Saturday, January 28, 2012

Early Photographs of American Folk Art

Upon the introduction of photography to the United States in 1839, the daguerreotypy became closely associated with folk art. Painters such as Erastus Salisbury Field and Isaac Augustus Wetherby, even dabbled in the new art form of creating likenesses. According to Floyd and Marion Rinhart, “the charming simplicity of American primitive art exerted a powerful influence during the daguerrean era, especially in its first decade.” 

Then what messages are conveyed when daguerreotypes depict folk art, as in the image of Field's 1840s portrait of a woman, seen above? There is no single answer to this question. Today, motivations are often indiscernible due to the ambiguity of daguerreotypists, folk artists of depicted works, and intended viewers of each individual piece. Some conclusions, however, are perceivable after scouring numerous primary and secondary sources, as well as studying several folk art daguerreotypes that were recently on the market. Folk art was reproduced in daguerreotypes for both public and private viewing, for reasons of commemoration, advertising, and insurance. The common denominator of these attributes is visual documentation.

A daguerreotype of Asa Ames (above) depicts the folk sculptor in an occupational setting. The image shows recent projects completed by Ames, including a carved baby dated June, 1849. Ames was known to have sculpted friends and family in his short career. It is possible that Ames is advertising his business in a tongue-and-cheek family portrait setting.

Folk art paintings, in particular, were often depicted in daguerreotypes. Paintings did not require a large amount of skill and choice on the part of a daguerreotypist to reproduce them. The best way to capture a successful likeness of a painting was to position it squarely in front of the camera in an environment with equal, diffuse lighting to prevent glare.

In the 1840s and 1850s, there was a large public demand for photographs of deceased relatives; thus, it was common to reproduce daguerreotypes of the deceased and distribute them to family members. For those who had lived before photography, their likenesses would have been in the form of paintings.

Innovation was a common theme commemorated in daguerreotypes of folk art.  A painting of the New World attributed to J.J. Bard (above) and a weathervane of the Brookline locomotive (below) pay homage to the wonders of steam power and sensationalism in the United States. The New World was launched from New York harbor by Captain Ned Wakeman and his armed crew after a creditor’s lien was placed on the boat. The boat traveled from New York around the Horn to San Francisco. The Brookline locomotive was originally named “The Lion.” Built in 1835, it was the first locomotive to travel the Brookline Branch Railroad in Massachusetts. The locomotive was updated in 1853 to a 4-2-2 type and renamed the Brookline. The weathervane was most likely made in response to this event.  

In sum, the motivations behind daguerreotyping folk art were specific to owners of the original artwork and the intended viewer of the reproduction. These motivations do, however, fall into categories of commemoration, advertising, and insurance. Daguerreotype reproductions of folk art serve as visual documentation of a by-gone era.                        

-by Laura Laubenthal, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program   

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Niche for Folk Art at the Met

I attended a fantastic opening reception this past Tuesday night, and thought it would be fun to share it with you. The event was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and celebrated the reopening, after years of renovations, of the painting and sculpture galleries of the all-important American Wing. The museum was decked out for the occasion, from the red, white, and blue votive candles sparkling on the Grand Staircase to the blue floodlights on the Temple of Dendur where the main reception (for about 1,000 people) was held.

Why is the American Wing so important? As the highest-profile and most-visited permanent installation of its type, it defines for millions of people the visual culture of the United States as expressed in art. One could also argue that it serves as the cultural port of entry for hundreds of thousands of international visitors to New York, providing them with their first understanding of the history of America.

The new installation is stunning in its quality and in its coherent story line. But for me, the highlight was the prominence on American folk art in that story. There is a gallery devoted to folk art, which is pictured here, and also a number of selected pieces throughout the other galleries enhancing the sense of inclusiveness in the exhibition. It was a reminder that the whole story of America cannot be told without the voices of the ordinary men and women who sculpted and painted their lives.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jig Dolls, Lumberjacks, and Dancin' Dans

​During the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans had many forms of home entertainment. Many of these involved the playing and enjoying of music. Jig dolls, or limberjacks as they are sometimes called, are one form of folk art that came out of this musical tradition. A jig doll is a jointed wooden figure that was attached to a rod and panel, and could be manipulated by the player of an instrument or someone moving the doll to the tune of the music. The history of these dolls goes back hundreds of years, with the first being used by itinerant Italian street performers to animate their shows. Many European countries had their own version of the jig doll. This form was brought to America with settlers and immigrants, and it developed into a distinctive American form. Jig dolls could be carved or turned, and were often painted to reflect a character or stereotypical image. They usually had both jointed arms and legs which flailed either wildly when moved or in a dancing motion, depending on the skill of the handler! Jog dolls can be seen in folk art collections and have been recognized and collected as such.

​At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the ways in which Americans listened to and played music changed drastically with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison. The first phonographs played recorded music on wax cylinders. The more popular and commercially used phonographs used flat discs, onto which a groove was made which contained the music. Phonograph companies and inventors alike produced jig dolls and limberjacks that could be attached to the turntable or sound arm of a phonograph, that would vibrate to the tune of the music. As they became more mass produced, certain recognizable characters developed, including Ragtime Rastus, Happy Fanny, and Dancin’ Dan and Dancin’ Dina.

​The question then arises, when do jig dolls stop being folk art, and start being part of popular culture? Is this transition and abrupt one with the introduction of mechanized production? Can relevant information about music and home entertainment history still be gleaned from the later jig dolls? I think so, but I guess that question will be left up to the material scholars of the future.

-by Kelly Mustone, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No Need to Shout

This email just came across my desk, in big, bold type:

"Hi, I have missed your Emails on folk art. It is real joy to read about .I have been active in the market of folk art for some years now and find your writing very educational. I am not shouting at you,I just can't control my pc very well .Where is my eight year old Granddaughter when I need her?"

I'm glad the writer wasn't shouting, because he didn't need to. I realize that It has been too long since I posted anything here, owing mainly to the demands of my job as President of the Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown.

I'll try to do better, starting with sharing some illuminating posts written by my grad students last semester. They're fascinating, and some touch upon subjects I had no knowledge of. The first of these will be up very shortly. Thanks for being patient and not shouting :-)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
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