survival is the result of many small acts of devotion.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

James Lombard: Maine Weathervanes

Not all late 19th-century weathervanes are extravagant, mass-produced ornaments for prosperous farmsteads. Although the norm at the time was for these elaborate vanes to be produced and marketed by large firms in Boston or New York, there is one humble maker who has become a famous counterpart to our understanding of this art form.

He is James Lombard, a farmer from central Maine who was born in 1865 and at some point in his young life produced weathervanes for his community of Bridgton and as far away as Wells, Maine. Lombard worked with simple planks of pine, which he sawed and chiseled into fantastic shapes for his vanes. We have three in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, each about eighteen inches tall, and they all show Lombard’s talent in creating the lively silhouettes of the chickens that were the subjects of the pieces. Look how he made the cutout areas form their own designs, and how proudly these birds show off their plumage.

We’re very lucky to have the Lombard vanes we have. The one painted white (just above) was found on a hen house in Wells, Maine, fully sixty miles to the south of Lombard’s home in Bridgton. This distance may indicate that he traveled to peddle these vanes in his youth.

The weathervane at the top of this post, however, is really special. You can tell that it was made with more care than the other one, and is a more successful composition. It’s coat of white paint is much older, suggesting that it was treasured as a relic rather than “restored.” Where was this one found? The barn of the Lombard Homestead itself in Bridgton. This was the vane that Lombard himself saw every day as he worked his farm until he passed away in 1920. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Midwestern Master: Paul Seifert

When one looks at idyllic farm scenes like this piece, one almost always thinks of an artist peacefully whiling away his time in the countryside making these images for interested people found along the way. That’s only partly true. Paul Seifert, the artist of this beautiful watercolor of the farm of Mr. E. R. Jones, had a fascinating life that led him from the chaos of mid-19th-century Germany to the American frontier.

According to his granddaughter, Seifert was born in Germany in 1846, and probably saw a lot of upheaval in his early years, including the revolutions of 1848. He studied engineering at the University of Leipzig but fled Germany in 1866 to avoid being conscripted into military service during the Austro-Prussian war. He came to New York and took the Erie Canal westward, arriving in Milwaukee in 1867. From there the journey got really interesting.

Seifert wanted to continue westward, so he jumped on a lumber raft (see my previous post on Linton Park and the lumber rafts of Pennsylvania) for a 100-mile ride down the Wisconsin River. No pleasure cruise, I’m sure. As the raft approached Richland City (later named Portage), near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Pine Rivers, he must have seen something he liked. He dove off the raft into the river and swam ashore. Sitting on the shore was a group of young girls (maybe the reason for the dive?) that included a 16-year-old Elizabeth Craft. She later recalled Seifert struggling onto the bank looking like “a drowned rat.” They were married the following year.

Paul and Elizabeth built a log cabin on the banks of the river and worked very hard to create an 80-acre truck garden, from which they sold vegetables to people in Gotham, two miles away. Seifert “trucked” the produce there by wheelbarrow. He earned extra money as a taxidermist and craftsman to help support their growing family of four daughters.

In 1875, Seifert decided to try his hand at painting. He packed his bags with paper and paints and went on the road in search of farmers who would be willing to pay $2.50 for a view of their farm. The paper was large, often 21 x 27 inches, so the resulting image made quite an impression. Over the course of the next decade he made about 100 of these drawings, mostly in Richland, Grant, Sauk, and Iowa Counties in southwestern Wisconsin.  Seifert died at the age of 80 in 1925, and his artwork didn’t receive any accolades until it was discovered by Jean Lipman in the 1940s. It was from Lipman that the Fenimore Art Museum acquired this piece.

Seifert painted the farm of E. R. Jones of Dodgeville (seen today in the photo above) in 1881. It is different from many of his works in that it shows the farm in late autumn or early winter, just after a snowfall. The blanket of freshly fallen snow contrasts nicely with the autumn colors still visible of the trees. The beauty of the work lies not only in the palette, but also in the impeccably clean, smooth lines of paint used to distinguish the buildings, figures, and landscape.

One tidbit of information makes me wonder whether Seifert’s painting was meant to be represented in the Fenimore Art museum. Just over twenty miles to the west of Dodgeville is a town the artist must have known in his travels: Fennimore, Wisconsin.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Man and His Dog

Man with Gun and Dog.

