Friday, November 30, 2012

Ferdinand Brader

About a decade ago, when we did the landmark exhibition on the German-American folk artist Fritz Vogt, we realized that there was a remarkably compatible artist who worked in Pennsylvania. his name was Ferdinand Brader, and he produced large and detailed graphite scenes of farm complexes mostly in the 1880s, just before Vogt's prime years of artistic production in the 1890s. I had seen fantastic examples of Brader's work in private collections and always admired them. They tend to be larger and even more detailed than Vogt's -- not necessarily better in a qualitative way, but different enough to distinguish the two men. We could not prove any link between Brader and Vogt, but it is not hard to imagine that one may have existed either in the US or Europe (Brader immigrated from Switzerland). By the way, our findings on Vogt are published and available here.)

Well, Brader will finally be given his due in 2014 at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art. An exhibition team lead by curator Kathleen Wieschaus has identified 194 surviving drawings and has uncovered loads of family stories that relate to the works. Their website, Brader Exhibit 2014, details their progress on an ongoing basis. Here is one of my favorite stories from one of the drawings in the exhibit. It reminds me so much of the Vogt project, I had to share it:

Just a few weeks ago, a resident of Stark County, OH, brought in his Brader drawing and told the story of his Swiss great-great-grandfather and the making of Swiss cheese on the family farm. The Brader shows the Cheese House at the center left, where area farmers are bringing their milk and a supply of firewood to cook the milk with rennet (enzymes from a cow's stomach which helps turn the milk into curds). Cool water pumped from a well just behind the Cheese House and funneled through the structure in troughs can be seen in the drawing. This water kept the milk fresh until enough was gathered to make the cheese. The curds would be pressed into wheels with the whey fed to the pigs. The cheese rolls would be placed on boards and carried into the house (the drawing shows one man doing t his) where they would be aged in the basement. Eventually the aged rolls would be taken to market and sold.

As with Vogt, Brader was a keen observer who left us with an extraordinary record of a time long gone. I congratulate Kathleen and her team for piecing this history back together and sharing it with all of us. Please keep an eye on her website for updates on the progress of the Brader exhibit.

And think about this drawing the next time you have some fine Swiss cheese.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Joseph H. Davis was a terrific folk portrait painter in miniature, but only one fact is known about him. Despite a body of work that includes more than one hundred and sixty exquisite watercolor portraits of southern New Hampshire and Maine residents, there are no vital records, advertisements, or directory listings that attest to his life and career. Various theories abound, including the notion that he was the legendary "Pine Hill Joe" of Newfield, Maine, a man remembered as a farmer and incurable wanderer who was always dabbling with paints and earned only $1.50 for each portrait rendered.

We have three portraits by Davis, and this one is the best. It depicts Azariah and Eliza Caverly of Strafford, New Hampshire along with their two children, George and Sarah. Azariah was a farmer who also must have experimented with architectural drawing, as evidenced by the detailed drawing on his table and the carpenter's square held by his son. The Caverly family genealogy describes Azaraiah as a man "full of aspirations; ingenious and frugal." Ingenious, maybe, as a farmer who also designed buildings. Frugal? Judging by the lavishly decorated chairs, lively patterned carpet, and garlanded painting, I have to wonder.

Anyway, that one fact about Davis that is known? On one of his paintings, an 1830s portrait of Bartholomew Van Dame, Davis signed his name "Joseph h. Davis/Left Hand Painter." How interesting that this survives as his sole identifier. Given the prevailing attitudes toward left-handers in the early 19th century (left-handedness was "corrected" well into the 20th century), he might as well have painted with his feet. The signature certainly suggests that being left-handed was a big part of Davis' identity, and he wanted at least one sitter to know it. For good measure, he also added a lot of flourish to the inscriptions along the bottom of his portraits. Yes, left-handers could write as beautifully as anyone. I know this first-hand, being left-handed myself.

For more images of Davis' work, see the following post from the wonderful "It's About Time" blog.

