Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Uncovering a Murky Past

New acquisitions are always exciting, and I’ve written about several in this blog over the past few months. But the work that goes into uncovering information about these pieces is just as interesting, and ultimately is what makes the items matter for the collection and the public. One case in point is the ongoing research being done on our new painting, Massachusetts Band Leader, donated to the Fenimore Art Museum by Mrs. Patricia Selch in honor of her late husband Frederick.

I gratefully accepted this painting (and announced it in a post in January) because I felt that it was an exemplary piece of American folk painting from the middle of the 19th century, and had all of the desirable aesthetic attributes of the genre: bold color, linear and patterned composition, interesting details. Even though its past was shrouded in mystery it was clearly a superior work of art, and worthy of the company it will keep in Cooperstown.

Now the painting’s history is slowly coming to light, thanks to research being conducted by Nan Chisholm. While perusing some of the early books on American folk art, Nan made a startling discovery. Our Massachusetts Band Leader was published in a 1942 book by Carl Dreppard entitled American Pioneer Art and Artists. Published during World War II and including a somber foreword by the artist Rockwell Kent, the book celebrated the distinctively American qualities of a wide range of folk arts at a time when the authors admitted that the future of democracy was by no means assured.

Our portrait appears on page 74, under the title “Man and Horn.” Dreppard makes the point that although the artist was careful to identify the maker of the horn as E. G. Wright of Boston, he or she neglected to sign the painting. The most important information appears at the end of the caption, where the piece is identified as being from the Harden DeV. Pratt Collection. Mr. Pratt was a conductor working in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, and was not hitherto known for collecting folk paintings.

It’s obvious now that this appealed to him because of the musical connection to the subject. This seems fitting for a work honoring the man – Frederick Selch – who greatly advanced our knowledge and appreciation of American music through his exhibitions, publications, and remarkable musical instrument collection now at Oberlin College.

But we would never have known that if not for an indefatigable researcher trolling forgotten volumes on the dusty shelves of her library. The quest for new objects is always about the quest for new knowledge.


  1. How exciting. Isn't that a wonderful moment, that moment of discovery?

  2. Yes, it is. It's exciting even if you are experiencing it vicariously through another researcher.


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