Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mural Painting in Rural New York

Sometimes, when the grandest decorative traditions of Europe are picked up by American rural artisans, the results can be striking.

The painting of scenic wall murals has a long history in Western culture, dating from the hunting scenes in prehistoric caves and the many murals of pharonic Egypt and Classical Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages, noble families hung large woven tapestries depicting historical and mythological scenes on their walls for decoration as well as insulation. By the 18th century, printed papers were made that continued the tradition of scenic views on interior walls and became extremely popular.

In the United States, scenic wallpaper had to be imported from England or France. It was relatively expensive and difficult to obtain. A few folk artists in New York and New England were quick to respond to the fashion and produced hand-painted landscapes in oil directly onto dry plaster to compete with imported wallpaper. The style flourished in the 1820s and 1830s.

The walls in this post (now at The Farmers’ Museum, across the road from the Fenimore Art Museum; see before view above and after restoration at right) were removed from the second floor of a house in Springfield, New York, eleven miles from Cooperstown. Ezra Carroll, a trader, and his father John purchased the house in 1815. The Carroll home was located on the Cherry Valley Turnpike, a well-traveled east-west route, near the store Ezra operated. John died in 1822 or 1823 but Ezra lived until 1844, and it was presumably he who commissioned itinerant artist William Price to paint the walls of the house.

The walls were removed and the Carroll House demolished in 1957. The Winterthur Museum purchased the murals in the central stair hall. Conservators stabilized, removed and transported the walls to Cooperstown and to Winterthur in stages. The murals were covered with protective wallpaper and insulation board and braced with 2 x 4s. The wall sections were then slipped on to steel channels, picked up by crane, and loaded on to trucks. Conservators reversed the process and mounted the murals on a new backing for display.

Very little is known about the artist William Price. He signed and dated the Carroll House walls but no record of him living in the Springfield area survives. There is a William H. Price listed as a painter in The New York City Directory for 1844 and 1845. He may also be a veteran of the War of 1812—note the depiction of Commander Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on the front wall (at left), but research continues in identifying the artist.

In painting the vivid and somewhat fantastic murals he may have tried to duplicate elaborate French wallpapers, which also depicted landscapes and were very popular in the early 19th century. Price’s sources for his scenic views may have included both the local landscape and more exotic inspiration. The December 27, 1830 issue of Cooperstown’s Freeman’s Journal announces the pending publication of the Reverend Mr. Stewart’s account of his visit to the South Seas in 1829-30. Price may also have been influenced by literary sources such as Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, as evidenced by the portrait on the wall to the right (seen below, between the windows), which towers over a tiny gentleman in the foreground.

It’s hard to believe that stunning examples of 19th-century folk art like these can fall victim to changing tastes, but they did. Every so often, homeowners looking to redecorate their early 19th-century houses begin to strip away layers of old wallpaper and find traces of one of these lost murals underneath. When that happens, it’s best to stop and consult a conservator to avoid damaging the paint. You can find one at the American Institute for Conservation website.

Your second call, of course, should be to me.

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