Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mutiny and Murder in the Edgartown Cemetery

My annual family trip to Martha’s Vineyard is a great time to reconnect with the great seafaring traditions that are far less evident in landlocked Cooperstown, New York. The Vineyard was a major whaling center in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when whale oil was a precious commodity and captains could get very wealthy from a single successful voyage. The best whaling was in the Pacific Ocean, so these voyages were quite long and arduous; there was no Panama Canal, so the ships had to go around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America to reach the prime whaling waters.

Edgartown, on the eastern end of the Vineyard, was the island’s prime whaling port, and thus it is the place where the history of whaling is most in evidence. And nowhere is it more prevalent than the Westside Cemetery right in the heart of town, where many of the ship captains are buried and commemorated in stone.

These gravestones hold a particular fascination for me, of course, as exceptional examples of American folk art. They were created by craft-trained stone carvers who over time developed their own distinctive styles. A comparison of two weeping willow vignettes on two Edgartown gravestones illustrates this point. One of the trees is quite realistic in its rendition, while the other is very stylized and nearly abstract.

Of all the gravestones in Edgartown, there is one that I have to pay my respects to every time I come here. From a distance you would hardly notice it. It carries no elaborate decoration and is a fairly standard shape. As you get closer you realize that there is a lot of writing, but it is only when you begin to read that you become riveted to the spot. Here is how it starts:
“Capt. Archibald Mellen, Jr., born at Tisbury June 5, 1830, and murdered on board ship Junior of New Bedford off the coast of New Zealand Dec 25, 1857: by Cyrus W. Plummer.”
Wow. Sure beats the sappy romantic pieties of the usual gravestone inscription. Think about it: not only does his tombstone give the gory details of the captain’s demise, it also names his murderer! An indictment in stone.

The story of the murder is well known, and one of the more famous mutinies involving Vineyarders. According to the histories of the voyage, Captain Mellen was on a whaling voyage near New Zealand when, on Christmas Eve 1857, he gave his men each a cup of grog and retired for the evening. Plummer and several conspirators later stormed the cabin and killed Mellen and his third mate while wounding several other officers. The murderers threw the dead officers overboard. (I suppose this is why Mellen’s gravestone doesn’t begin with “Here lies....”)
They were later captured in Sydney, Australia, and put on trial back in the United States. They were defended by Benjamin Butler, the Civil War general, who claimed the actions were the result of ill treatment of the sailors on the part of Captain Mellen. Butler successfully reduced Plummer’s charge from mutiny to “deliberate murder.” Plummer was sentenced to hang, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison by the President, James Buchanan. And there Plummer died, years later. (The other conspirators served out jail terms and were eventually released).

Back in Edgartown, the Mellen family had none of it. They must have commissioned the stone, and used their money (and the carver’s talents) to condemn Plummer for eternity. The gravestone inscription concludes: “Thus, at an early age, at the flood tide of successful manhood, an intelligent, honest, and worthy man became the innocent victim of the insatiable ambition of these conspirators.” Case closed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two New Hampshire Fireboards

Sometimes the simplest forms of folk art are the best and most memorable. Here is a fireboard I saw in a historical society in rural New Hampshire this spring. It could hardly be more straightforward in design and execution. The unknown artist divided his picture space into two parts with a horizon line, and filled in the broad areas of color with the strong green for the ground and a brilliant orange-red for the sky. Fences on the margins and an island in the middle ground add interest to the scene.
The piece has considerable visual appeal, however, from the next step; the artist filled the entire space with flowing, undulating trees. They are fantastical creations, and the way they spread to all areas of the picture space gives this painting the feel of an imagined, verdant paradise. 
The artist may have been Rufus Porter, the itinerant mural painter I have blogged about previously. Or he may have been one of Porter’s many followers who read his articles in Scientific American on how to execute these simple landscapes. They painted scenes like this on walls as well as on these board-and-batten fireplace enclosures called fireboards.

