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.