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....

1 comment:

  1. I have a painting, that may be a J.Brown,
    I say may be as the signature is extremely hard to is located in the lower left,the J does not have a horizontal line over top (just the j's hook). How would I go about finding out who made this painting? Are there examples of his signature ?


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