Compare the New Hampshire piece with the Fenimore Art Museum's famous “Bear and Pears” fireboard, also from New Hampshire. In ours, the artist also felt the need to fill the space with the trees, but used the varied heights of the trees to accomplish this. A different approach, but just as appealing in its own way. 
It is my guess that these firebaords were painted in the second quarter of the 19th century, or about 1825-1850. Imagine what they must have looked like in an interior that may have also included painted walls (with landscapes scenes, as I illustrated in my previous Rufus Porter post -- see my labels at the right), painted furniture, and family portraits. It must have been, to our eyes, a chaotic riot of color and design. It’s important to remember that the 19th century did not become austere until we made it so in the early 20th.

Friday, August 20, 2010

River of Life

Thanks to a recent grant from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, one of our most important folk art masterpieces is going to be conserved and prominently displayed in the Fenimore Art Museum’s 2010 quilt exhibition.

The piece is considered one of the greatest American quilts of all time, and one of the very few that feature a pictorial narrative akin to the genre paintings of the era. It is our Trade and Commerce quilt by Hannah Stockton Stiles, a 105” x 89” bedcovering made of cotton and chintz in about 1835. Hannah was born in Trenton, New Jersey and married John Stiles of Philadelphia in 1818. The two cities flank the Delaware River, a bustling commercial waterway that in the 1830s was loaded with all manner of ships, wharves, dockworkers, taverns, and shops taking advantage of the immense maritime traffic.

When Hannah decided to create a quilt, no doubt she wanted one that reflected her life. Whereas many quilters chose established patterns – often adding or creating variations on those patterns that were their unique individual stamp – Hannah did something quite extraordinary. She cut her own designs and images to make a complex and lively rendition of life along the river.

Her centerpiece for the quilt is highly symbolic, an immense Tree of Life. She borrowed this image and tradition from the imported palampores of India, but the notion of a life-giving river that provided everything for the people along its banks is central to the artist’s intent.

Along the margins of the quilt, Hannah did her most extraordinary work. Cutting out and applying her own shapes, she made figures of people and buildings and barrels and ships, all in the course of their daily business. Her level of detail is astounding, as you can see in these pictures. One can see a woman milking a cow, a fancy town carriage near a public bath, barrels being loaded or off-loaded at a wharf, and much more. She went so far as to cut zig zag shapes from her fabric to mimic the steam coming out of the steamboats on the river.

And look, lastly, along the bottom of the quilt. You can see a row of well-dressed people standing together as if watching the whole scene unfold. Might this be the Stiles family themselves, including the artist, paying homage to the life force that had given them everything they had?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Folk Art In Situ: The County Atlas

I’ve done a number of posts on those great late nineteenth-century weathervanes manufactured by companies in New England and New York and sold via catalogues throughout the United States. These commercially produced sculptures are some of the most elaborate and highly prized Americana items today. Unlike the more humble, hand-made weathervanes done by tinsmiths, carpenters, or farmers, these high-end vanes are difficult to truly classify as folk art, but they have associated with folk art for decades. And no one from the fine art world has ever moved in to take up the slack.

Viewing some of these weathervanes on exhibition in a museum is a terrific close-up experience; bear in mind that one was never meant to see them except from a distance. It is difficult to imagine how they must have looked in their original sites. Photographs of period weathervanes in situ are rare.

But not so rare are the many county atlases that you can find in almost any local library. These volumes, often done in the 1870s by large publishers and sold locally, contain scores of fantastic full-page engravings of some of the more prominent residences in each county. These plates were made from drawings done on site by artists hired by the publisher to solicit this business.

The detail in the engravings is incredible, as it had to be to please the property owner. Leafing through these old books one day some years ago, I noticed that they were a great source of period visual information on the placement of weathervanes in the late nineteenth century. Here are some fine examples.

