Friday, May 6, 2011

Counting Sheep

In my new position as President I never know where the day will take me. This morning I was working on an exhibition for the summer of 2012 on the subject of American Impressionism when I was called away to The Farmers' Museum (our sister institution of which I am also President) to watch young oxen being trained. On my way to the farmyard I noticed a co-worker hovering near the sheep's pen.

When I walked over to see what she was looking at, I saw a sheep with her brand new baby lamb. Naturally, I took out my iPhone and snapped the first picture of this new addition to the museum staff. Within the hour a second lamb was born, much to the delight of the families that happened to be nearby.

Any time something like this happens I am reminded of the original vision of the two museums here in Cooperstown -- The Farmers' Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum -- and how much they were always meant to complement each other. Folk art and paintings of everyday life at the Fenimore, living history and real animals at the Farm. This time was no exception.

When I saw the new-born lamb I thought immediately of the painting we have tucked away in storage, depicting a Cotswold ram at the Van Wagenen farm in Lawyersville, New York in the 1860s. It was painted by Thomas Kirby Van Zandt, and the note in our files indicate that the original owner thought it was a remarkable likeness of an animal known for its personality. Now we have another living example of an ongoing livestock tradition in upstate New York to give this artwork meaning and immediacy.

There's even another connection: Jared Van Wagenen, Jr., whose father owned the ram in the painting, wrote the classic book 'The Golden Age of Homespun" for us back in the 1950s. His descriptions of the era depicted in the painting, and recreated at The Farmers' Museum, have enthralled generations of readers. But even he would admit that you can't beat the real thing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Eyes Have It

On my recent trip to Dallas to attend the opening of the Fenimore Art Museum's Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, I came across this curious painting at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. It struck me as another fine example of an itinerant folk artist's penchant for depicting sitters as they were, rather than as an idealized version of themselves.

Ammi Phillips was a prolific painter in the valleys and towns of eastern New York State and western New England in the first half of the nineteenth century. He is well known for employing stock poses in order to speed up production of his portraits. But he did so with such fluid and graceful brushwork that the paintings are elegant and refined even in their sameness. And his sitters didn't seem to mind that they looked like so many others' portraits that they must have seen in their villages.

Yet despite this sameness, Phillips often captured something unique to each sitter. In this case, it was an obvious crossed eye. This young girl and her parents must not have seen this condition as a major flaw, for by all indications they accepted this finished portrait and it descended in the girl's family.

It's entirely possible that some might look at this painting, not having seen Phillips' work before, and attribute the crossed eye to a lack of painting skill. That view is problematic for many reasons, chief among them is this: the cat's eyes are perfect.

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