Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Limner Makes a House Call

Portraiture was a tough way to make a living in 19th-century America, but it was also one of the only ways a painter could find work. The Boston portraitist John Singleton Copley once complained: “Were it not for portraiture, painting would be unknown in this place.”

What made portrait painting so difficult? The patrons, who knew little about art, and the people around them, who knew nothing. Few folk artists recorded the trials and tribulations of their own lives, but at least one trained artist left us with his own version of life as a traveling portrait painter in the early decades of the 1800s. This painter was Charles Bird King, and his painting The Itinerant Artist is in our collection at the Fenimore Art Museum.

King was born in 1785 in Newport, Rhode Island, and trained in New York and London prior to achieving notoriety as a painter of stunning portraits of 143 American Indian Chiefs who were visiting Washington, DC in 1821. Our painting, done much later, shows the artist looking back at his early days when he was a young artist struggling to make a living.

The Itinerant Artist is a large painting (44 3/4" x 57") that depicts a portrait painter, possibly King himself, trying to paint the likeness of the lady of the house while getting unwanted criticism from an old woman, probably the sitter's mother. Unlike established artists who worked alone in their studios, the itinerant folk artist often had to contend with chaotic environments (they often set up shop temporarily in a tavern) and extended family.

King shows the subject of the portrait in her finest dress, sitting upright to present herself appropriately for what may have been the only portrait painted of her during her entire life. One of her daughters gives her reassurance, while at her feet sits an African -American child who is most likely a slave or servant of the household.

Another distraction for the poor artist can be seen behind him. A boy of the household is trying his hand at portraiture while looking over the shoulder of the portrait painter. His sister looks on. In all likelihood, the family members would have seen as much merit in the efforts of the boy as they did in the artist.

The man of the house, of course, wants nothing to do with any of this. He casts a disdainful look over his shoulder as he heads out the door with his rifle to do something useful like hunt for food.

Imagine trying to work in this household with all of the distractions seen so far. These pale in comparison to the wailing of this infant in the crib at his mother's feet. Imagine also having artistic aspirations, perhaps to be a great history painter or at least a prosperous journeyman. It’s no wonder that James Whsitler once defined a portrait as “a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.”

Of course, the subject’s ignorance of art could also be an advantage for the artist. The peddler, tinker and schoolmaster James Guild of Vermont described his first attempt at portrait painting in his journal in 1818: “It makes me smile when I think of while I was daubing on paint on a piece of paper, it would not be called painting, for it looked more like a strangled cat than it did like her. However I told her it looked like her and she believed it.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Edgar Tolson: Kentucky Gothic

If we did not know who carved the “Temptation of Adam” in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (lower right) it would be easy to infer that it must have been done by a person singularly devoted to God and living a simple, holy life. What we do know about the legendary carver Edgar Tolson, however, radically changes how we must interpret this masterpiece of American folk sculpture.

Tolson was born in 1904 in Wolfe County in eastern Kentucky, the fourth of eleven children of poor tenant farmers. When he was nine, Edgar carved a table; he went on to carve a whole set of dinnerware for his family. The region was known for its roughness, and Tolson told stories of gunfights in nearby Lee City that left dozens dead. His father was also a lay minister who schooled his children with frequent quotations from the Bible.

In spite of his religious upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Edgar became a notorious (and dangerous) prankster. He once loosened a board in his church’s floor so that when his long-winded uncle stood up to testify he smashed straight through the floor. Even more bizarre, when he was eighteen Tolson rigged some dynamite to the side of the church, set off a long fuse, and went in and sat down with the other congregants. The blast blew the side of the church off, blew out all of the windows, and fortunately only killed an old dog. When asked about this incident years later Tolson recalled, “We didn’t like the church and the way they was carrying on. We thought we’d have us some fun and would have died having it.”

Tolson eventually settled down, married, and had a family of his own. He worked in mines, and sawmills and continued to farm. He also began to preach, but became prone to alcoholic binges and relations with other women. He served a year in the state penitentiary for deserting his family and ended up, not surprisingly, divorced.

