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.
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