Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sign of the Times

Here's another great piece from the Katcher Collection of Americana that we will feature in the Fenimore Art Museum's upcoming exhibition, Inspired Traditions (see information about our related symposium on October 1 here). It's an exuberant sign proudly displaying its owner’s name and, perhaps, his highly abstracted likeness. From the looks of it, you would think that the business was thriving. The historical record tells a quite different story.

Morris Lord (1794-1849) inherited a portion of his father’s estate and for the time enjoyed financial success in real estate in and around Parsonfield, Maine. By the 1820s he briefly owned a store, presumably the business advertised here. Lord suffered financial losses by 1840, possibly as a result of the Panic of 1837, and moved with his family to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he ran a boarding house. Lowell was a thriving mill town where thousands of young women migrated to take jobs in the factories, and thus boarding houses were common. It was a place where many tradesmen and merchants found some measure of financial success. 

Our Mr. Lord, alas, was not one of those who thrived in Lowell. When he died of cholera in 1849, his death certificate indicates that he was a laborer. This trade sign, therefore, documents an all-too-brief shining moment in a business career that had more than its share of setbacks. The bright side: because the store was not in business for very long, the sign here did not suffer long exposure to the elements, and thus survives in great condition for us to enjoy. I cannot imagine what Mr. Lord would think of this as his legacy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Story Unfolds

I was just down in our galleries and had to share photos of our new quilt exhibition, "Unfolding Stories: Culture and Tradition in American Quilts," which is currently being installed for a September 24 opening. It is just stunning. We have not had our quilts out in any numbers since our 1996 exhibit "Uncommon Quilts." We did send about thirty five of these gems to Tokyo in 2004, where they were the stars of the International Great Quilt Festival at the Tokyo Dome and were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. But nothing of note since then.

This fall we will have about two dozen quilts displayed in "Unfolding Stories," a show that explains their cultural context in a variety of ways. Our guest curator for this show is quilt scholar Jacqueline Atkins, who curated our Tokyo exhibition. Take a good look at these installation shots, and if you can make it to Cooperstown before the end of the year, come see them in person.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Truth Comes Out on October First

It seems like every time I delve into a folk art painting the stories it reveals completely reshape the experience of viewing the artwork. This transformation is even more radical when on occasion I am asked to write an entire essay on a piece. Such was the case with a 1740 portrait of Annetje Kool, a young Dutch-American woman painted by Pieter Vanderlyn in the mid-Hudson Valley town of Esopus.

Annetje looks so unassuming. Looking at her placid likeness, you would hardly guess that she lived on contested ground; the frontier of two great European empires.What secrets is she hiding?

At the time of her wedding, Annetje had a six-year-old child by an unnamed father. We don't know whatever happened to the child, who is not mentioned in any period records.

The artist, Pieter Vanderlyn, has some secrets of his own. What connection did he have to the Dutch Slave Trade in Africa and the Caribbean? Why did he start preaching in the 1730s? Why were his sermons illegal?

Pieter's grandson, John Vanderlyn, was one of America's greatest history painters. What long-forgotten story from his childhood likely inspired one of his most famous paintings, Marius Amidst the Ruins of Carthage?

Unlike scores of other posts that I've presented here over the past two years, the answers to these questions will have to wait. I will give them in person at a unique new Symposium to be held here at the Fenimore Art Museum on October 1. Information about the Symposium can be found here. You can even register online.

This Americana Symposium highlights the stunning collection of American folk art assembled over thirty years by Jan Katcher, a retired pediatric radiologist. We will exhibit the collection at the museum from October 1 - December 31.

If you live in the Central New York area, please try to come. We will have a wide range of speakers who are leaders in the field, presenting on topics ranging from Shaker artworks to Jewish folk art to painted furniture to weathervanes. If you cannot come, please pass the word on to others that might be interested.

I do hope you can make it here on October 1 to hear some remarkable stories unfold. In the coming days I will post more pictures from the Katcher Collection to give you a sense of what you can see and hear about at the museum this fall.
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