Friday, January 28, 2011

It's a Small World

Here's the second in my series of posts relating to finds I made at this year's Winter Antiques Show in New York City. This one was a sweet little piece, and a rare one too. As I discussed in my post from last March regarding a large watercolor and ink map sampler that I bought for the museum, these particular forms of schoolgirl work are much more difficult to find than the more common Biblical scene or print-derived landscape. That's why this small map sampler in the booth of Stephen and Carol Huber caught my eye.

This piece is only about 10" wide, much smaller than our large piece from last year. The workmanship is quite good for the scale, as you can tell from the detail photos. And it's signed, by an Anna Gill, and dated 1804. This is important because, like to many pieces that I have blogged about in these pages, there is a good story behind this piece that we would not know if it wasn't signed.

According to the dealer offering this sampler, Anna Gill lived in Pleasant Valley, New York and was eleven years old when she did this piece. Her mother, Wilhemina Anthony Gill, had a private nurse from childhood, a slave purchased in 1761 and named Dina. During the American Revolution, when the British troops invaded the Hudson Valley and destroyed numerous homes (including nearly all of Kingston, NY), Dina stayed behind after the family fled into the woods, as she was determined to protect the family home. The story goes that when she encountered the British troops she offered them a meal in return for sparing the house. Surprisingly, they agreed, but burned the mill.

Records indicate that when Dina died in 1823 she was a free person. The Gill family had such respect and gratitude for her that they arranged to have her buried in the family plot in Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. Anna, the maker of this sampler, died unmarried in 1844 and is buried in the same plot.

These map samplers were meant to demonstrate a schoolgirl's knowledge of world geography. It just seemed fascinating to me that behind this small demonstration of one's awareness of the world there was a family history that stood squarely at the intersection of Africa, Europe, and North America. Some things can't be taught in school.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crossing the Atlantic at the Winter Antiques Show

I just returned from my annual January visit to New York City and the Winter Antiques Show, and have several interesting discoveries to share. This is a show not to be missed; there are dozens of dealers representing a wide range of interests from fine art to ancient art to tribal art and, of course, American folk art. You may or may not go there to buy, as the prices are consistent with what you might expect from an antiques show on Park Avenue, but the looking is its own reward. You can educate your eye more fully in an hour here than in weeks of seeking out individual shops in the many regions from which these dealers come. And the setting is glamorous, as you can see by the entrance to the show below.

While wandering through the show, I kept an eye out for pieces that had certain similaities with ones in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Here's a good one.

This life-size carved wooden figure depicted a mariner holding a sextant. It is beautifully carved, probably in a large ship carver's shop. At first glance i would have thought it to be American, but according to the label it is English. The piece is attributed to a carver named Thomas Hall Tweedy, who reportedly carved it for a natical instrument maker's shop (the dealer even gave the name of the shop: John Cail!) in Newcastle on Tyne.

This figure undoubtedly sat outside the shop on the sidewalk, like a cigar store figure. But it reminded me so much of a little figure in our collection I just had to photograph it and share it here. Our figure is even mentioned in the dealer's label for the large piece.

Our little mariner is only about 25 inches tall, but it depicts the mariner holding the sextant in the same manner as the large figure. Our is, of course, much more primitive than the large one. But very appealing for those who have an eye for folk art. Our piece was found in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and is thought to have come from a nautical instrument maker's shop in that important coastal city. The small figures would generally be displayed either on countertops or, as I have seen in one period photo, outdoors on a cantilevered mount above the shop doorway.

However separated by thousands of miles of ocean, these two pieces remind us of the seafaring culture that binds the hemispheres. This notion has gained such credibility in recent years that historians speak less and less of American or European history and instead study Atlantic history. Or, as the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, is fond of saying: the sea connects us all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Castles of Montgomery

This is really one of the most spectacular pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection. It’s a large painting on canvas, about 41” x 55”, depicting an imaginary scene of two castles on a river. The castles have different banners flying overhead, with the one on the left looking decidedly Moorish, perhaps evoking the medieval tradition of battle scenes between Christian and Moorish knights. The title of the work comes from the prominent inscription along the top: “View of the Castle of Montgomery.”

We don’t know the source of this image (there is a Montgomery Castle in Wales but we have not found a print view of it that would be the source of this painting; besides, you would more likely find Moorish castles in Spain and Portugal), but the manner in which it was painted is the reason for its appeal. The colors are bright, bold, and solid. The castles are flattened against the picture plane in delightful patterns, and the repetition of forms such as the boats on the river, the trees on the horizon, and the birds in the sky creates an almost hypnotic rhythm. The lone fisherman on the shore adds an almost quaint, everyday mood to the piece.

