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.


  1. The two portraits are beautiful works. The Prior painting seems mysterious to me: what is that white painted object she is carrying? why is there a knife on the ground? the knife, the red-covered book, the feathered hat, all placed on the ground, seeming symbolic.

    I've been thinking about the American "primitive" art tradition, wondering if it's unique in western culture. I don't know of an equivalent itinerant portraitist tradition in other countries, but would love to know about it if it exists. American exceptionalism makes me uncomfortable.

  2. Fascinating question about the symbolism of the props used in the child's portrait. I don't know of any specific references, but wouldn't put it past Prior to insert some hidden symbolism in his works. He was a complicated figure; an abolitionist, Millerite, clairvoyant, you name it.

    The itinerant portrait tradition can be found in many countries, including Mexico, Great Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia,and the Netherlands. Each country has a different and distinctive artistic history and style, but the general parameters of folk art style are within the same realm: the linewar, patterned, boldly colored works that you see in America can be seen elsewhere.

    Thanks for a great question and comment.

  3. Thanks so much for your response. I'll try finding some examples of other folk portraits. We tend, here in the US, to think everything we do is unique. For instance, the 19th century landscape painting called Luminism (which we were taught was peculiarly American) is similar to painting done in Denmark and even in Australia.
    Thanks again.


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