That's pretty much all we know about this 22-inch tall figure in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. It looks to me like a well-dressed gentleman with his Dalmatian and long rifle out for a day of sport hunting in the countryside. He wears a nice suit and necktie along with a cap, all of which seem to indicate an early twentieth-century date for the piece. But we don't really know who made him and for what reason.

The figure is nicely carved, and there is a lot of personality and individual style in the carving of the facial features and the body of the figure. The dog is delightful and charmingly undersized in relation to the man, perhaps because the carver chose a smaller base than would accommodate a more realistically size canine. The carver also went to a great deal of time and effort to create the gun that the man holds at his side. It has a fair amount of detail and is even hollowed out.

The only suggestion that has occurred to us over the years is that this figure might have been a counter-top trade sign for a sporting goods store. I suppose that's a possibility, although these types of signs were not so much in vogue in the twentieth century. But it is not a commercially produced figure anyway, so it might have been commissioned by a store owner who approached a local carver to provide a nice and practical ornament for his shop.

It's also my guess that this man was hunting fowl, but I couldn't tell you for sure. The dog looks like a Dalmatian to me, and they were known to be good bird-dogs. He even looks as if he is pointing with his tail, working while his master poses.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Magic of Marbledust

Some folk paintings have subtle qualities that only grow on you over time. For years, when I pulled painting storage racks, I would get to one that was very different from all the others. Instead of the expected splash of colors from the various paintings hung on each rack, this one offered only a dull vista of black and white images. I didn’t give these works much thought or time (let alone gallery space) until the late 1990s when I learned more about them. Now, after looking more closely at them, I think they are some of the most interesting pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection.

They are commonly called Marbledust paintings, but in the nineteenth century they were known as Grecian Panitings and, later, Monochromatic Paintings. The method of creating these works was simple: the drawing surface consisted of paper or an artist’s board, first painted white and coated with marbledust sifted through fine muslin. When dry, this created a rough surface on which charcoal and pastels could be worked to create soft-edged forms and modeled areas of light and shadow. The medium could be worked with a piece of leather or a knife to create strongly contrasting light and dark areas.

It was an art form designed for young ladies, and included in B. F. Gandee’s 1835 publication, The Artist, or Young Ladies’ Instructor. Gandee referred to the technique as Grecian Painting. It was Silas Wood who commercialized the process and called it Monochromatic Painting in the 1850s. By that time, female academies were offering this art form as part of their curriculums, using published prints for subjects and composition.

These works glisten and shimmer in the right light, and are stunning in their execution. Our Marbledust painting of Mount Vernon by a Connecticut woman named Lucia Jencks in 1861 is one of the best examples. It is large (21 ½” x 27 ½”) and has an incredible amount of detail in every square inch. The result is an impressive tribute to George Washington, depicting his home and final resting place. A perfect complement to any American home.

If you like early engravings or mezzotints, these Marbledust paintings will really appeal to you. They are essentially hand-drawn versions of the prints. Only sprinkled with fairy dust.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Deciphering Inscriptions

Here's a great lesson in what not to believe when looking at the reverse of a painting and trying to decipher an inscription. We have this portrait of Cynthia Pierce by a folk artist named Noah Alden in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. The inscription on the back looks very clear:  "Miss Cintha J. Pierce 1793/Pinxt June 1800/by Noah Alden."

But there are problems that might not be obvious to the novice. Is 1793 a birthdate? If so, Miss Pierce was painted at the age of seven, which she clearly is not in this picture ("Pinxt" is a Latinized way of saying "painted").  It should also bother you that "Cintha" is so clumsily spelled.

Fortunately we have the mate to this portrait, Cynthia's husband Silas. On the reverse of his portrait ithere is another inscription, but before reading it you should note the look of the canvas. It is much more patinated than hers. This is what an original canvas back looks like. The inscription looks period too, with the appropriate flourishes of the brush. Here is what his reads: "Silas Pierce/born June 26rh 1772/Painted June 1830/by/Noah Alden." So the 1772 and 1793 dates are their birthdates, and the paintings were done in 1830, not 1800.

This is what probably happened. Mrs. Pierce (not "Miss" as the inscription says) was relined at some point. In this process, a restorer will trim the egdes of the canvas and use non-acidic adhesives and heat to attach the old canvas to a new one. This is often done to stabilize a painting that is torn or flaking. In the process, however, you lose the original reverse. In this case, I think the restorer or owner tried to replicate the original inscription on the new canvas. And made several mistakes in the process.

