Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Dentist and the Mole

Joseph Moore was a dentist in rural Massachusetts. He couldn't have made a lot of money practicing in the small town of Ware in the late 1830s; in fact, he had to travel in order to find enough patients to keep his practice going. During the long New England winters, when travel was difficult, he had a second job as a hatter.

How is it, then, that when Moore commissioned his neighbor in Ware, Erastus Salisbury Field, to paint a portrait of himself and his family, that he chose to have them depicted on a canvas fully 84 x 93 inches? When you encounter this picture in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, it is as overwhelming as any of the huge history paintings by Copley or Stuart or Sully. And yet it depicts not a national hero, but an average country dentist.

What an incredible monument to the talents of the folk artist this painting is. It has everything: bright color, lots of detail in the faces, costumes, furniture, and carpet; incredible sense of pattern in the way that the figures float against the vertical perspective of the floor; homespun charm in the depictions of the children standing erect as forthright young adults or clinging to their parents.

And in the midst of all this artistic virtuosity, one small telling detail that really says it all. Look closely at Joseph Moore's face. No, that is not a flaw in the photograph. It is a large mole on his left cheek. Why would you allow that to be included in your portrait if you were paying enough to have a mural size image created?

Because it was there. A distinguishing feature that was not seen as a blemish, at least not by Joseph Moore. In folk art studies we acknowledge the tendency of the artist to present subjects as they are, with all there "flaws," as an honest, direct approach to art-making. It's what makes folk art such an important historical document, and a counterpoint to the tendency among academic artists to gloss over the odd features of a subject to approach a more conventional notion of physical beauty.

In the typically witty shorthand of the folk art field, this approach has a nickname: it is known as the "warts-and-all" approach. It's just one more way that the untrained artist, in doing everything wrong, somehow got it all right.


  1. Wonderful picture. Puts me in mind of some 17th century Dutch and English family portraits.

  2. Yes, those are the antecedents. Thanks for pointing this out, CC!

  3. What a beautiful painting - and a handsome man, mole or no mole.

  4. Very true, Christine, on both counts. I'm sure, however, that a trained artist would have eliminated it altogether. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Great picture! Never saw something comparable!

  6. I don't believe there is a folk portrait that is comparable. Thanks for your comment!

  7. It's what you called the perfection of the art from the imperfection of the subject.

    Thanks for sharing, eh.
    Cathy@medical products


Blog Widget by LinkWithin