Oral tradition holds that this painting was created as a fireboard, or fireplace enclosure, by the architect of the Wofford House in Woodruff, South Carolina. It was probably painted in the mid-19th century, around 1830-35. Interestingly, a nearly identical piece exists in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia (shown here at the bottom). That piece was painted for the Moore family home in Fredonia, just seven miles from the Wofford House. That painting bears the exact same inscription as this one, referring to the enigmatic “Castle of Montgomery.”

The existence of two identical fireboards of this size and quality within seven miles of each other provides us with a tantalizing clue to the artist, who was undoubtedly local. We don’t know for sure what Montgomery refers to, but research at Colonial Williamsburg suggests that it might be local too. According to the research, the probable reason for the commission of their work occurred in 1833 when the owner of the Moore home, Dr. Andrew Barry Moore, brought his new bride home for the first time.

Her maiden name? Nancy Montgomery.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Folk or Fake?

This may be one of the most interesting and instructive pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. As such, it has a special status in relation to all of the other paintings in the collection.

That’s because it is a fake. A rare fake by a famous forger.

In 1990 Robert Lawrence Trotter was sentenced to 10 months in Federal prison for the forgery and sale of American folk paintings. Trotter was a talented artist in his own right, but was unable to sell his works. So he started forging the works of other historical painters whose works did have a ready market. One FBI agent explained: “He’d go into antiques shops, buy old frames, use square nails and ultraviolet light to cause certain cracks to occur. He wouldn’t copy, but he’d paint in the famous artist’s style. Sometimes he would sign their name, sometimes he wouldn’t.”

When Trotter was sentence to federal prison, he was ordered to give four of his fake paintings to Yale University so that they could be studied for future use in identifying forgeries.

There are 55 known Trotter fakes, only 16 of which have ever been recovered. That’s what makes our example so rare.

Looking at the piece, you can see right away why Trotter was successful, at least for a while. It is beautifully painted in a style consistent with what one might expect for 19th-century New England portraiture.

To my eye, however, there are some red flags. The baby here is too stylized and awkwardly proportioned in relation to the mother. The mother herself bears too much resemblance to the works of known folk artists like Noah North and Milton Hopkins. Overall, the work strikes me as a pastiche of different styles rather than one uniform manner of painting. I'm sure there are other technical ways in which a conservator could determine that this work is not authentic as well, but in the field one has to rely on a practiced eye.

The real clue, for me, is the reverse, which most people don’t inspect when they buy a painting. You can see quite clearly here that although the stretcher is clearly old, the canvas is not. Dead giveaway, in my opinion.

There are 55 known Trotter fakes, only 16 of which have ever been recovered. Ours and the four at Yale are the only ones I know of in public collections. Ours was donated by a private individual who wanted a public record of Trotter's fakes so that others would not be fooled. So like those at Yale, our Trotter is available for study by any qualified individual interested in learning more about the technical process of creating a work of art that isn’t what it appears to be.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ugliest. Baby. Ever.

I stumbled across this painting just today while attending a meeting in collections storage. It's a piece I know well from the 1980s, but haven't seen in a while. It was thrilling to see it again for a couple of reasons. One, it IS the ugliest folk art baby I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Second, and more important, it is one of the great study pieces in the field.

Looking at the painting, one would feel pretty confident that it was cut down from a larger painting. It seems so spontaneous and open-form for a 19th-century folk portrait. But studying more closely reveals two insights that work against such a conclusion. The arms are positioned in a way that would make for a very awkward pose on the part of the mother if she were once included. And if you look closely at the edges of the paint surface you can see the original canvas pattern (visible in the paint) scallops along the left side. This indicates that this was the original tacking edge, which would have pulled the canvas where the nails were placed at intervals.

But looking at the exposed canvas along the unpainted edges reveals more strangeness. The weave of this canvas is much finer than the pattern in the painted surface. Was the original canvas simply mounted on a new one? There is no evidence of a second layer of canvas anywhere.

So what happened? Well, this painting is a rare survival of a canvas transfer done many years ago by an known restorer (probably not a professional conservator). The paint surface was literally peeled off the original canvas (keeping the canvas pattern as a "fossil") and laid onto a new one to stabilize the painting. And as far as we know, it is an original composition showcasing the obvious pride in one's newborn, however misplaced that pride might be.

