Monday, November 29, 2010

Joshua Johnson

Quite a few of the blog posts I have written in the past year and a half have dealt with folk portraiture. We've seen folk portrait painters from the Colonial era, the heyday of the portrait in the early and mid-19th century, and from the photographic era after 1840-50. We've seen famous portraitists as well as anonymous ones. In fact, there has been such a range and variety of portrait painters in these pages that it would be difficult to find a common denominator other than the lack of artistic training.

Difficult, but not impossible. You see, all of the folk portraitists that have appeared here so far have one thing in common: have were white.

There were probably scores of African American portrait painters in the 19th century; some slaves were specifically taught to paint. The problem is that so few are documented or known by name. There is one notable exception.

Joshua Johnson spent 30 years painting portraits in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1795 to about 1825. Thirty years in the same place, plying the same trade among the same community. And yet so little is known about him, other than the paintings which are ascribed to his hand. We do know that Johnson was a free man, which was not unusual for a city where the freed Blacks outnumbered slaves by more than two to one. A 1782 document cites a Joshua Johnson who was a blacksmith, aged 20, who was finishing up an apprenticeship and soon to be freed. It is not certain whether this is the same Joshua Johnson as the portrait painter. City directories list Johnson as a painter beginning in 1796, and trace his movements around the Baltimore area over the next several decades.

Other than that, very little is known about his life. But the paintings speak volumes.

The nineteen works known to have been painted by Johnson display a keen sense of design and color, and a subtle delicacy that is rarely equalled in Anerican art. The subjects, overwhelming white, are all rendered with great sensitivity despite the obvious challenges in the naturalism of the figures. This is a common problem in folk art but in the best works can be turned to advantage by emphasizing pattern rather than three-dimensional form and perspective.

It's a pity that we don't know more about Johnson, and that there is no known self-portrait of the artist. He remains a figure who devoted his working life to preserving the appearance of people in his city, and yet no one knows what he looked like.

I first encountered Johnson's work in 1992 at the Maryland Historical Society in an exhibit of their collection as interpreted by an African American artist, Fred Wilson, and entitled "Mining the Museum." It was provacative in many ways; Wilson applied his own labels to the pieces, inlcuding the slave shackles that bore the ironic identifying heading "Maryland Metalwork, 1750-1800."

But the Johnson portrait stands out as a distinct memory. As you walked up to the painting, your movement triggered an audiotape which said, simply and plaintively, "who will paint my portrait?"

From top:

Westwood Children, ca. 1807, National Gallery of Art

Grace Allison McCurdy and Her Daughters, ca. 1806, Corcoran Gallery of Art

Edward and Sarah Rutter, ca. 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Jacob Anderson and His Sons, ca. 1812-15, Brooklyn Museum

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Folk Art Feast

The other day I scoured our folk art galleries and storage areas to find a piece that would make a great Thanksgiving post. To my surprise, there are few folk paintings that depict a family at mealtime. Perhaps this was too mundane a subject even for the folk genre painter; more likely, it required a range of skills that was difficult to acquire. Think about it: in order to paint such a scene you would have needed to do portraiture, interior space (and perspective), and still life (for the plates and platters of food).

But I happened to receive an email from a colleague who sent along an image of just such a feast as a thank you for a recent research visit to Cooperstown. And I knew the image immediately. It is from a private collection that I have known for several years.

It is a family record by the itinerant artist James Osborne, depicting the family of Hatch family of Maine in 1831. Beneath a large panel listing the family members and their birth dates, Osborne has depicted the family seated at a large table about to partake in a sumptuous feast. Notice that the father, at the end of the table at the right, is reading to the family prior to the meal. Perhaps a short Biblical passage offered as grace? If you look closely (which might be difficult since I could not obtain a high resolution image), you can also see one small child sneaking a morsel of food while the others wait patiently for the dad to finish. A little humor goes a long way at the Holidays.

Enjoy this image while you enjoy your holiday weekend, hopefully with family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serving Up Sullivan's Diner

Working artists are frequently drawn to working people. I think this is particularly true of self-taught artists, who seem to have an affinity for those who make their way in the world by virtue of initiative and ingenuity. We happen to have in the Fenimore Art Museum, many examples of this empathetic relationship. One of these works hits pretty close to home for me: Mary Shelley's 21" x 27 1/2" bas-relief carving, "Sullivan's Diner, Horseheads, N.Y."

I've known Mary for quite a number of years, and have always admired her work. She began carving in 1973, inspired by the relief carvings of the famed Key West folk artist Mario Sanchez, about whom I have blogged before. Mary's pieces are carved panels, like those of Sanchez, but executed in a very different style. Her figures are exaggerated and expressionistic, often humorous in her manipulations of scale as well as form.

And Mary has always loved diners. She did a whole series of them in the 1980s. We ar elucky to have one of the best of these. Here is what Mary wrote in a letter to us at the time of her donation of "Sullivan's Diner" to the museum:

     The Sullivan's Diner piece you have is the fourth (and currently last) in a series of pictures carved of Sullivan's Diner located in Horesheads, New York.  (Another piece in the series I donated to the National Museum of Women and the Arts.)  I originally started doing pictures of diners and restaurants because I was fascinated with them as places where people, isolated during the rest of their day, could come together just to "be" and feel a sense of instant belonging.  After all, I also found myself (the isolated artist) going to them for the same reasons.

Sullivans Diner has a storied history in the Southern Tier of New York State.It was built in the 1940s Patterson, New Jersey, as a Silk City diner car, and was brought to downtown Elmira, New York (my hometown) where it became well known as Vic's Diner. In 1974 the diner was purchased by Arthur and Fran Sullivan and relocated to Old Ithaca Road in Horseheads, just north of Elmira. The Sullivans sold the business in 2005, but it continues today under new ownership.

At the time of her retirement in 2005, Fran Sullivan estimated that she had cracked 12 million eggs in that diner. She actually sat down one day and figured this out. When I used to look at Mary's carving, I associated the plate of eggs and toast held by the waitress in the foreground as an iconic diner serving. Now, I can only think of a hard-working and hardy soul who held forth in that building for more than thirty years, serving up 12 million of those eggs to the people she knew and loved. I'm very glad that one of them was a hungry folk artist looking for inspiration and a good meal.

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Uneasy Silence

Here is a piece that always made me laugh. Sometime around 1815, the Connecticut watercolorist Eunice Pinney created this odd interior scene of two women sitting opposite each other in a formal parlor and seemingly staring at each other in awkward silence. It is small, about 10" x 15". The only animated character here is the baby held in the arms of the woman at the left. And even the baby is strangely rendered as a miniature adult.

And yet, this is one of the greatest folk art interiors ever made. The design sensibility that Pinney demonstrates is remarkable, even at first glance where one is drawn to the piece by its color and symmetry. Beyond that, it only gets better. The two women are drawn with organic s-curves that mirror each other. The flattened, vertical perspective of the Queen Anne table and the floor make the patterns and shapes of each leap off the paper. The draperies likewise hang symmetrically, and have a texture that makes them appear like the hanging branches of a weeping willow. The chairs in which the women are sitting are so ephemeral that they almost disappear. Of all the elements in this watercolor they are perhaps the most pure in form.

The question that has always nagged me about "Two Women" is the meaning of the painting. Who were these women? What are they doing and why did Pinney paint them? Is this a portrait of family members? Pinney was well known for her watercolor memorial paintings; we have three of those in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Is this a tribute to a lost loved one? Or is it based on a print, as some other of Pinneys works were known to have been.

We may never know. But staring at this piece and trying to unlock its secrets is not an unpleasant pastime.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Glorious Twilight of Folk Portraiture

I’ve always thought it ironic that just as folk portraiture was dying out, rapidly replaced by the new contraption called the daguerreotype, it became more dynamic. It almost seems as if folk painters knew that their days were numbered and that the cheaper price and more accurate images of the photograph would soon be the method of choice for capturing a likeness. At any rate, the years after the introduction of the daguerreotype to America in 1839 were marked by some of the best folk portraits ever, and few were better than the little-known Samuel Miller.
Miller painted in and around Boston in the late 1840s and early 1850s, more than a decade after the photograph had been introduced. Looking at his paintings, it really is no wonder that, for a time, some people still preferred the old-fashioned custom of commissioning a painted portrait. His likenesses, especially of children, are colorful and boldly patterned. They exude the forthright charm that we have come to associate with folk art.

He also debunks some of the myths. It would be easy to picture Miller traveling the highways and byways of New England,plying his trade in small towns and villages and moving on when business dried up. The facts are that he was born in Boston in about 1806 and died in Charlestown in 1853, having lived in the same community his whole life.
We are fortunate to have five Millers in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. The best of these is our classic Picking Flowers seen at the top of this post. This work shows a young girl in a striking red dress in a well-tended flower garden, standing before a landscape that resembles the south shore of Massachusetts. There is even a small cape style house situated in a snug little inlet at the left. A yellow bird is perched on a tree branch at the upper right, and a cat toys with one of the picked flowers at the lower left. The second illustration here is also from our collection, and shows another girl in an interior setting, teasing her cat with a tassel.

One of the best Millers is the portrait of Emily Moulton at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, seen above. Emily’s portrait includes patterned stockings and a lovely vase of flowers on the windowsill at the right. This portrait bears the inscription on the reverse, "Painted in 1852 by Mr. Miller who lived on the south corner of Pearl and Bartlett Streets, Charlestown, Mass., USA.”
Whoever Miller was, he no doubt loved ornamentation; bright, beautiful colors and shapes abound in these works. He must have felt that the youngsters in these pictures were literally the flower of youth, with all the beauty and promise of a bright spring morning. I suspect that he dreaded the rising popularity of the daguerreotype, and not just for economic reasons. The small, drab images it produced do not do justice to subjects such as these. 
But America in 1850 was a practical culture that prized innovation, and photographs could capture many things that paintings could not. But the loss of the aesthetics of form and pattern and color was profound, at least from our perspective today. It would not reappear until the early Modernists of the 1920s would attempt to reassert it in their paintings. These trained artists, it should be noted, revered the lost folk artists of the mid-19th century.

I guess it IS better to burn out than to fade away....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Connecticut Lives

When I first saw these small watercolors many years ago in the folk art galleries of the Fenimore Art Museum, I thought for sure that they were some kind of joke. A cartoon or caricature of an old woman smoking a pipe. Billows of smoke forming in front of her feisty face. Very hard to take seriously, until (as always) you learn more.
They depict the venerable Martha Barnes of Middletown, Connecticut, who was, as the inscription on one of the paintings indicates, 96 years old when they were done. Martha was blessed with a long life but not an easy one. She was born in 1738 and was married at the age of twenty to Jabez Barnes, a sailor. He was lost at sea in the West Indies in 1780, leaving Martha to raise the couple’s eight children. She did so, spending her entire life in Middletown. Martha died at the age of 96 in 1834, and was remembered as a strong-willed and devoutly religious woman who was absent from church only two half-days during the last twenty years of her life.

She had a grandson with a gift for painting but some challenges of his own. Lucius Barnes was born in 1819 to Martha’s son Elizur, and at the age of four contracted a spinal disease that left him with only the use of his hands and toes. He spent his childhood and young adulthood confined to a wheelchair.
At about the time of his grandmother’s death in 1834, Lucius painted about six watercolors of her in a couple of different poses: sitting and reading the Bible or standing with a cane and smoking what must have been a trademark pipe. Lucius died two years later, in 1836, at just seventeen.

It’s not entirely clear why Lucius painted these portraits, but one of them was discovered bound within a copy of John Cookson's book on Martha entitled "The Memoir of Martha Barnes, Late of Middletown, Connecticut"  (1834) It is possible that some of these nearly identical drawings may have served originally as frontispiece illustrations to this text.

In any case, what we should really see in these amusing little watercolors is not so much the humor inherent in the subject, although that is inescapable and harmless. Knowing the story behind the pictures, I now can’t help but see the intersection of two difficult lives, one long and one short, expressed with immutable affection, clarity and charm.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Malcah Zeldis

I've been meaning to write a post about one of my favorite folk artists, Malcah Zeldis, for quite some time. Yesterday I came across this video posted on the American Folk Art Museum's Facebook page and it reminded me of this intention. It appeared in a blog about older people and their contributions and talents; a wonderful way to see any number of folk artists. But for me, having known Malcah for many years, it was a shock to think of her as older. It was also a reminder that I need to get back in touch with her the next time I am in New York.

Advanced Style Presents: Malcah Zeldis from teenage peanut video productions on Vimeo.

