Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Girl Next Door

She may well be the tallest young lady in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. This full length portrait of Laura Hall, painted in western Massachusetts in 1808, always turned heads when she was exhibited high up on the wall in our two-story stair hall at the entrance to the museum. People probably never realized what it took to get her up there; a scaffold that was so difficult to assemble it had to be done in the winter when the museum is closed. Laura has spent most of her time in storage these past few years, but is coming out again this fall, albeit at eye level, in our new exhibit, “Picturing Women.” In writing this blog post about her, I found out something that never occurred to me before, something startling and close to home.
Laura grew up in Cheshire, Massachusetts, just north of Pittsfield in the Berkshire Mountains. She was born to a tavern keeper and his wife in 1787 (their portraits by this same artist are in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia). She married an attorney from North Adams in 1810, and they moved west to Syracuse, New York, in 1816. Her husband ran a seminary in Syracuse for more than twenty years.

For many years, the artist of this portrait was known only as J. Brown, so  named for his partial signature on a number of Massachusetts portraits done between 1806 and 1808. It was obvious that he was an itinerant artist who plied his trade in the newly developed settlements from Williamstown to Plymouth. J. Brown painted likenesses that were compelling in their vigorous facial modeling and striking reddish brown coloration. 
And no, he didn’t paint the bodies in the winter and the heads from life; see my post on that common myth. It seems clear from Laura’s portrait that the elegantly embroidered Empire gown and details such as the Windsor chair and jewelry were all part of her life. Even the lovely slippers on her curiously splayed feet. Mr. Brown could paint precise details but had difficulty with anatomical correctness.

But with a name as common as J. Brown, it didn’t seem like there was any hope of positively identifying him. That all changed in 1996 when a portrait came up for sale that was obviously in this same style and with an inscription on the back signed by James Brown. Research by Elizabeth Warren published in the American Folk Art Museum’s Folk Art magazine clarified the lingering questions of attribution and outlined the search for more information on this elusive artist.

The surprise I mentioned earlier? After Laura and her husband left Syracuse in 1833 they settled on a modest farm and raised their seven children. The farm was in Deerfield, New York, a scant five miles from my front door. Come see Laura eye-to-eye this fall in “Picturing Women.”

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