It was only after suffering a stroke in the late 1950s that Tolson turned his attention to woodcarving. The sculptures he made are now the most recognizable folk art ever to come out of Kentucky. His favorite theme: The Fall of Man, which included Adam and Eve in the Garden (upper left, private collection) Temptation of Adam (above right, Fenimore Art Museum) and Expulsion from Eden (below, Hall Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum). He produced about a hundred of these carvings. The key component of this series is always Temptation, and the autobiographic implications are obvious.

Tolson’s figures are always upright and stoic, resigned to their fate but resolute in their determination to survive. Each figure stands alone, even in his tableau. Perhaps this is the artist’s way of communicating the individual burden of personal responsibility for one’s actions. He once said, “Every man knows when he transgresses God’s law. Both Saint and Sinner.” This was a preacher who had faced many demons, and exorcised them with a penknife and a piece of Kentucky poplar.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New-Found Folk Art of the Young Republic

The discovery and collecting of American folk art in the middle of the 20th century led to some pretty dramatic stories about where these great artworks were found. One of the most dramatic of these stories involves some 150 paintings in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, some of which are now widely acknowledged masterpieces.

Marion Raymond was born in Massachusetts in 1881, the daughter of a patent lawyer who settled the family in Newtonville, outside of Boston. Her mother died when she was 19, and Marion and her widowed father spent a great deal of time thereafter traveling the world.

William J. Gunn was born in Portland, Maine in 1879, graduated from Harvard, and became an advertising manager at the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company in Chicago. In 1906 he learned that he had Bright’s disease, then erroneously thought to be fatal. He later wrote, “Now that I had been saddled with an incurable disease, I decided it would be nice to see a little more of the world.”

These two inveterate wanderers met overseas and were married in Yokohama, Japan in 1914. They settled in Newtonville. During their married life of 38 years, the Gunns traveled widely and collected extensively. All told they made three trips around the world before William died in 1952. A visitor to their house in the 1950s described it as a museum filled with possessions collected from all over the world. After Marion’s death in 1957 the collections were donated to non-profit organizations. One group of paintings was given by Marion to her long-time servant, Grace Marr, who offered them for sale to a private dealer.

I simply cannot imagine the dealer’s face when he saw where the collection had been stored. For reasons that are difficult to ascertain, William and Marion had collected some 600 folk art paintings and kept them in a barn on their Newtonville property. Many of the works had been removed from their frames; others were covered with dirt, bat and bird droppings, and barn paint.

The dealer quickly contacted another dealer, Mary Allis of Connecticut, who had the capital to buy the entire collection. She in turn offered the collection to Stephen Clark, who selected 150 of the best works to come to Cooperstown. By the time Louis and Agnes Halsey Jones catalogued and published this collection in 1960, the folk art world knew that its contours were forever changed by the surprise addition of this unknown collection of masterpieces.

Why did the Gunns collect these works so passionately? We can’t be sure, although some of the works reflect their travels abroad, like the great watercolor of Venice. But it is worth noting that many of the paintings, like the portraits seen here, depict children with pets. Although childless, the Gunns left alot of money to childrens' service agencies. They also were major benefactors of the SPCA. At the time of her death, Marion had no fewer than 20 cats. She did at one time have many dogs, but as she got older she rationalized, “I, of course, will soon go. Dogs would grieve for me, but cats will not cry, will live up their time.” Perhaps the collection was less the product of connoisseurship than it was of simple empathy.
Top: Boy in Gray with Dog, artist unidentified, ca. 1820. This impish youngster was immediately nicknamed "Butch" up on his arrival at the Fenimore Art Museum in 1959.
Upper left: Venice, artist unidentified, ca. 1850. Probably a schoolgirl watercolor done from a print. Notice the New England costumes of the "Venetians."
Upper right: Agnes Halsey Jones (second from right) at the openinig of "New-Found Folk Art of the Young Republic," featuring the Gunn Collection at Fenimore Art Museum in 1960. Notice the John Brewster Jr. portrait of Francis O. Watts with Bird just behind her.
Lower left: Little Child with Big Dog, by William Matthew Prior, 1848.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Chronicler of York, Lewis Miller

I have wanted to do a post on Lewis Miller since I started this blog, even though we don't have any of his work in the Fenimore Art Museum. His story, and the body of work he created, is rich and compelling in its attachment to a locale and the daily habits of its inhabitants. Between 1810 and 1865, Miller created some 2,000 drawings that give us a picture of the life of York, Pennsylvania that is unparalleled in any other American city. He called the volume, humbly, “The Chronicle of York.”
Miller was born in York in 1796 the 10th and youngest child of German immigrant parents who brought him up with a literary and classical education few folk artists ever receive. He even went so far as to take a Grand Tour of Europe in 1840, an undertaking usually reserved for the wealthy or those artists underwritten by a patron. It’s worth noting that he traveling through Europe chiefly on foot. Throughout his life Miller was a master carpenter, an avid traveler, and a writer of poetry and prose.