I've never considered exhibiting this portrait. It's a aesthetic horror. Don't even try to convince me otherwise. But I have never considered getting rid of it either. It's the only example of this kind of physical evidence that I know of, and is a great piece to sue for getting my graduate students to look closely at a painting. I also like having this picture around when I'm in need of a good laugh.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Man of Mystery

This fantastic little carving came to us by bequest from Mary Allis, the legendary Connecticut dealer who was instrumental in arranging for so much of our folk art collection to reside in the Fenimore Art Museum. It was Mary Allis who put Jean and Howard Lipman in touch with our benefactor, Stephen Clark, in 1950. And it was Allis who found the treasure trove of folk paintings in an old barn on the property of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn and brought them to Mr. Clark's attention. Our collection would not be anywhere near as important as it is without her.

As for this piece, very little is known about it, but it shows the kind of careful, bold patterning and forthright expressiveness that Allis always sought in great folk art. It stands about 15" high, and depicts a gentleman in colonial costume leaning on his cane and holding a tri-corner hat. It is difficult to date the piece, although of course the clothing is 18th century. We just don't know if the artist was working at a later date.

Regardless of the date, it is certainly something made by a professional (though not classically trained) carver, possibly for commercial purposes. Figures like this one adorned the countertops of American shops from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. A similar figure in our collection may have advertised a gentleman's sporting goods store. Whether this figure advertised a clothing shop or had an entirely different purpose is still to be determined. Mary Allis did not, unfortunately, indicate where she acquired this sculpture.

I particularly like this man's face, with his upraised eyebrows and rosy cheeks. His hair is also quite nicely carved in long, flowing lines. All of which contrasts with the blocky feet that the artist did not do anything to even approximate a naturalistic appearance.

Someday we may find out where this gentleman lived and what he did for a living, but for now he is an enigmatic wonder of the folk art collection, unwilling or unable to reveal any clues to his past.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Washington Crossing the Delaware

It was, of course, the greatest comeback in American history. Had it not succeeded, there might not be much if any American history to study.  On Christmas night in 1776, after a string of losses and with much of his army demoralized and ready to opt out as their terms of service expired, George Washington mounted a bold offensive by crossing the Delaware River at night and surprising the Hessian mercenaries fighting for England at dawn.

It took nearly 75 years for an artist to adequately capture this historical moment. Emmanuel Leutze, a German immigrant who grew up in Philadelphia but was working in Dusseldorf, Germany in the late  1840s, wanted to create an image that would inspire democratic revolutionaries throughout Europe. He thought the example of American independence would do the trick, and chose Washington’s surprise victory as the subject.

No one can dispute the magnificence and power of the massive painting he created (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and measuring a full 149” x 255”!!!), and it was a huge success, at least in the United States. The painting was copied by a number of engravers and made widely available through print media.

Where it somehow found its way into the hands of an unknown folk artist from New England in the 1880s. The result was an inspired embroidery in the Fenimore Art Museum collection based on the Leutze painting. Though much smaller than the original (our work is about 32” x 42”, it captures the gravity of the moment in needlework and silk, and brings the pride in America’s past (and this young woman’s dexterity with the needle) into the parlor of an average American home. The “life” of an image like Leutze’s may be fascinating, but it is considerably enriched when it merges with the artistic expressions of the people it celebrates.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Weathervanes: More Tools of the Trade

I've done quite a few posts about weathervanes, and have even shown a great carved weathervane pattern of a bull that gives some insight into how these iconic piece of folk art were made. Recently, while browsing through our collections facility, I came across two other objects that add more to the story.

Many weathervanes began with a hand carving, like the bull. From this carving the maker would create a plaster or ceramic mold, which would in turn be used to make a castiron figure resembling the original carving. Copper sheets would be hammered over the iron and soldered together to make the final, hollow-bodied and lightweight weathervane. Weathervane manufacturers held onto their molds as long as they were producing the vanes, but all too often these pieces of their history would be discarded when the company went out of business. Most weathervane manufactories did not survive the great Depression of the 1930s, and so the tools of the trade are rare.

We are lucky to have the carved bull, of course, but the other pieces I found represent the second step in the process. These are two sides of a ceramic mold for a small cow weathervane, sold to the Fenimore Art Museum in 1956 by Adele Earnest and Cordelia Hamilton of the Stony Point Antiques Gallery in Stony Point New York. Earnest and Hamilton also sold us the bull, showing how adept they were at finding the exceptional pieces of folk art that were still floating around in estates and shops at that time.

We don't know where these molds came from, unfortunately, but they are remarkable survivals nonetheless. They are about 17" wide and 10" tall, and one of them is marked "14 COW," which indicates the number and subject of the pattern that this company offered. I would guess that they date to the late 19th century.

Finding these pieces was another reminder that a really good weathervane exhibition, including contextual material like these, would be an eye-opener for many people. That is something that is increasingly on my radar screen for the coming years.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin