Friday, May 28, 2010

A King Uncrowned

In the folk art world, most scholarly battles are wars of attribution, not attrition. I was reminded of the sometimes fierce exchanges regarding who painted what when I walked though the folk art gallery of the Fenimore Art Museum today and saw our new case full of miniatures. Included in this arrangement are two small watercolor portraits signed by the Connecticut artist James Sanford Ellsworth.

The Ellsworth do not look like paintings that scholars would fight over; the style is so distinctive and bears no resemblance to that of any other known artist of the early and mid-nineteenth century. But in fact there was a battle over these tiny works, and it took place nearly 80 years ago.

The March 1932 issue of The Magazine Antiques carried an article with the headline “King versus Ellsworth.” In the article one Julia D. Sophronia Snow (I love these nineteenth-century names) related a conversation she had with an old woman who had been painted as a child in a watercolor miniature that looked for all the world like an Ellsworth seen at left below, in black and white). The woman insisted that the work (unsigned, by the way) was not by anyone named Ellsworth; rather it was done by “Josiah King, the man without legs, who rode about the country in a dogcart, peddling cutlery, framing pictures, and painting portraits.” For a blogger like me with a taste for the strange and unusual, this sounded too good to be true.

Ms. Snow went on to detail the results of her research into the life of Mr. King, and took great pains to describe the similarities and differences between his style and Ellsworth’s, using the old woman’s portrait as her basis. Her final words in the article were: “Collectors, look to your past ascriptions! Some of your haloed Ellsworths may have to be recrowned as Kings!” Even the Editor of the magazine weighed in to say that Snow had “won the encounter, and that, in consequence, many a crude little likeness hitherto ascribed to Ellsworth must be credited to another hand.”

It took more than twenty years for someone to mount a response. In the Autumn 1953 issue of Art in America, Lucy B. Mitchell published her research on Ellsworth. Apparently in response to the enduring notion that King painted some of these portraits, Mitchell poses a series of key questions, ones that should have been asked by the Editor of Antiques a generation earlier.

Why isn’t portraiture mentioned on King’s business card?

Why did King’s children, when interviewed, have no knowledge that he painted miniatures?

Why have no miniatures ascribable to King been found among his descendents or neighbors?

And the crucial question, at least for me: Why have no signatures by King ever been found on these miniatures?

Her conclusion: because King never painted them; Ellsworth did. Basing a body of work on the recollections of one elderly woman is too speculative to be taken seriously. I was surprised to find out that Josiah King managed to rule for twenty years, and disappointed to learn that there probably never was a legless folk artist who traveled the countryside in a dogcart pulled by two Newfoundland dogs.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Revelations in a Cemetery

This painting, another of our folk art icons, has long been a mystery. It is an oil on canvas, about 18” x 24”, showing a group of people in a cemetery who seem to be awaiting a carriage coming toward them from the background. The earliest known owner was an antiques dealer from York, Pennsylvania, in 1939. It was purchased from him by Jean and Howard Lipman, and became one of their signature pieces which Jean published in her 1942 book American Primitive Paintings. The Fenimore Art Museum acquired it via Stephen C. Clark in 1950 with the rest of the Lipman collection. Owing to a notation on the frame, “Found in York Springs, Pa.,” the painting has always been known as York Springs Graveyard. It is signed by an “R. Fibich,” about whom nothing was known.

A research nightmare. Museum staff and Cooperstown Graduate Program students quickly ascertained that the cemetery in York Springs bore no relation to the one depicted. It seemed impossible to tell with any certainty what was actually going on in the picture: were the people waiting for a dignitary to arrive on the outskirts of town? They certainly didn’t seem dressed for a funeral. So the painting kept its uncertain title and was published as the only known work by an R. Fibich, painted about 1850, in various publications from the Whitney’s seminal exhibition catalogue The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876 in 1974 to Life magazine.

That all changed in 2008, when Judith Pyle, a researcher from Adams County, Pennsylvania with childhood ties to York Springs took up the cold case of R, Fibich. Using local historical society archives, Judith found the citizenship application and tax assessment listing for a Robert Fibich, born in Prussia about 1820 and living in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1856. He was listed in city directories as a painter. In 1865 he moved to Tamaqua, about 45 miles north of Reading. He died in 1878. No other R. Fibich could be found in the census records, so it’s a safe bet that this was our man. In fact, Fibich signed his citizenship application in the same block letters that appear in his signature on the painting.

The move to Tamaqua led Judith to more information about the locale depicted. She already knew that the cemetery in the painting did not look like the York Springs cemetery. The most distinctive feature in the painting is the pair of triangular shaped plots at the left; nothing of the sort could be found in any local cemetery. Judith, however, paid a visit to the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Tamaqua, which resembles the contours of the land in the painting. Standing in the area at the left side of the painting, which was now a plain surface of mown grass with no iron railings, she asked the sextant, Justin Bailey, about the plots.