Paul S. D'Ambrosio
Left Hand President

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Wandering Thugs of Art

There are a lot of great period quotes that give us a good idea of how nineteenth-century writers regarded the works of folk artists. Most, if not all, of the quotes are disparaging to the point of hilarity. This particular example is noteworthy for its source, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the physician and writer who wrote prose and poetry alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the other Fireside Poets, and published many of his works in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he helped to found. His son and namesake, of course, became a famous Supreme Court Justice in the early twentieth century and wrote such iconic majority decisions as his "clear and present danger" opinion in 1919's Schenck v. United States.

But it is the opinions of the elder Holmes that concern us today, and it appears that he felt the works of folk portraitists were a clear and present danger to American society. Here is what he had to say about these traveling artists in The Atlantic Monthly in July of 1861:

"[these are the] wandering Thugs of Art whose murderous doings with the brush used frequently to involve whole families; who passed from one country tavern to another, eating and painting their way - feeding a week upon the landlord, another week upon the landlady, and two or three days apiece upon the children, as the walls of those hospitable edifices too frequently testify even to the present day."

This was so good we had to use it in our catalogue for the William Matthew Prior exhibition. But as someone who has spent a good part of his life studying and exhibiting this artwork, I can only be grateful that this is one majority opinion that has been dramatically overturned in our time.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Complex Peace

After nine long years, George Washington had had enough of war. Returning to his beloved home, Mount Vernon, he directed his architect, Joseph Rakestraw, to create a weathervane crowned by a Dove of Peace to adorn the cupola. His instructions were specific: "I should like to have a bird (in place of the Vain) with an olive branch in its Mouth..."

While the message of the weathervane was clear, it says a lot about Washington’s practical nature and his obsession with the weather that it had to be fully functional. Accordingly, he was adamant that it be installed carefully and correctly. Writing from Philadelphia at the time the Dove of Peace was delivered to Mount Vernon, he stated: "Great pains...must be taken to fix the points truly; otherwise they will deceive rather than direct-(if they vary from the North, South, East, and West)-one way of doing this may be by my Compass being placed in a direct North line on the ground at some distance from the House."

A recent trip to Mount Vernon underscored the importance of the weathervane to the estate. It is the one object that can be seen from everywhere, and its high perch is a constant reminder of its owner’s high hopes that he and the new nation would enjoy extended peace and prosperity. The Dove of Peace  atop the cupola seen by visitors to Mount Vernon is now, of course, a replica of the original, although the other elements of the weathervane structure, including the mast, ball, and directional, are all in the same prominent location they were so carefully placed at Washington’s direction in 1787.

The Dove can still be seen, although it has been moved to an indoor gallery in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center as part of the “At Home with the Washingtons” exhibition. It is quite startling to see the Dove up close and at eye level, but it is still a stunning example of early American metalwork. It is also in fine shape, having undergone its most recent restoration in 2008. Photographs are not allowed in the gallery, but I did find this one image from a visitor’s web album.

It is an interesting aside that the Dove’s first documented restoration coincided with another era in which the longing to Peace prevailed: 1946, in the wake of the Second World War. As an masterfully executed folk image representing a precious ideal, the Dove remains (admittedly, along with the newly restored slave quarters) one of the things that stays on your mind long after leaving Mount Vernon. As always, history is best defined by its contradictions.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

King Derby's Plenty

On a recent visit to Salem I happened upon a stunning sculpture by an 18th-century carver, Simeon Skillen, Jr., who is also represented in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. He has always fascinated me because of the sheer sophistication of his work, most of which was done in the 1790s. There would have been no opportunities for formal training then, so Skillen must have learned his trade in his family's carving shop, which was widely known at the time. I think his sculptures of the human form are as good as anything being done in America. You can find more information on the family workshop in Boston's North End here.

The piece I saw in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum was a large, standing figure of Plenty, a nymph in Roman mythology but for this occasion dressed in an 18th-century gown and holding an overflowing cornucopia. It was carved in 1793 for Elias Hasket Derby of Salem (whose portrait by James Frothingham, also at PEM, is seen above), a very wealthy shipowner who made his money in international trade and privateering during the Revolutionary War. He is referred to as "King Derby" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and is sometimes (erroneously) called "America's first millionaire."

The figure of Plenty reportedly stood in Derby's formal garden at his summer farm in Salem. The garden is famous for its summer house designed by Samuel McIntire, the architect and carver for whom one of Salem's Historic Districts is now named. McIntire designed a number of homes for Derby, but this summer house is one of his most elegant creations.

