Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Mistake of Epic Proportions

When it comes to scholarship on works of art, nothing trumps common sense. A couple of days ago I was reminded of this while walking through our storage facility and glancing across the room at a large ship’s figurehead that we have had in the Fenimore Art Museum collection for many years. I’ve seen it many times, of course, and have never really given it the attention it deserves. This time, I did a double-take.

The figurehead came to us from the Jean and Howard Lipman Collection, and was said to depict Hercules. In fact, it came with a great history: it was reportedly made for the ship “Herculean” out of Kingston, Massachusetts, built in 1839 and used primarily for the shipment of cotton from the southern United States to New England and on to Europe. According to the history of the ship, during one particular voyage in 1849 the Herculean put into port at Glasgow, Scotland with numerous leaks. These leaks were allegedly caused by having too much weight in the bow owing to the 800 lb. figurehead mounted there. When the ship returned to Boston the figurehead was said to have been removed and replaced with a smaller, lighter billet-head.
The figurehead’s story from that point on is remarkably detailed. Sources say it was brought to the Holmes shipyard, where the Herculean was built, and mounted to the second story of the rigging and sail loft. After the building was torn down, the figurehead lay in the sand among the cast-off timbers of the yard for years until it was rescued by a local man who placed it among the shrubs of his garden in Kingston. After a time there it disappeared.

We acquired the figurehead from Mr. and Mrs. Lipman in 1950. It is not known when or where they purchased it, along with the history above. It’s a great story, and the residents of Kingston were delighted to find the piece in our galleries, with the label detailing its history, in 1953.

The problem is simple. Look at the figurehead.

A toga? A scroll in the right hand? I’m not a classically trained scholar, but I have no recollection of ever hearing about or reading the Writings of Hercules, or the Speeches of Hercules. I’m not even sure he could read or write. Common sense tells me that this figurehead cannot be Hercules, and the connection with the Herculean must have a glitch somewhere.

Fred Fried, the preeminent scholar of folk sculpture in the 1970s, agreed when he saw this figurehead in 1970. A note from him tucked away in our research file states that he felt that carvers, even folk carvers, had a pretty good sense of their iconography. Look, for example, at the Hercules figurehead from the U.S.S. Ohio, now on display in Stony Brook (above).
Now that’s Hercules.

So who do we have? A Roman statesman, perhaps. That’s a problem we now have to confront. When we do, hopefully common sense will guide us.

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