The residence of Mr. and Mrs. James Slade (above, detail at top) shows not only their lovely brick house, but also their barns at the left. The barn in the back sports a large weathervane of a long horned bull, strikingly similar to the cows on the hillside adjacent. Owners of large scale farms often used weathervanes to signal the type of livestock housed within each barn. The residence of W. D. Boyden (second image from top) show three barns, two with cow vanes and one with a horse. Other vanes are more broadly symbolic of the owner’s life and work; one residence, that of Erie Railroad builder N. H. Decker (below), has a weathervane of a locomotive atop one barn.

Perhaps the most curious vane I found in these volumes came from the residence of Mr. and Mrs. W. Birdsall (below). This is a fantastic estate, complete with two houses, several barns, and a large multi-tiered fountain on the front lawn! But what caught my eye was the weathervane on the barn at the right. Not a horse or a cow or a rooster, but an elephant.

I have never seen a period weathervane of an elephant surviving from the period. It made me wonder whether t his gentleman was somehow involved with a traveling circus. This seems more likely than housing real elephants in that barn. But you never know. These vanes and their owners were so linked that the decorative capstone of one’s home often reflected the lives and ambitions within.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Split Personality Hotel sign

Here’s an interesting tidbit from our institutional history. Back in 1950 when the Fenimore Art Museum acquired the folk art collection of Jean and Howard Lipman, included in the many masterpieces that came our way was a phenomenal stone tavern sign. The piece, about 38 inches wide, was carved in 1816 out of unpolished marble to advertize the hotel of John Williams Jr. in Ashland, Massachusetts. It is two-sided, and features a vignette of an Indian hunting deer on one side and a stylized eagle (adapted from the Great Seal of the United States) on the other. Masonic symbols along the bottom of both sides indicate the hotel’s use as a temple for the local lodge.

The eagle is of particular interest; it is really one of the most elegantly rendered symbols of the young American Republic to be found anywhere. Our then-Director Louis C. Jones liked it so much that he made it the logo for our parent organization, the New York State Historical Association, sometime in the 1950s. When I first came here in the 1980s it was still in use as a logo on all of our stationery.

But one day I noticed something odd. On the sign itself, the head of the eagle face the bundle of arrows in the eagle’s claw. On the stationery, it faced the olive branch in the other claw. By the mid-1980s this had been corrected, as you can see in the images here. Everyone seemed to chalk it up to a printer’s error, a misinterpretation of the original sign.

What is particularly interesting is that the original Great Seal (adopted in 1782) features the eagle facing the olive branch, but still clutching the arrows in the other claw, indicating a peaceful country that was fully prepared to defend its new-found liberty. The carver of the Williams hotel sign, working in the era immediately following the War of 1812, chose to (or was asked to) emphasize the warrior side of the eagle’s dual personality by having it face the arrows.

One day I mentioned this to Lou Jones, who was quite old by that time but still sharp as a tack mentally and every bit the Merry Prankster he had always been. He told me, chuckling, ‘Oh yes, the hotel sign. Back in the 60s we turned the head to face the olive branch as a silent protest against the Vietnam War. We never told the trustees.” Lou’s protest had an extended life, lasting at least a decade longer than the war it quietly spoke out against.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Merry Farmer

When I first started working here at the Fenimore Art Museum back in the 1980s, I hated this piece. It seemed like a second-rate, somewhat creepy figural carving of a farmer. Maybe it was the glass eyes that made it seem as if there was something not quite right about this character. At any rate, I have never exhibited the piece, and have, for long stretches, completely forgotten that it even existed.

But you know, something about doing this blog has made me rethink a lot of my initial reactions to the lesser known works in our folk art collection. It’s such a useful exercise to go back and look carefully at pieces you thought you knew and then write something coherent about them. I may be coming around to liking the 54” tall piece known only as “Merry Farmer.”

We know almost nothing about him. The research file is nearly empty, except for a 1966 letter from the dealer who sold us the carving. No ordinary dealer. It was Adele Earnest, who along with her partner Cordelia Hamilton ran the Stony Point Antique Gallery in Stony Point, New York. She also sold us our great Bull weathervane pattern I blogged about some time ago. Highly respected for her knowledge of folk sculpture, Ms. Earnest was a founding trustee of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, and wrote two books on American folk art.

