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.

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