“Well,” he said, “first of all, the plot is triangular.” The railings had been removed and melted down during World War II as part of the war effort. That clinched it.

So, where we once had York Springs Graveyard, R. Fibich, ca. 1850” we now have Scene in Odd Fellows Cemetery, Tamaqua, Pa., Robert Fibich (ca. 1820-1878), ca. 1875.”

There’s nothing like a good sextant when you need help navigating.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Folk Art Deception

I have written often in this blog about pieces in our collection that were overlooked until a knowledgeable outsider recognized them as singularly important. It is really great when that happens (our scrimshaw cane is just one example) but sometimes, just like on the Antiques Road Show, you have to face bad news. Such was the case a few years ago with our Revolutionary War Soldier Whirligig.

This piece is one of two major whirligigs from the 19th century in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, the other being a figure of a Quaker. It stands 38”high, and is a well carved figure of soldier with a tricorne hat (hence the title) and the requisite paddles extending from his arms. These sculptures were fairly common in the 1800s, and were generally meant for amusement. A strong wind would make the figure paddle madly as it pivoted in the breeze.

I always admired this whirligig for its realistic carving in the face and costume details, and we have exhibited it on numerous occasions with our folk art collection. That is, until an expert on early American Sculpture from the collectors’ group The American Folk Art Society took a closer look at the piece. Of particular interest to him was the area where the paddles joined the hands. Something about that just didn’t seem right.

Take a look at the photographs here. The paddles extend straight down from the arms, while the hands are clearly shaped to hold something at more of an angle. His conclusion? The expert felt pretty strongly that the figure was meant to hold (no drumroll – the pun would be too obvious) drumsticks!

Our Revolutionary War veteran was actually most likely a band organ figure carved in Europe, possibly France. We do not know how or when he acquired his paddles and entered the market as an American folk sculpture, but I would guess that the change coincided with the emergence of a folk art market in the 1940s.

At any rate, our figure is now officially demoted from Important Folk Sculpture to Interesting Study Piece. I think that now, as a piece documenting the popularity of folk art in mid-20th-century America, it might be an even rarer example of its kind. But for now it will have to get used to life behind the scenes, rather than in our galleries.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Horse Play in Dutch New York

I wrote a blog post some time ago about the remarkable discovery of the Van Bergen Overmantel that was the result of a chance encounter between two women at a summer program here in Cooperstown. Walking past the painting (painted about 1732 and measuring 16” high by about 7 feet in width) on my way to the folk art gallery here in the Fenimore Art Museum the other day reminded me that there was one element of the piece that has always intrigued me; one little historical quirk in the midst of this astonishing historical record.

My previous post outlined the overmantel’s importance: it is the only primary visual document of daily life in Dutch New York (the Dutch settled New York City and State in the 17th century, and New York’s Hudson Valley remained culturally Dutch long after the surrender of New Amsterdam to the English in 1664); it is, indeed, the earliest American scene of everyday life; and it is the earliest known view of the Catskill Mountains, which were to figure so prominently in the Hudson River School landscape paintings in the 1800s.

The overmantel shows us an entire social stratification, from the proprietary family (the Van Bergens) to indentured servants, slaves, and American Indians. Everything – and everyone – is shown with such realistic detail that the artist must have been a keen observer of daily life and far ahead of his time as such.

One detail in particular caught my eye again as I passed by the painting. On the left side of the overmantel the artist has shown the three Van Bergen sons on horseback, riding across the family farm as if heading off for town. At least two of them. The third young man can be seen in the foreground, facing the opposite way, haplessly falling backward off his horse.

A family joke, perhaps? One might speculate that he was a bad horseman or at least had a number of spills that became legend in the family. I feel sorry for the guy. He is the only one in the painting who is preserved for posterity as a bit of a buffoon. I wouldn’t want to be reminded of this every time I went into the kitchen where the painting hung over the mantel. It makes you wonder if he was even allowed near the fire in the hearth.

We should count our blessings that he was the youngest son of the Van Bergens. My guess is that if the painting had been passed on to him we never would have seen it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New England Frescoes

On a recent trip with the American Folk Art Society to New Hampshire and Maine I was privileged to see first hand a room with wall murals painted by the great 19th-century folk artist Rufus Porter (1792-1884). These walls are in a private home in Hanover, New Hampshire, and so the viewing was a rare opportunity. I was not disappointed.

Porter was a true Renaissance man of his times. He was not only a decorative painter and portrait painter but also an inventor and author. He had a huge impact on decorative painting in America with his book, A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, published in 1825, and the many essays he published as founder and editor of Scientific American in the 1840s and 1850s.

