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.


  1. As a window shade, would this have been rolled up and down or stretched on a wood frame? Anything on the reverse side? An amazing survivor!

  2. I had the same question as Joey. When I read 'window shade', I cringed at the thought of the shade rolling up.

  3. Apparently it did roll up and down in its original incarnation. At some point in its history it was placed on a stretcher as a canvas would be, and framed. It is an amazing survival, and in terrific condition considering its use. There is nothing on the reverse side.

  4. How is the character of the painting affected by rear illumination, as would have been the case when it was used as a window shade?

  5. Fenimore has such a cool collection. My favorite pieces are Hudson River art and the folk art wood carvings. I live in Washington State now but still get to the Fenimore whenever I can conjure an excuse to go that distance.

  6. Hi Doug,

    Great question; the problem is that the shade has been remounted onto canvas and so you can't really shine a light through it and get the original effect. I'm guessing from viewing other window shades this way that it would have been less distinct during a bright day but striking at night.

    Thank you, Lisa! Do come out and see us again. We have a great range of exhibits up this year, everything from Hudson River School and folk art to John Singer Sargent. It's good to know we have fans across the US!


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