Which makes it interesting to me that the summer house is adorned with two life size sculptures by Simeon Skillen, a milkmaid and a reaper. It was in this illustrious company that the figure of Plenty found herself. By contrast, our sculpture by Skillen is more modest but still superb, a bust of the Apollo as god of the sun (note the sunrise on his chest).

Two notes of interest: Derby, despite deriving all of his wealth and influence from the maritime trade, never went to sea himself; and lastly, Hawthorne got his inspiration for The Scarlet Letter from a couple of years working as a customs officer at the Custom House in Salem where, hour after endless hour, he looked out over Derby Wharf.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Challenge of a Rural Art Museum

As part of my annual media tour to promote the Fenimore Art Museum I happened to have an interview with an arts writer for the Huffington Post. As we got talking, the conversation morphed from the subject of our new exhibitions to our exhibition philosophy, which I have always felt was shaped primarily by our location in rural New York.

The writer became so intrigued by the notion of a rural art museum tailoring its philosophy to the challenges of attracting an audience from the surrounding countryside that she asked me to contribute a blog post on the topic. A couple of months later I finally completed the assignment, and the post appeared just this past Tuesday. Here is the link to the Huffington's Arts page with my post.

The response has been tremendous; much more than I imagined. I had heard of Huffington, but had no idea it had more than 31 million unique visitors every month. That would have made me a whole lot more nervous writing my post.

Anyway, if you read the post you will get some idea of what we are doing at the museum and why. You might even cut me some slack for not keeping up with this blog as much as I used to. One can always hope.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Portrait of a Future Wife

The William Matthew Prior portraits are coming in and we are laying them out in the gallery. This is one of my favorite parts of the job, seeing artwork come together and shaping multiple pieces into a coherent exhibition. The exhibition is shaping up nicely, but the most fascinating thing has been the inscriptions on the reverse of many of the canvases. I thought I would share a few of those with you.

Here is Prior's portrait of his future wife, Rosamond. He met her when he went from his hometown of Bath, Maine, to Portland to seek training in the painting trade. After arriving in town, he went to the best known house painter in the area, Avery Hamblin. As luck would have it, Avery had a daughter. Here she is. Prior painted her in 1824 and married her in 1828.

The inscription reads: "W. M. Prior, Painter, formerly of Bath, 1824, 3 piece on cloth, painted in C. Codman's shop, Portland, Maine." Codman was a marine painter that Prior trained with in his early years.

In making such a detailed inscription Prior was documenting himself in preparation for an artistic career. What we may never know is what personal thoughts he may have had in mind while painting Rosamond. He may have been showing off a bit for her by adding so much detail. It does seem that he made the right first stop when arriving in Portland, and certainly had a flair for impressing his patrons.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Early American Portrait on Glass

Most early American folk portraitists worked in either oil on canvas or watercolor on paper. Very few mastered the art of reverse painting on glass. This was an art form that was hundreds of years old in Europe, but was actually brought to the United States in great numbers from China during the years of the China Trade from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. Reverse painting on glass wasn't even taught in America until the late 1780s, in Philadelphia. Somehow, our limner Benjamin Greenleaf of Hull, Massachusetts, learned the art form by the time he painted this reverse glass portrait of Lydia Waterman of Hingham, Massachusetts in 1810.

Reverse painting on glass has a luminous effect that is very enjoyable to behold. The brush strokes are so smooth against the surface and the play of light as it reflects on and through the glass brings out the color in ways that canvas or paper cannot. The really fascinating thing about this art form is that the artist had to do the painting in reverse, painting the highlights first and the base coats last; just the opposite of how most artists learn to paint.