His greatest asset was his ability to record the mundane and the miraculous, often with a gentle, earthy humor. At the beginning of “The Chronicle of York” he states: “All of the Pictures Containing in this Book…are true Sketches, I myself being there upon the places and Spot and put down what happened. And was close by of the Greatest number. Saw the whole scene enacted before my eyes.” Here are some examples.

A self-portrait (top), not as an artist but as a carpenter, shown at his workbench with all of his trusty tools of the trade, along with detailed information on the location and nature of his shop.

A depiction of Tom Thumb’s visit to York, showing him on a miniature stage and surrounded by local dignitaries.

Two boys being thrown over a fence for stealing apples.
A robbery in a butcher’s shop.
And my favorite, “The Retreat of the Bad Woman’s,” showing a group of concerned citizens tearing down a local house of ill-repute while the “bad women” jump a fence to get away in the background.
These drawings, along with nearly 2,000 others, are in the collection of the Historical Society Museum of the York County Heritage Trust. A selection is always on view.

In May 1882, the 85-year-old Lewis Miller was impoverished and in poor health. He wrote to an old friend for financial help, and was so grateful for the 50 dollars he received that he produced another 200 portraits of people from their old hometown. Although his body and his bank account were failing, Miller’s memory and his passion for the world around him remained undaunted until the end. He died in September of the same year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An African American Knife Box

This is the third in a series of posts highlighting the great folk art pieces from the Fenimore Art Museum collection included in our traveling exhibition “Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art” on view at the New York State Museum through January 6, 2010. My first two posts featured a carving of a Jim Crow figure for a tavern sign and an African American Cigar Store Indian. In both form and function these pieces are vastly different from the one I offer today: a knife box meant for domestic rather than public consumption.

Our knife box has intrigued scholars of African American culture for decades, at least since John Vlach’s landmark 1974 catalogue The Afro-American Tradition in the Decorative Arts. This box is distinctly African in carving style, which alone would make it a rare and important survival. But the truly striking reality of this piece is not the style; it is the subject.

One need only look at the knife box for a minute before it hits you: it’s a slave ship. The sides of the box, and particularly the rows of eight articulated figures along two of the sides, strongly suggest rows of slaves packed tightly onto a ship for a trans-Atlantic crossing. The handle of the knife box is a large upright in the center carved into the shape of a head, perhaps representing a slaver or overseer of the voyage and “cargo.” The area belowdecks, as you can see, is completely surrounded by vertical slats that appear to represent iron bars.

The guest curator for “Through the Eyes of Others,” Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, says of this piece: “African Americans expressed their identity through the creation of decorative objects as well as through depictions of self. This knife box tells a story of the movement of people and of the carver’s cultural identity.”

A utilitarian object, made for the home, carrying strong visual clues to a cultural memory of a nightmarish voyage. And like the voyage itself, the symbolic value of the box’s function – holding knives – is impossible to escape.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Deaf Artist in Early America

Imagine what it must have been like to have your portrait painted in the early 19th century. First of all, before the camera was introduced via the daguerreotype in 1839, having a portrait painted was the only way to get a likeness of yourself. For most people, it was the only likeness they would obtain in their entire lifetime. It was, therefore, a pretty serious business, and its success depended on the rapport between the sitter and the artist.

This rapport was even more important when having portraits done of your children. In an era of high infant and child mortality, the act of portrait making took on a decided urgency. Early daguerreotypists used the phrase: “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fade.”

Considering all of the above, it is remarkable that the most successful folk portrait painter of children was a man who could neither speak nor hear. John Brewster, Jr. was born a deaf mute in 1766 in Connecticut, and grew up in a close circle of family and friends who probably learned to understand him through the use of improvised signs (American Sign Language had not yet been developed). In retrospect, it seems fortunate that he had artistic talent, for there was little else he would have been able to do.