There's one more little tidbit on the back of Silas' portrait that is worth noting. Way down in the lower right hand corner, the artist has included the price: $13.00. That's a detail worth preserving.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Eyes Have It

This is one of the oddest oddball images in the history of American folk art, but it is an offshoot of a portrait tradition that is very common. Ammi Phillips, the artist, was one of the most prolific painters of his generation. He was born in Connecticut in 1788, and by 1811 he was establishing himself as a portrait painter in eastern New York State. Phillips had a penchant for finding newly prosperous middle-class entrepreneurs, those who came to the then-wilds of New York after the Revolutionary War to start settlements and take advantage of the plentitude of timber and water power. Over the course of his fifty-year painting career, Phillips would create likenesses of this generation as well as that of their children and grandchildren who had more genteel pursuits. He died in 1865.

Here is a Phillips portrait of a mother and child that we have in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. You can see why he was so popular. These paintings are simple and elegant, with solid colors and graceful lines. We think this portrait was painted sometime in the 1820s.

The portrait of the physician (in a private collection) is also from this period, but it is in a class by itself for what it shows. Of course, Phillips' patrons were justly proud of their accomplishments, and often had him include references to the source of their prosperity in their portraits. In this case, a simple book just wouldn't do. The good doctor here had to have his portrait painted in the act of a surgical procedure, in this case a surgery to repair a cataract. Honestly, I didn't even know that this type of surgery was performed in the 1820s, but here it is.

If you want to know more, you should be aware of the article "Folk Art Portraiture of Early American Surgeons," by Ira M. Rutkow, MD, published in Archives of Surgery in July 1999, available here by subscription to the journal. Otherwise, just enjoy this unusual painted document of 19th-century medicine and be glad you were born much later.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Knickerbocker Mystery

The landlord of the Columbian Hotel in New York, a Mr. Seth Handaside, made a startling announcement one day in 1809. One of his tenants had disappeared and left behind a large debt of unpaid rent. But that was not all he left behind. In the abandoned room, Handaside found a manuscript entitled:

A history of New York, from the beginning of the world to the end of the Dutch dynasty, Containing among many surprising and curious matters, the unutterable ponderings of Walter the Doubter, the diasastrous projects of William the Testy, and the chivalric achievments (sic) of Peter the Headstrong, the three Dutch governors of New Amsterdam; being the only authentic history of the times that ever hath been, or ever will be published.

The manuscript was signed by a Diedrich Knickerbocker, the tenant who ran off to parts unknown. The landlord, in an attempt to recoup his losses, handed the manuscript over to a printer, who published it that same year. The book and its mysterious author were the talk of the town for months. A History of New York was a rollicking tale of the colorful personalities and foibles of the old Dutch families that still dominated New York society. Knickerbocker had produced a big literary hit.

Only, as you probably know, there was no Diedrich Knickerbocker. When word got out that the tenant story was a ruse, and the real author was a little known and unsuccessful lawyer, people were shocked. As the author was not of Dutch descent, his book took the older families aback for poking fun at their ancestors. But the young writer went on to achieve lasting fame, and his creation, Diedrich "Father" Knickerbocker, went on to become a character that represented New York much the way uncle Sam represents the United States.

I'm speaking, of course, about Washington Irving. His creation, Father Knickerbocker, was seen everywhere in the 19th century, in cartoons and editorials, magazines and advertisements. Even a weathervane that has a long history right here in James Fenimore Cooper country. 

We have a large weathervane of him, and it is one of the best in The Farmers' Museum collection. Everything about it -- the detail of the scowling face, the plump body overwhelming the poor, small chair, the tall hat, the pint he is drinking, and especially the surface patina (and bullet holes!) -- speaks to its quality as an artwork and artifact. But there is something even better.

I've said on previous occasions here how rare it is for a 19th-century weathervane to have any history, let alone a photograph of it in its original location. Our angel weathervane from Nantucket is one example. The great thing about Father Knickerbocker is that we have photos of him sitting atop the barn of Edward Severin Clark's Fenimore Farm, the property that became The Farmers' Museum (the sister institution to the Fenimore Art Museum) in the 1940s. The pictures are probably from the later 19th century, prior to the construction of the massive stone barn that is the main entrance to the Museum today. 

It's great to have such a magnificent part of our history in our collection, especially one that is tied to such a long tradition of history and literature in New York State. But even though it is common for weathervanes to have bullet holes in them, I can't for the life of me imagine what kind of person would shoot at our Father Knickerbocker. A Cooper fan perhaps?
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