Friday, January 21, 2011

The Castles of Montgomery

This is really one of the most spectacular pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection. It’s a large painting on canvas, about 41” x 55”, depicting an imaginary scene of two castles on a river. The castles have different banners flying overhead, with the one on the left looking decidedly Moorish, perhaps evoking the medieval tradition of battle scenes between Christian and Moorish knights. The title of the work comes from the prominent inscription along the top: “View of the Castle of Montgomery.”

We don’t know the source of this image (there is a Montgomery Castle in Wales but we have not found a print view of it that would be the source of this painting; besides, you would more likely find Moorish castles in Spain and Portugal), but the manner in which it was painted is the reason for its appeal. The colors are bright, bold, and solid. The castles are flattened against the picture plane in delightful patterns, and the repetition of forms such as the boats on the river, the trees on the horizon, and the birds in the sky creates an almost hypnotic rhythm. The lone fisherman on the shore adds an almost quaint, everyday mood to the piece.

Oral tradition holds that this painting was created as a fireboard, or fireplace enclosure, by the architect of the Wofford House in Woodruff, South Carolina. It was probably painted in the mid-19th century, around 1830-35. Interestingly, a nearly identical piece exists in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia (shown here at the bottom). That piece was painted for the Moore family home in Fredonia, just seven miles from the Wofford House. That painting bears the exact same inscription as this one, referring to the enigmatic “Castle of Montgomery.”

The existence of two identical fireboards of this size and quality within seven miles of each other provides us with a tantalizing clue to the artist, who was undoubtedly local. We don’t know for sure what Montgomery refers to, but research at Colonial Williamsburg suggests that it might be local too. According to the research, the probable reason for the commission of their work occurred in 1833 when the owner of the Moore home, Dr. Andrew Barry Moore, brought his new bride home for the first time.

Her maiden name? Nancy Montgomery.

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