Friday, July 23, 2010

Mare and Foal

Let’s face it; people love folk art not just for the vibrancy of its patterns and colors, but also for its simple and enduring charm. The best folk art speaks of relationships of the heart. We have many such pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, but few speak to this basic human need as well or as directly as our well-known Mare and Foal weathervane.

As weathervanes go, this piece (about 31”long) is pretty simple. It consists of a flat, one inch thick piece of wood that was marked and cut into the silhouette of a draft horse sometime around 1850. Sometime later, someone added a miniature version of the horse at the back of the vane, perhaps to balance it properly so that it swung in the wind better. You can tell the small horse is a later addition (perhaps even by a different artist) by looking closely at the construction of the vane as well as the manner of carving. The smaller horse rests on a separate piece of wood that has been joined to the main body of the vane, and it is carved in the round rather than as a flat silhouette like its larger counterpart.

The smaller horse does much more than balance the vane, however. It clearly evokes a small foal chasing after its mother; just the sort of image that tugs at the heartstrings. It is perhaps this quality that first drew the attention of the great folk art collector Jean Lipman when she first saw the piece in Wakefield, Rhode Island in 1947. Not only is the silhouette pleasing and evocative, but the artist also incised the vane, adding manes to both horses and a proud smile of the face of the mother. It must have been irresistible.

What is somewhat unusual for a Lipman piece is that this weathervane was not undiscovered at the time she purchased it. In fact, it had caught the attention of an artist for the WPA who rendered the vane in watercolor for the Index of American Design in the 1930s, and it was exhibited at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1940s. I guess we can count ourselves fortunate that the piece was not acquired prior to Mrs. Lipman finding it on one of her legendary New England jaunts.

I’ve added some fine art examples of the same subject here (by Edwin Cooper and Basil Bradley, respectively) for two reasons: to show that the idea of a mare and foal was not unheard of in the art world of the nineteenth century; and to demonstrate that the unknown folk artist could produce, even with a saw and a block of wood, as good a representation of this subject as anyone. Maybe better.

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