Thursday, November 19, 2009

A chance encounter brings a folk art masterpiece to Cooperstown

The most historically important piece in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection may never have been known if not for the chance encounter of two remarkable women on a hot summer day in Cooperstown in 1954. The setting was our then-annual Seminars on American Culture, a program that brought together national scholars and local historians for course and workshops in American history, art, and culture. The two women: the legendary folk art scholar Nina Fletcher Little (whose collection is now owned by Historic New England); and Mabel Parker Smith, County Historian for Greene County, on the Hudson River south of Albany.

Nina Little (1899 -1993) had the reputation of being an astute collector of all things New England, and she often scoured the countryside herself in search of overlooked items of great historical importance. She had even picked through the antique shops of upstate New York in order to “rescue” those New England pieces that had migrated westward. Mrs. Little had also written seminal studies of American folk art in the 1940s and 1950s.

Mabel Smith (1903-1996), if less well-known, was no less interesting. She had been a journalist in the New York State Capital, in fact the only woman with a permanent desk in the Capital press room. She covered the trial of gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond and the impeachment proceedings against New York City Mayor James J. Walker. She also had a keen interest in the history of her home county, which had been settled by the Dutch in the 17th century, and had been through many local homes in the process of researching the county’s long history.

Well, on that summer day in Cooperstown, Mrs. Smith sat in on a course given by Mrs. Little on American folk art, listening to her discuss painted overmantels. These were scenes painted on board meant to be set into the panel above an 18th- or 19th-century fireplace mantel. Mrs. Little wondered aloud why, despite their prevalence in New England, she had never found an overmantel in New York State.

The casual remark immediately struck a chord in Mrs. Smith, who had recently visited the home of two elderly descendents of the Van Bergen family who told her they had an old overmantel dating from their family home’s early days. After the Seminars, she went back to the house to see it again, and was convinced that it was an authentic New York State overmantel. She brought it to the attention of our then-Director Louis c. Jones, who had the museum purchase the piece for $100 even though it was too dirty to make out much detail.

It was only after cleaning and researching the Van Bergen Overmantel (which is fully seven feet long and 16” high) that its true historical value came to light.

Painted about 1732, it is the earliest known scene of everyday life in America.

It is the ONLY scene of everyday from 18th-century Dutch New York.

It is the earliest known view of the Catskill Mountains, which were to play such a prominent role in the Hudson River School landscapes of a century later.

It depicts a complete social stratification, from the prosperous landowner and his family, to their indentured servants and slaves, and even shows Indians from a neighboring tribe who traded with the Dutch. For a large, detailed image of the whole piece, follow this link.

To say that Mabel Parker Smith was proud of her find would be an understatement. She often told the story of her discovery in interviews and newspaper articles published locally. And when she passed away at the age of 93, visitors to her wake were probably not surprised to see a large color reproduction of the Van Bergen Overmantel stretched along the length of her casket.


  1. Paul, that is a wonderful thing. Maybe you could explain some of the buildings in the painting. The elevated one, for example, is not a building you would see today.

  2. Yes, the "elevated" building is a Dutch hay barrack, very similar to the ones in Holland. It was essentially an octagonal structure with a moveable floor that could be lifted and pegged as the hay was used. This kept the hay off the ground and offered shelter for the chickens. There are only a few of these extant in New York. Note also the wide Dutch barn at the left. Thanks for noticing these details!


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