Malcah's story is unusual and inspiring. She was born Mildred Brightman in the Bornx in 1931, and grew up in Detroit. Her father was a jack of all trades, a fruit peddler and window washer as well as a Sunday painter. He appears often in her paintings with his T-shaped squeegies ready to brighten the city with clean, clear windows.

Malcah became an ardent Zionist, and traveled to Isreal in her youth to live in a Kibbutz. The experience affected her deeply. She still recalls the brilliant colors and exotic ways of the Arab peoples she encountered. And, on one occasion, the Isreali artist Aaron Giladi saw some early paintings of hers on a visit to the community and pronounced "There is a great artist living in this Kibbutz."

Upon her return to America, Malcah (the name is Hebrew for Queen) married and had two children and settled in Brooklyn. It was only after her divorce in the 1970s that she finally had the time to devote herself to painting. When she did, the results were astonishing.

Her work is bold and colorful, like the bedouin people she so admired. It is unabashedly autobiographical, and includes many images of herself and her loved ones. Malcah also memorializes her heroes, everyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Anne Frank to the women of the Old Testament. Peace and harmony rein supreme in the world of Malcah Zeldis. We are fortunate to have, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, one of Malcah's great autobiographical works, a homage to the Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg (above), set in the Detroit of her youth. She appears in this work as the young girl sitting on the front step with her doll while her family listens to the ballgame on the radio. Greenberg towers over the scene at the top, larger than life.

I visited her often in her New York City apartment, and she is an incredibly gracious hostess. Once, while visiting her during Hannukah, she let my daughter light the Mennorah. The apartment is, as you can see from the video, loaded with beautiful paintings that Malcah loves to explain as you walk through the rooms with her. It is a world of brilliant color and dynamic people -- both famous and obscure -- who have made the world a better place.

Off in one room, at the back of the apartment, the keen eye might notice something small and plain in one corner. It is a T-shaped squeegie, the very one used by Malcah's father so many years ago. I believe it is a reminder to the artist that so many people, in the course of their daily work, create beauty in their own way.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Angels and Roosters

On my recent visit to Minneapolis to attend the opening of our own Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I had the pleasure of spending several hours in the Institute enjoying their many galleries of artworks from around the world. As you read in my last post, the folk art of Japan was a pleasant surprise, but I also encountered an unexpected treasure trove of American folk art.

The MIA is Byzantine; not in its organization but in the layout of its galleries. i loved wandering through the many nooks and crannies of the place, turning corners and finding things that were not mentioned on the visitor guide. As I walked down one long corridor, looking for the cafe, I came across a multi-story atrium (above) that yielded a pleasant and familiar sight. On the top floor, just above the mezzanine level with the cafe, was a hallway gallery of 19th-century American weathervanes. 

I of course took a closer look. The nearly two dozen vanes were all the gift of a single couple, John and Elizabeth Driscoll of Minneapolis. Their taste was exquisite and far-reaching. The collection included a terrific cast iron vane of a rooster (above) made by the Rochester Iron Works of Rochester, New Hampshire, very similar to one in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. 

In fact, the Driscolls seem to have had a thing for roosters; there were a variety of them in every style and medium possible. My favorite was one (above) that was found on a barn in Red Hook, New York in the 1970s and dates to about 1890. It’s fantastic; not realistic at all but a fun, patterned version of the barnyard fowl. And the paint surface is as good as any weathervane I’ve seen. The vane is boldly striped in red and yellow, which accentuates the curved pattern of the tail feathers.

I also noticed a large Angel Gabriel, which reminded me of our little angel from Nantucket. This one is about five times larger than ours, and it seemed very different in form than the Gabriel vanes I’ve seen over the years. According to the label, it was made for cupola of the Winslow House Hotel in Minneapolis in about 1857. The hotel was a favorite resort for tourists coming to see St. Anthony Falls. Recent scholarship on this vane has apparently yielded some exciting new information about its history, and may explain its appearance.

According to the label, the Gabriel weathervane may have been made in France and displayed at the 1853 World’s Exposition in New York, popularly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. It was housed in a grand structure made of glass and resembling a huge greenhouse (above). The label did not indicate where the curators came upon this information, but if it is true this is the documented weathervane I am aware of with such a provenance. And it isn’t common to have French vanes in American collections. 
But if you can discover Japanese folk art in Minnesota, why not an Angel from France?
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