Anyway, this is what she wrote to Lou Jones, our Director, about this piece in 1966:

A "farmer" came into our hands the other day and naturally I thought of you. Wondered whether you could use him in association with any of your exhibits. He is wood-carved. The body and heard are one piece with the arms separate and swiveled. Don't know what he held in his hand - the hoe is ours. The color is good: - blue overhauls, red kerchief. Eyes are glass marbles. Had been used as a sign for a feed and grain store.

The last sentence got me to looking at this carving again. As an example of an outdoor sign for an agricultural enterprise it is a rare survival. And getting it out of storage and taking another good look at it led me to realize that it is actually a pretty good carving. Still a little scary to some, but forthright and authentic. I wish there were photos of it in situ at the feed and grain store. I can see why Ms. Earnest was attracted to the piece, although I think it’s hysterical that she gave it a hoe to hold.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Taverns Signs: When Good Enough is a Masterpiece

One of the most frequent demands of artisan painters in the late 18th and early 19th century was for all manner of signs for the varied business enterprises that were sprouting up in cities, towns, and rural villages across the northeast. As was the case with portraiture, painters of all levels of ability and training answered the call for these very practical art forms.

There were no standards of design; shopkeepers put these signs up wherever they could. Over doorways, projecting out from their buildings suspended from wrought iron brackets, at the top of poles. It was especially important for innkeepers to have signs that were prominent from a distance, in order to attract attention from travelers. That is why tavern signs were often hung high up on a pole, much like gas station signs on the interstate highways of today.

Being utilitarian items that lived their lives in the elements, tavern signs are rare survivals with interesting histories. They were frequently painted over, and if you look closely at the lettering you can often find traces of a previous business name underneath.

We have on view in the folk art gallery at the Fenimore Art Museum an exceptional example of an early New England tavern sign, about 42” x 23 ¾”. It advertises the inn of an R. Chadwick, presumably of Rhode Island, where the sign was found. The images on the sign are in terrific condition and are fascinating in their detail. One side shows the inn itself, a two and a half storey structure with eight-over-eight windows and a prominent wide doorway. A large tree at the right provides shade to the building. The other side shows a tethered horse, obviously to advertise the inn’s stabling facilities.

The lettering is fascinating and perplexing at the same time, and shows how quickly these signs were done and how easily the proprietors were pleased. One the side with the horse, which I’m guessing was painted first, the artist got to the “D” in “Chadwick” before he realized that he was running out of room. The solution was simple: he just made the rest of the name smaller.

What is truly perplexing is that he had a second chance to get it right on the other side. He did better, getting all the way to the “I” before having to resort to the tiny letters. Wouldn’t you think he might have measured before starting?

We are not aware of any other signs attributable to this same hand, but one can only hope that on the third try, he finally got it right. In the meantime, his masterpiece was plenty good enough for R. Chadwick.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Waving the Flag

What is the difference between good folk art and great folk art? Here’s an instructive comparison for you: two flag gates from two different Upstate New York farms.

Our flag gate is on view at The Farmers’ Museum, just across the road from the Fenimore Art Museum here in Cooperstown. As I was roaming through the museum the other day it caught my eye, as usual, and reminded me of a blog post idea I had some time ago to compare it to the flag gate in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

Ours is a good item, a wonderful example of the creativity of rural folk. And it couldn’t be simpler. The person who fashioned the gate was no doubt inspired by the horizontal slats of wood to create the red stripes of the American flag. From there it was a relatively easy matter to make the field of stars from a rectangular piece of fiberboard, painted blue, and cutouts of stars to populate it. Thirty nine stars in total, if that is a reliable estimation of the gate’s date: both Dakotas were added to the Union in 1889 as the 39th and 40th states. The gate was purchased from a Connecticut dealer in 1975, just before the Bicentennial, with a history of coming from a farm in Davenport, New York, about 30 miles south of Cooperstown. All in all, a nice piece, proudly displayed on the second floor of The Farmers’ Museum’s Main Barn, over the orientation area.

