Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The face only a folklorist could love

Portrait painters always strive to make their subjects beautiful, but sometimes they have so little to work with that there is no hiding the unfortunate physical traits that the sitters were born with. This portrait of a young boy is perhaps the most startling example in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Painted about 1860, and measuring about 24” x 20”, he has to be the homeliest kid I have ever seen committed to canvas. The palette and composition don’t help, either. Painted in drab tones and standing on a non-descript Victorian chair, the painting just couldn’t be duller.

And yet, more compelling. Everyone who sees this likeness is drawn to it. The reaction is instantaneously emotional. Maybe out of pity; I'm not sure.

One of the conundrums about this piece is the question of how and why it entered our collection. We know from its accession number that it came to us in 1948, along with a group of folk art pieces acquired from the estate of Modernist sculptor Elie Nadelman. I blogged about the Nadelman acquisition in a post for the Fenimore Art Museum Blog some time ago, but I’ll briefly relate the story here.

The gist of it is that our former Director, Louis C. Jones, and our great benefactor, Stephen C. Clark, went to Riverdale-on-Hudson to view the estate in 1948. There was an entire house full of folk art; hundreds of pieces. Clark asked Jones if he could choose any 12, which ones would they be? Jones took some time and made his picks, to which Clark replied “I agree with you on 11 of them. Let’s buy 13.”

Given what I know about the respective tastes of Dr. Jones and Mr. Clark, I’m guessing that this boy was the one piece Clark would not have put on his list. Lou Jones, however, saw the qualities in this picture that art connoisseurs could not. Without strong colors or patterns or important details or evidence of masterful technique, this painting captures the personality of a child in ways that much better works don’t.

So what’s the lesson? You have to be open-minded enough to see these works through the eyes of people who are not necessarily art historians. Jones was a folklorist; he saw in this piece a forthright representation of the tastes and values of ordinary people. Clark, for his part, respected Jones' taste and conceded the choice.

The other lesson? Sometimes 13 can be a lucky number.


  1. The realism of the face almost makes it seem like a painted tintype.

  2. There is something magical about it.

  3. I think this portrait may have been done after a photograph of some sort, perhaps a tintype. It does have that level of realism you see in portraits of the 1860s. Alot of folk painters became daguerrean artists in the 1840s and 1850s, and most adopted a more realistic style to compete with the photograph. All the more reason why it is so interesting that this work captures attention; most portraits in this style do not.

    Thanks, as always, for the comments!

  4. Hey Paul,

    Would you be interested in a quick interview for my blog? If so, contact me at joey@sparkrevenue.com


  5. It's honest. The kid is not too happy so that's how the artist portrays him.

  6. Yes, I agree about the honesty. Every time we can compare a folk portrait to the real person (in a photo) we find that the artist painted what he or she saw without much embellishment. That's what we mean by "warts and all."


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