Brewster learned to paint from a local portraitist and set off for Buxton, Maine with his physician brother in 1805. Within months he was painting elegant, serene portraits of some of Maine’s most prominent citizens. But his portraits of children are his most stunning works of art. The youngsters he paints float angelically on the canvas, with large, expressive eyes looking up at the viewer with yearning and fascination. His portraits of Franics O. Watts (top right) and "One Shoe Off" (lower left) are in the Fenimore Art Museum. The portrait of Comfort Starr Mygatt and His Son George (above left) and his half sister Sophia Brewster (above right) are in private collections.
Kids must have loved Brewster, and he must have had a special fondness for them too. Ironic, considering he never married nor did he have children of his own. What little we know of Brewster’s personality, from the1791 diary of a family friend, the Reverend James Cogswell, hints at him being a particularly engaging young man; “Brewster, the Deaf & D. young Man was at my House when I came Home. He tarried & dined here – he appears to have a good Disposition & an ingenious Mind. I could converse little with him, being not enough acquainted to understand his Signs. I pity Him - & feel thankful to God for the Exercise of my Senses.”

In his landmark book, A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr., scholar Harlan Lane strongly suggests that Brewster’s deafness enhanced his powers of observation. Likewise, the presence of so many sensitively rendered faces with large eyes point to the importance of the face and particularly the gaze in communication among the deaf. In Brewster’s portraits we see the world literally through the eyes of a deaf man.

That’s the scholar’s point of view, and a valid one. But as I was leading a tour group through a Brewster exhibition we had at the Fenimore Art Museum a few years ago, I got a mom’s perspective. When I was pondering Brewster’s portraits of children she piped up and said; “Well, if he couldn’t hear the racket the kids made, he probably had more patience with them.”

I just smiled. When it comes to medicine or art history, you can’t out-diagnose a mom.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Folk Art in Moby-Dick

The greatest scholars, and the greatest writers, have an insatiable curiosity and an abiding respect for all humankind. This broad and far-reaching humanism is rare in any field, but there are dramatic exceptions. Herman Melville is one of these bright spots.

Folk art was appreciated by a few enlightened individuals by the 1920s, and only gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s. This is why it is astonishing to me that Melville thought enough of the material to devote a chapter to it in the middle of his classic Moby-Dick way back in 1851. In this chapter, entitled “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars,” Melville describes an old sailor on the London docks, displaying his stump of a leg and a painting of the whaling incident that cost him his appendage. Three whale boats, three whales. One whale crushing a boat – and the sailor within – in its massive jaws. In a statement that would only provoke derision until more than a century later, Melville proclaims “His three whales are as good whales as were ever published in Wapping [a dock district in London].”

Melville goes on to praise all manner of folk art of the sea, including whaling scenes like that described above (and the ones in the Mystic Historical Society, left, and in the Fenimore Art Museum collection below) and especially scrimshaw (the incising or carving of scenes or figures into whale teeth or bone, such as the Frederick Myrick tooth at the bottom) as “lively,” “ingenious,” and “miraculous.” He compares the scrimshander’s “maziness of design” with the legendary patterns of Achilles’ shield and the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer.

Radical words for 1851. And written by someone who knew his subject, knew how to capture a whale in body and spirit. Melville’s profound respect for sailors and their artwork is instructive and inspirational. It shows us how powerful and relevant the works of folk artists can be.

Especially when your art studio is a bunk below decks and you have to fit in your carving time between marathon fights to the death with a pale behemoth.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Framed in Maine!

It was one of the most dramatic “rescue stories” in American folk art. An iconic painting one small step away from the dumpster, spotted by knowledgeable collectors of the period. What happened became one of the collector’s favorite stories about one of her favorite pieces, the Fenimore Art Museum’s “Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine.”

The collector was Jean Lipman, who was also Editor of Art in America in the 1930 and 1940s. She had a thorough grounding in modern art and had written a feature on Stephen C. Clark’s collection (Clark, of course, was the main benefactor of the Fenimore Art Museum). Lipman had been collecting American folk art seriously since about 1938, meticulously recording each purchase in a little black notebook (now in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York).

