Thursday, May 30, 2013

Close to Home in San Francisco

I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Francisco to give a lecture on William Matthew Prior to the American Decorative Arts Forum. This is a great group of collectors and enthusiasts who invite scholars from across the country to come and speak to their members once a month. It really was an honor to be invited, especially given the calibre of the speakers who have presented there over the years.

While in San Francisco, I took the opportunity to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. What a fantastic place! They have a great collection of American art, which is where I spent quite a bit of time. They also have a very good folk art collection, which included one piece that struck me as being very close to home.

It is James Bard's portrait of the Steamship Syracuse, representing the city just about two hours west of Cooperstown. A great Bard, like our own Steamship Niagara. The Syracuse, of course, celebrated the rise of a new industrial city in the wake of the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. America was changing rapidly when this painting was completed in 1857. In a few short years a major war would be fought to resolve issues that had divided the country for decades.

Which is why the history behind this painting intrigued me. It turns out that the Syracuse was owned by the Schuyler Steam Towboat Company, which was founded in 1825 by the sons of Samuel Schuyler (1781-1842). You can read more about the company and this boat here. Why is this so interesting? Schuyler, despite his famous last name (from one of New York's oldest Dutch colonial families) was African American, listed in the census as a "free man of color." There is more detail on his life here. He went from dock worker to towboat operator to real estate developer and businessman, all while New York was debating whether to abolish slavery within its borders (which it did for those born before 1799 in 1827).

Quite a story, and quite a boat.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Folk Art Car Encounter

You never know where you are going to encounter spontaneous expressions of individuality that qualify as folk art. While on a recent trip to New York this car pulled up next to mine while I was stopped at a red light. I grabbed my iPhone and snapped away, feeling lucky that it was not necessary to do so while steering through busy Manhattan streets. The car reminded me of the Art Car post from a couple of years ago. I only wish I could have gotten a few words from the owner, but they may not have been printable :-)

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Fascinating!!!" -- The New York Times

I just received word that a terrific review of our William Matthew Prior exhibition appeared in today's New York Times. You can find it here. It is a remarkable insightful review that recognizes the complexities of calling people "folk artists" in a time well before the term was ever used. Prior's case is one of the most interesting and complex, and the reviewer notes that his work, "were it to appear in an exhibition of paintings by Manet and his followers, would not be out of place."

Wow. I love that. Another reminder to forget the categories and look at the art. Enjoy the review, and please see the exhibition if you can. It will be at the American Folk Art Museum until May 26.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tear Down These Walls

For many years, I have wandered the galleries of major American art museums and chafed at the segregation of American folk art into tiny side galleries apart from the "heavy hitters" of the various museums' permanent collections. Apparently I'm not the only one who has noticed that we are no farther along to accepting folk art into the mainstream than we were years ago. Roberta Smith has a highly reasoned and articulate plea for inclusion in this past Sunday's New York Times, and it is well worth a read. It is titled "Curator, Tear Down These Walls" and you can find it here. Please give it a read and let me know what you think. We could all benefit from more exciting and visually interesting permanent installations that are inclusive and inspiring.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Seen at Sotheby's

I happened upon this portrait in the show room at Sotheby's earlier this week and had to laugh. As you already know, over the years I've seen many portraits of children from the early and mid-1800s posed with family pets. Most of them are dogs or cats, with the occasional bird. This child, however, appears to have had a favorite lamb. It's hard to imagine mother letting that thing in the house, especially at meal time.

As always, a good week in New York looking at curious and amazing things. There's more on the way. In the meantime, enjoy this unusual piece. It's a pity that it didn't come with any history, but the image often tells enough of a story anyway.
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