Not much is know about Greenleaf. He was born in Hull in 1769, married in 1799, and died in 1821. He lived in Dorchester and painted portraits in Eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. There are a few dozen of his works known, most of which are on glass as this one is. I've always been partial to our portrait of the 74-year-old Lydia Waterman in her white bonnet with her matter-of-fact expression. That the artist was able to capture her personality so well in such a demanding medium makes this a real masterpiece, and the fact of its fragility makes it a remarkable survival as well.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

William Matthew Prior Revealed

We recently had our great self-portrait by William Matthew Prior conserved in preparation for the upcoming exhibition, Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed, which opens May 26 at the Fenimore Art Museum. I must admit that even though I expected it to look better than before, the results far surpassed my expectations. Judge for yourself by comparing the piece after conservation (above) and before (below). The conservators at West Lake Conservators did a fantastic job.

In particular, please note the colors on the artist's palette, now visible in their full richness. It is no accident that Prior tilted the palette outward so we could have this view of the color scheme that enlivened so many likenesses of his in the early 19th century. As our guest curator, Jackie Oak, stated, "For Prior, art was a business." That is why this self-portrait not only shows who he was, but also gives the prospective client a taste of the range of hues at his disposal to use in immortalizing his subjects.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Got Wheat?

One large, central, sheaf of wheat. This image welcomed patrons to Lansings’ Inn, an establishment in Lansingburgh, New York, in the opening years of the nineteenth century. Located on the Hudson River about 12 miles north of Albany, Lansingburgh was a busy place at the turn of the century. Today incorporated into the city of Troy, Lansingburgh then boasted its own academy, shipyards, newspaper, and upwards of 10 taverns! With so much competition and bustle in Lansingburgh, why did the owner of Lansing’s Inn choose a wheat sheaf, of all things, to grace the all-important sign?

There are a few different reasons why this could be the case. The unknown owner and the anonymous maker of the sign obviously thought carefully about what image they wanted to depict. Wheat was an important commodity in the area during the early nineteenth century. Local farmers would bring their wheat into town, where it would be sold and shipped on the Hudson River. Troy’s city seal also evidences the economic importance of wheat-it is a sheaf of wheat surrounded by boxes and barrels with a tall merchant ship in the background. The wheat market played a significant role in the region’s development and success.

Since wheat was so important to the area economy, it would have been a recognizable image to people in town. It could have meant a variety of different things to them, from a literal reading as an agricultural crop or a trade good to a symbol of national prosperity or a desire for a good harvest. It also reflected well on Lansing’s Inn, announcing the establishment as a prosperous place, with plenty of good food and drink.  Paradoxically, the sheaf of wheat was both a very local but also a very universal symbol.

As an advertisement, the sign would have appealed to many different audiences, welcoming all to the inn. Locals or travelers, farmers or merchants, one large, central sheaf of wheat spoke to them all.

Got Wheat?

by Ashley Jahrling, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Friday, March 2, 2012

Civil War POW Folk Art

The American Civil War left many scars on this nation politically, economically, and socially, but it also left many soldiers physically and psychologically wounded as well. Some of the most poignant stories come not from the battlefields but from the prisoner-of-war camps in both the North and South. The men who were confined in these institutions would have struggled with the process of being captured and imprisoned, not knowing if or when they would be released and allowed to see their families. As there were few outlets that were allowed to most prisoners, art and crafts provided a way to cope with their condition, feel productive, and in some cases provide for themselves and their loved ones back home.

The condition of each camp varied from one to another, but all of them were unpleasant and sanitary conditions were subpar at best. Several camps were occupied for a short time, sometimes for mere months. Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison was a long-standing Union structure during the war, and had better conditions than most. The men who were confined there were officers which meant they were better educated and of a higher class than most soldiers. These circumstances allowed for a greater variety and amount of materials to be produced, and archaeological investigations have allowed for a better understanding of the process of creating art and crafts.

At Point Lookout, MD and Elmira, NY, materials were harder to locate due to worse prison conditions and lack of studies completed by historians and archaeologists. Sketches were more popular at these sites, and John Jacob Omenhausser’s sketch book of Point Lookout Prison contains some of the most famous images from a prisoner-of-war camp (see the top two images here). Several prisoners were stationed at multiple prisons, which would have allowed for a transmission of styles and forms of art being created.

