Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Celebrated Dancing Stump of Calaveras County

There is, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, a large group of paintings that can loosely be described as scenes of everyday life. These held great appeal for the museum in its early days when they were being collected for Cooperstown. The museum’s parent organization, the New York State Historical Association, had a long-standing involvement with local history through programs such as the Seminars on American Culture and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies. The latter offered a Master’s degree not only in History Museum Studies but also in American Folklife. And so we have been handed down an important legacy in these works that depict the moments of history that are too often left out of the history books.

When considering these paintings it is important to remember that the nineteenth century, when many of them were painted, was actually a period of rapid change in America. Modes of communication expanded greatly, much like today, and thus our assumptions about the “local-ness” of the images we are seeing can be more complicated than we imagine. This is particularly true of one painting in our collection, entitled Dance on a Sequoia Stump, found in Massachusetts and signed by an artist known only as F. R. Bennett probably around 1875.

Research into this painting in the 1960s quickly identified it as a depiction of a well-known event that took place thousands of miles away, in Calaveras County, California in the 1850s. This region of giant and ancient Sequoia forests is best known as the setting for Mark Twain’s classic “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1867. Thirteen years prior to that, however, in July 1854, something else happened that was thought to be quite remarkable at the time: a huge sequoia known only as the Big Tree was felled. Local accounts stated that the tree was more than 1,300 years old, had bark that was nearly 18 inches thick, and had a total diameter of twenty-five feet!

According to an 1888 publication titled Heart of the Sierras, the tree had gotten along fine until some vandals remove the bark to the height of thirty feet, in order to make a room for exhibition at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. This bark removal killed the tree, which was later felled to create souvenirs. It supposed took five men twenty-two days to fell the tree using pump-augers. Afterward, on July 4, 1854, the locals held a cotillion on the stump, and maintained that the remnant of the noble tree was so large it could accommodate thirty-two dancers.

Why did Bennett paint a scene so far removed from his probable home state of Massachusetts? He likely got the idea from a stereopticon, a form of photography meant to be viewed through a special viewer to give the image a three-dimensional effect. Yes, 3-D is not a new phenomenon. These images were distributed across the country and helped blur the line between local and national, as did other forms of popular culture such as the lithograph. Folk artists eager to find recognizable images for their paintings often borrowed from these sources to guide their compositions.

Some artists, however, were more literal than others: when F. R. Bennett carefully delineated his stump dancers, he made sure that the count was exactly thirty-two.

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