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.


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