Examples from Southern prisons are harder to find, possibly due to conditions and inability to obtain materials. For these prisons, art created after the war was greatly produced, but may not accurately depict the prisons or the psychology of the POW. Thomas O'Dea from Pennsylvania did the painting of Andersonville Prison in Georgia (third from the top) after the war; in fact it took him six years to complete, from 1879 to 1885. He later said "I never drew a picture before in my life. Were I an artist, I could have completed it in a short time." The work shows the innermost fears of prisoners: death and the leaving behind of family. Robert Sneden of the 40th NY Volunteers produced the above sketch of Millen Prison (Georgia) after his release, although he based it on an original sketch done during his incarceration. These folk artists may have altered some details by relying on memory, but their work captures the psychological realities that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

by Amanda Manahan, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alcoholism and Folk Art

 A cursory glance at old and new artwork reveals a strong sense of continuity in the subject matters artists have breached over time. A particularly relentless reality of life – alcoholism – has provided fodder for folk artists for centuries. Folk artists of the past and present deal with alcoholism in ways that at first seem shockingly different, but upon closer examination reflect and even complement each other.

            Nineteenth-century folk art intersected with alcoholism through the temperance movement. The temperance movement sought to greatly diminish or entirely eradicate the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The movement first appeared in the 1830s, fell victim to abolitionist fever around mid-century, and came back with a vengeance as the nation began to rebuild itself after the Civil War.

            Folk art produced as part of the temperance movement assisted the movement in three ways: it publicized the cause, associated temperance with nationalism, and was used as a fundraising tool. Folk art portraits captured the passion with which orators maligned alcohol use, as seen in a portrait of the “Napoleon of Temperance,” Neal Dow. Spartan folk art hotel signs publicized hotels that abstained from serving alcohol, while “temperance jugs” covered in malicious serpents caused a parched man to think twice about his drink of choice. Intricate scherenschnitte made by the Pennsylvania Dutch with the words “Temperance is Wisdom” flanked by an eagle and American flag revealed their belief in temperance as a national ideal. Additionally, the famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union made quilts to raise money for their beloved cause.

            Folk artists who explore alcoholism with their work today sometimes suffer themselves from the disease and in other instances comment upon their experiences with others who do. In either case, they  confront alcoholism with grotesque, direct interpretations. Self-taught artist Matt Sesow began to paint as a result of an injury (he was hit by an airplane and lost his left hand at age eight) and although he is not an alcoholic, some of his paintings address alcoholism and its attending issues (see "Detox" above). Contemporary folk artist Parker Lanier, on the other hand, began creating art as a way to cope with the struggles and desperation of alcoholism. This highly personal venture gave an artistic, public face to this struggle when his art started garnering national attention. His lack of training served to further authenticate his depictions of the stark realities of this disease.

       Whereas temperance folk art may have warned against alcoholism from a safe distance and today’s folk art on alcoholism is a direct descendent of the disease, both serve a similar purpose. In addition to often using similar motifs, the art of both eras causes the viewer to consider the severity of the disease. This folk art fulfilled, and continues to fulfill, a need for recognition of alcoholism’s heinous nature. It causes the viewer to stop, think, and consider this unrelenting reality of life in a new way, and perhaps causes them to enact change in their own lives.  

by Olivia Cothren, American Folk Art Course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prison Art in the Late 19th Century

Prisons across the United States were reformed in the mid to late 19th century, with activists fighting for the humane treatment of inmates. As a result, many prisons developed new programs to encourage creativity; these programs included training in sewing, knitting, and art and painting. Some prisons chose to encourage inmates to contribute toward the cost of their imprisonment by enacting programs of manual labor. Prisoners worked on state-owned pig and dairy farms, in manufacturing plants, as janitors, and constructing furniture or other household items. Initially, the crafts and pieces created by inmates were sold to the general public. As the pieces had been made free via prison labor, the prisons greatly profited from the sale of goods produced within their factories. Eventually, prison-made goods were used only within the prison itself or other state organizations.

            Auburn Prison in New York is credited with beginning a woodworking program that many other prisons imitated from the middle of the 1830s onward (see the Auburn Prison art blog post here). Inmates were able to utilize water-powered sawmills and tools to create a wide variety of furniture pieces, ranging in sizes from small checkerboard game sets to large tables and chairs. The Southern Illinois Penitentiary (now known as the Menard Correctional Center) in Menard, Illinois, also had a furniture manufactory for inmates to participate in construction activities. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River, it is likely that inmates at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary also used the nearby water source to power the tools and sawmills necessary to complete their furniture tasks. Marquetry and parquetry, also known as ‘male quilting,’ were popular forms of artistic expression for inmates in prisons with woodworking shops. Parquetry is a veneering process in which small pieces of wood or other materials are arranged in geometric designs; marquetry is the same technique, but combined to create figural or natural scenes instead of shapes.

