Monday, January 10, 2011

Man of Mystery

This fantastic little carving came to us by bequest from Mary Allis, the legendary Connecticut dealer who was instrumental in arranging for so much of our folk art collection to reside in the Fenimore Art Museum. It was Mary Allis who put Jean and Howard Lipman in touch with our benefactor, Stephen Clark, in 1950. And it was Allis who found the treasure trove of folk paintings in an old barn on the property of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn and brought them to Mr. Clark's attention. Our collection would not be anywhere near as important as it is without her.

As for this piece, very little is known about it, but it shows the kind of careful, bold patterning and forthright expressiveness that Allis always sought in great folk art. It stands about 15" high, and depicts a gentleman in colonial costume leaning on his cane and holding a tri-corner hat. It is difficult to date the piece, although of course the clothing is 18th century. We just don't know if the artist was working at a later date.

Regardless of the date, it is certainly something made by a professional (though not classically trained) carver, possibly for commercial purposes. Figures like this one adorned the countertops of American shops from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. A similar figure in our collection may have advertised a gentleman's sporting goods store. Whether this figure advertised a clothing shop or had an entirely different purpose is still to be determined. Mary Allis did not, unfortunately, indicate where she acquired this sculpture.

I particularly like this man's face, with his upraised eyebrows and rosy cheeks. His hair is also quite nicely carved in long, flowing lines. All of which contrasts with the blocky feet that the artist did not do anything to even approximate a naturalistic appearance.

Someday we may find out where this gentleman lived and what he did for a living, but for now he is an enigmatic wonder of the folk art collection, unwilling or unable to reveal any clues to his past.

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