It was late in 1941, just about the time when the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, when Mrs. Lipman was on one of her week-long treks from her home in western Connecticut to Maine, scouring the countryside for folk art. She happened upon one of those “open barn” shops in Norway, Maine, about 40 miles north of Portland. An unassuming picture caught her eye; an eye honed by eyes of assessing the bold abstractions of modern art and the similar flattened and patterned compositions found in folk art. It was a townscape, oil on canvas, cheaply framed. Mrs. Lipman inquired about the price. Fifty cents was the answer: for the frame, of course. The “painting” was free.

The rest is folk art history. Mrs. Lipman bought the picture (or rather, the frame) and published it in her seminal book, American Primitive Painting, in 1942, and it became a star. Since the 1940s it has been in numerous exhibitions in the United States and Europe, appeared on the cover of Antiques Magazine, and was featured as a Christmas postage stamp by the U. S. Postal Service in 1969. Research has uncovered its source image, a 19th-century chromolithograph “copied” by the unknown artist.

And in the end, the Fenimore Art Museum benefited from Mrs. Lipman’s luck and acumen. When she negotiated the sale of her collection in 1950 to Stephen Clark (whose intention was to give the collection to us), Mrs. Lipman boldly asked him to pay her double what she had paid for each item.

The price to Mr. Clark for this icon: one dollar. To this day, I wouldn’t dream of replacing the frame.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Bug's Life

It might be the most famous piece of folk art in America. Every day, thousands of people come within viewing distance of it but only a few notice. That’s because they fail to look up.

I’m talking about the famous grasshopper weathervane that sits atop Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. It was made by coppersmith and tinsmith Shem Drowne and placed on its cupola in 1742. George Washington was only seven years old, and of course Boston, Massachusetts, and the rest of the colonies were thoroughly English. So technically this is a piece of Colonial English folk art. Drowne based his grasshopper on the weathervane that sat atop the Royal Exchange in London, and wanted the association with finance for Boston’s new marketplace and meeting hall. The vane is four feet long, weighs 80 pounds, is made of copper covered with gold leaf, and has glass eyes. And oh, what a history it has.

After the grasshopper was completed, it was reportedly shipped by accident to the College of William and Mary, where it sat atop the Wren Building until someone figured out that it wasn’t the Butterfly weathervane they had ordered. After finally making it to its correct location, the weathervane presided peacefully over Boston’s market district for about 13 years. In 1755 it was thrown from its perch by the Great Lisbon Earthquake, centered in the Atlantic and triggering a tsunami that nearly destroyed the Portuguese capital. Fortunately, Shem Drowne was still around, and he and his son Thomas took the damaged weathervane back to their shop in the North End and repaired it.

Its next quiet interlude lasted only 6 years. In 1761 Faneuil Hall caught on fire and the poor grasshopper was damaged again. This time, Drowne’s son Thomas did the repair work. Thomas was obviously enamored of the great vane and wanted to preserve its history. In 1768 he inserted a note into the belly of the grasshopper. The note was entitled “Food for the Grasshopper” and read:

Shem Drowne made it, May 25, 1742. To my brethren and fellow grasshoppers, Fell in ye year 1753 (1755) Nov. 13, early in ye morning by a great earthquake by my old Master above. Again, like to have met with Utter Ruin by Fire, by hopping Timely from my Public Station, came of the broken bones and much Bruised. Cured and Fixed. Old Master's son Thomas Drowne June 28, 1768, and Though I will promise to Discharge my office, yet I shall vary as ye wind.

In 1805 the weathervane was moved as Charles Bullfinch completely redesigned Faneuil Hall, with the cupola repositioned from the middle of the building to the East end. During the War of 1812, the grasshopper helped ferret out British spies. God help you if you didn’t know the identity of the unique item atop Faneuil Hall in Boston.

The final affront to the vane’s dignity occurred in 1974, when it was stolen. Miraculously, the thieves did not leave the grounds with the piece; they hid it under some old flags in the eaves of the cupola and it was discovered a few days later.

It’s a great American story for one of the greatest pieces of American sculpture. As a tribute to this famous piece of our heritage, weathervane manufacturer L.W. Cushing made his own version of the grasshopper for sale in the 1880s. We have one of these pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Every time I see it, I think of the fragile but resilient creature in Boston, the glided child of a tinsmith and silent witness to the centuries.
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