            This hall tree, measuring 80 ½” high, 35 ½” wide and 15” deep was recently sold at Garth’s Auction House in Delaware, Ohio and is now in a private collection. The hall tree was made at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary in the late 19th or early 20th century, and is constructed from walnut with wood and mother-of-pearl parquetry inlay design. The design on the piece is symmetrical, with motifs include starbursts, symbols that resemble compasses, and leafy designs – all rendered masterfully, and geometrically, by a former inmate. While no information exists on whether the piece was initially sold to the general public in southern Illinois or used in a state office setting, the piece is a striking example of beautiful folk art furniture by an often forgotten subset of our population.

by Jessica Mayercin, American folk art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mr. Folk Art

On my recent trip to New York City, I decided to stop by the American Folk Art Museum, which as you probably know had to vacate its 53rd building last year and return to its old location opposite Lincoln Center owing to financial difficulties. I must say it looks as good as ever in the space that I associated with the museum in the 1980s, and the exhibition, "Jubilation/Rumination," was a terrific exploration of the stellar permanent collection.

But the most nostalgic moment for me was happening upon an old acquaintance who, for me, represents the face of the folk art museum. His name is Ken, and he has been a guard at the museum for more than a quarter century. For most of that time, he has gone out of his way to greet me by name and chat with me when I happen to come by. And I must say, it was usually only once or twice a year. Ken knew who I was long before I knew his name.

I wish all museums had an ambassador as personable as Ken. People like him are such a valuable asset; they are a vital link between the public and the collection. And remember, he is a guard, not a docent. His enthusiasm for the subject is admirable, and, I'm sure for many, infectious. If there is a "Mr. Folk Art," I have no doubt that it is Ken the guard.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Early Photographs of American Folk Art

Upon the introduction of photography to the United States in 1839, the daguerreotypy became closely associated with folk art. Painters such as Erastus Salisbury Field and Isaac Augustus Wetherby, even dabbled in the new art form of creating likenesses. According to Floyd and Marion Rinhart, “the charming simplicity of American primitive art exerted a powerful influence during the daguerrean era, especially in its first decade.” 

Then what messages are conveyed when daguerreotypes depict folk art, as in the image of Field's 1840s portrait of a woman, seen above? There is no single answer to this question. Today, motivations are often indiscernible due to the ambiguity of daguerreotypists, folk artists of depicted works, and intended viewers of each individual piece. Some conclusions, however, are perceivable after scouring numerous primary and secondary sources, as well as studying several folk art daguerreotypes that were recently on the market. Folk art was reproduced in daguerreotypes for both public and private viewing, for reasons of commemoration, advertising, and insurance. The common denominator of these attributes is visual documentation.

A daguerreotype of Asa Ames (above) depicts the folk sculptor in an occupational setting. The image shows recent projects completed by Ames, including a carved baby dated June, 1849. Ames was known to have sculpted friends and family in his short career. It is possible that Ames is advertising his business in a tongue-and-cheek family portrait setting.

Folk art paintings, in particular, were often depicted in daguerreotypes. Paintings did not require a large amount of skill and choice on the part of a daguerreotypist to reproduce them. The best way to capture a successful likeness of a painting was to position it squarely in front of the camera in an environment with equal, diffuse lighting to prevent glare.

In the 1840s and 1850s, there was a large public demand for photographs of deceased relatives; thus, it was common to reproduce daguerreotypes of the deceased and distribute them to family members. For those who had lived before photography, their likenesses would have been in the form of paintings.