Porter was appalled at the state of decorative painting in rural America, and so he did something that no other folk artist was ever in a position to do: establish a standard for painting in appearance and technique, and make that standard available to the masses.

Focusing on mural painting, which at the time was done in oil on dry plaster as an inexpensive substitute for imported French scenic wallpaper, Porter taught would-be artisans how to lay out a room and fill in landscape details. Establishing a uniform horizon line. Using fluid brushstrokes to create trees and shade their trunks. Use pre-cut stencils to include houses and barns. Adding narrative interest with bays, inlets, and a variety of vessels, both sail and steam.

The effect is astonishing, and very evocative of the New England coast. Porter painted walls along the Maine coast and into New Hampshire, and his nephew Jonathan Poor kept up the tradition. His techniques were widely adopted, and Porter-style wall murals abound in New England and New York State. Some of the more famous walls have long been removed from their original homes and sold on the market. Many, I’m sure, were destroyed or covered with layers of wallpaper over the years as paper became less expensive and itinerant artists disappeared.

That is why standing in an original Rufus Porter painted room is a unique experience not to be missed. Porter understood, as the Hudson River school artists did, that America’s real treasure was its land. More than any other artist of his era, he succeeded in making that treasure a part of people’s daily lives.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The self taught artists who traveled the back roads of early America painted likenesses of all manner of people, but rarely did they depict themselves. I know of only a few self-portraits by American folk artists, and they are all fascinating documents of the appearance and demeanor of the artists. Owing to a successful bid at the recent Leigh Keno auction on May 2, we now have in the Fenimore Art Museum collection one of the best known self portraits still in private hands; that of William Matthew Prior (1806-1873).

Of the many folk portrait painters represented in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, William Matthew Prior is one of the most accomplished and interesting. He began his artistic career in Maine in the 1820s and settled in Boston in the 1830s with an extended group of colleagues and family members. Under his leadership, this group revolutionized folk portraiture. Prior was the first folk artist to institute a price scale, offering to paint likenesses “without shade or shadow” at one-quarter the cost. This innovation made his portraits widely available to the middle class, and allowed him to compete with more accomplished academic painters in the Boston area.

Prior was also an important figure historically, as he became involved in a variety of reform movements. He was an avid abolitionist, and painted more portraits of African Americans than any other artist of his time. Prior was a follower of the religious leader William Miller, and painted several Millerite banners explaining visually the visionary’s unique reading of Biblical prophecy. His wife, it should be noted, advertised herself as a “clairvoyant” and Prior himself claimed to be able to paint portraits of sitters long dead by “spirit effect.”

The Fenimore Art Museum’s American folk art collection includes eight works by Prior that represent his range of interests and styles. We have portraits from the high and low end of his price scale, a portrait of a prominent African American, a portrait thought to be of William Miller himself, and a pair of landscapes. The signed self-portrait represented a rare opportunity to acquire the capstone of this sub-collection.

The painting is signed twice, and dated 1825. It is fascinating to see how accomplished Prior was this early in his career (he was just 19 years old). Prior’s folkier pictures actually come later, when he was trying to appeal to a broad middle class. Our retrospective on Prior, slated for 2012, is going to explore the very blurry line between folk art and academic art in the early 19th century, and the intersection of folk art and the myriad reform and religious movements of the era.

William Matthew Prior stands at the center of this study. And now we have his likeness, painted as only his brush could.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dreaming of Venice

Nineteenth-century folk artists from rural communities often had lives that were circumscribed by the limits of transportation and the family and community ties that kept them close to home. This was especially true of young women. The one exception to this rule may have been when or if the young lady was sent to a finishing school in a town or city. We have a terrific collection of watercolors and needlework pictures in the Fenimore Art Museum from female academies in New England and New York. Looking at these works, I always marvel at the expansive world view of the young artists, as well as the freshness and creativity of the design.

This mid-19th-century watercolor of Venice is one of my favorites. It is about 14” x 19”, and was one of the masterpieces found in the barn on the property of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn in Newtonville, Massachusetts in the 1950s (see my previous post on this collection). The artist, who remains unknown, probably worked from a print source, most likely an engraving in a travel guide that her instructor made available to her in watercolor class. Her reworking of the design is remarkable. Comparing the watercolor to some engravings of the same scene shows how she sharpened the image into a bold, linear composition, and added coloration that emphasized the patterns of the geometric shapes in the exotic architecture of the city. The famous Rialto Bridge dominates the scene, of course, and is executed with a striking angularity that plays nicely off the rounded arch of its underside.

All in all, a picture that evokes a far off place in a time when only the wealthy could think about traveling there. The artist, however, left us one clue to her New England origins: the costumes of the figures in the painting are distinctly local. Why bother recreating such a marvelous destination without placing a part of yourself in it?
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