The flag gate at the American Folk Art Museum is another matter altogether. Conceptually similar to our gate, in that it is constructed out of the basic form of a slatted gate, this piece goes far beyond ours in expressive power.

In fact, it is amazing. Where our gate has negative space to stand in for the white stripes, the Folk Art Museum’s gate has white stripes set back from the red ones, giving the gate a three-dimensionality that adds to its vibrancy. But that’s just the beginning. The Folk Art Museum’s gate has stenciled stars set in a beautiful oval pattern. There are 37 stars, suggesting a date of 1876, the nation’s centennial. But most of all, in this gate the artist has carved the horizontal slats so that they actually wave as if the flag in flying in a stiff breeze.

The effect is truly spectacular. Looking at this gate, one gets a sense of energy and patriotic spirit that is rare in utilitarian folk art. This dynamism has made it an icon of the museum since the early 1960s, when it was founded.

We owe the existence of this great piece of folk art to Herbert Waide Hemphill, who had an unparalleled eye for finding folk art in the unlikeliest of places. This gate, thought to be from rural northern New York State, Jefferson County in particular, turned up at an Americana auction surrounded by garden furniture.

These two gates are both remarkable survivals and speak volumes about rural culture in 19th-century America. Yet in one of them, a few crucial visual tricks on the part of the unknown artist has created a truly magnificent work of art.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shady Lady

Frederick William Fuessenich earned his living in Torrington, Connecticut in the workaday world of numbers crunching. When he was young (Frederick was born in 1886) he got a job as a bookkeeper for the Hendey Machine Company of Torrington, eventually rising to the post of treasurer and director. He must have been very good with numbers, since after leaving the Hendey company, Frederick became president and director of the Torrington Realty Company as well as president and director of the Berkshire Mortgage and Finance Corporation. Sound dull? Well, Frederick had another life altogether, one that left a lasting impact on the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection.

Frederick was very proud of his family’s roots in New England. Although his father emigrated to Connecticut in the 1850s from Prussia, Frederick’s mother’s family (Blake) was among the earliest settlers of the state. At some point in the early 20th century, Frederick became enthralled with the early history of New England, and began to pursue that history with passion.

He purchased one of the oldest and most storied taverns in Connecticut, the William Bull Tavern of Litchfield, which was built in 1745, and moved it to his property. Over the years Frederick restored the tavern as his family’s residence and filled it with antiques. In the 1920s the Litchfield Enquirer said of his historic home: “Nowhere else in Litchfield, nor in all Connecticut, does one have the close, elbow-to-elbow touch with the dim yesterday of Colonial days that one enjoys in the one-time tavern, now the Fuessenich home.”

In late 1928, Frederick decided to sell his collection of antiques. Among the pieces offered for sale was a large painting (73” X 44”) depicting the figure of Lady Liberty placing a laurel wreath on a bust of George Washington. Frederick had purchased this work from a Connecticut inn; it was one of a set of six, five of which were destroyed in a fire. It was a remarkable survival and a terrific early American painting, but there’s something else about it that makes it truly stellar.

It was a window shade. One of six that graced the interior of the inn they were painted for in the early years of the 19th century. It is not known where this tavern was, who painted these works, or even what the five shades depicted, but this one is chock full of the symbols that were coming to be identified with the young republic of the United States. Not only do we see the figure of Liberty and the bust of Washington, but also the American flag, the pine tree and Liberty cap (in the background), the eagle (albeit smallish and off in an upper corner), and the crown of England which Lady Liberty tramples. This last detail is always a favorite of our visitors from the UK.

The Liberty window shade was purchased by Elie Nadelman, the modernist sculptor/folk art collector I have blogged about several times. It was purchased for the Fenimore Art Museum from his estate in 1948.

Every time I pass by this painting in our folk art gallery I think of the history it witnessed in its original tavern setting beginning in about 1805, an emphatic statement of liberty when the United States was a mere 22 years old.
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