Innovation was a common theme commemorated in daguerreotypes of folk art.  A painting of the New World attributed to J.J. Bard (above) and a weathervane of the Brookline locomotive (below) pay homage to the wonders of steam power and sensationalism in the United States. The New World was launched from New York harbor by Captain Ned Wakeman and his armed crew after a creditor’s lien was placed on the boat. The boat traveled from New York around the Horn to San Francisco. The Brookline locomotive was originally named “The Lion.” Built in 1835, it was the first locomotive to travel the Brookline Branch Railroad in Massachusetts. The locomotive was updated in 1853 to a 4-2-2 type and renamed the Brookline. The weathervane was most likely made in response to this event.  

In sum, the motivations behind daguerreotyping folk art were specific to owners of the original artwork and the intended viewer of the reproduction. These motivations do, however, fall into categories of commemoration, advertising, and insurance. Daguerreotype reproductions of folk art serve as visual documentation of a by-gone era.                        

-by Laura Laubenthal, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program   

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Niche for Folk Art at the Met

I attended a fantastic opening reception this past Tuesday night, and thought it would be fun to share it with you. The event was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and celebrated the reopening, after years of renovations, of the painting and sculpture galleries of the all-important American Wing. The museum was decked out for the occasion, from the red, white, and blue votive candles sparkling on the Grand Staircase to the blue floodlights on the Temple of Dendur where the main reception (for about 1,000 people) was held.

Why is the American Wing so important? As the highest-profile and most-visited permanent installation of its type, it defines for millions of people the visual culture of the United States as expressed in art. One could also argue that it serves as the cultural port of entry for hundreds of thousands of international visitors to New York, providing them with their first understanding of the history of America.

The new installation is stunning in its quality and in its coherent story line. But for me, the highlight was the prominence on American folk art in that story. There is a gallery devoted to folk art, which is pictured here, and also a number of selected pieces throughout the other galleries enhancing the sense of inclusiveness in the exhibition. It was a reminder that the whole story of America cannot be told without the voices of the ordinary men and women who sculpted and painted their lives.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jig Dolls, Lumberjacks, and Dancin' Dans

​During the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans had many forms of home entertainment. Many of these involved the playing and enjoying of music. Jig dolls, or limberjacks as they are sometimes called, are one form of folk art that came out of this musical tradition. A jig doll is a jointed wooden figure that was attached to a rod and panel, and could be manipulated by the player of an instrument or someone moving the doll to the tune of the music. The history of these dolls goes back hundreds of years, with the first being used by itinerant Italian street performers to animate their shows. Many European countries had their own version of the jig doll. This form was brought to America with settlers and immigrants, and it developed into a distinctive American form. Jig dolls could be carved or turned, and were often painted to reflect a character or stereotypical image. They usually had both jointed arms and legs which flailed either wildly when moved or in a dancing motion, depending on the skill of the handler! Jog dolls can be seen in folk art collections and have been recognized and collected as such.

​At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the ways in which Americans listened to and played music changed drastically with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison. The first phonographs played recorded music on wax cylinders. The more popular and commercially used phonographs used flat discs, onto which a groove was made which contained the music. Phonograph companies and inventors alike produced jig dolls and limberjacks that could be attached to the turntable or sound arm of a phonograph, that would vibrate to the tune of the music. As they became more mass produced, certain recognizable characters developed, including Ragtime Rastus, Happy Fanny, and Dancin’ Dan and Dancin’ Dina.

​The question then arises, when do jig dolls stop being folk art, and start being part of popular culture? Is this transition and abrupt one with the introduction of mechanized production? Can relevant information about music and home entertainment history still be gleaned from the later jig dolls? I think so, but I guess that question will be left up to the material scholars of the future.

-by Kelly Mustone, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No Need to Shout

This email just came across my desk, in big, bold type:

"Hi, I have missed your Emails on folk art. It is real joy to read about .I have been active in the market of folk art for some years now and find your writing very educational. I am not shouting at you,I just can't control my pc very well .Where is my eight year old Granddaughter when I need her?"

I'm glad the writer wasn't shouting, because he didn't need to. I realize that It has been too long since I posted anything here, owing mainly to the demands of my job as President of the Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown.

I'll try to do better, starting with sharing some illuminating posts written by my grad students last semester. They're fascinating, and some touch upon subjects I had no knowledge of. The first of these will be up very shortly. Thanks for being patient and not shouting :-)

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