Published: January 29, 2007
When the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (AARFAM) opened at Colonial Williamsburg in 1957, it was the first museum in the world dedicated solely to American folk art.
With a guide written by Boston collector and amateur scholar Nina Fletcher Little, the 424-piece assemblage gathered by Rockefeller, a founder of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr, became a touchstone for folk art enthusiasts everywhere. A half century later, the collection has grown nearly tenfold and is rich in objects such as textiles, pottery, painted furniture and toleware that Rockefeller herself, an enthusiast of paintings and sculpture, all but overlooked.
In honor of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum’s 50th birthday, its holdings have been moved to new quarters within Colonial Williamsburg, the museum of early American life that John D. Rockefeller Jr helped create in 1926.
Construction of the new museum, located in the former garden of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, began in late 2004. The facility was designed by Samuel Anderson Architects of New York City and funded in part by a $1 million grant from the Gladys and Franklin W. Clark Foundation.
“Museum visitation had been dropping, partly because of AARFAM’s location, which was well off and south of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic area. The original museum building, constructed in 1957 and expanded in 1992, was increasingly surrounded by hotel facilities,” explains Carolyn J. Weekley, the Juli Grainger director of museums at Colonial Williamsburg.
AARFAM’s new location is more efficient for staff operations, provides more flexible gallery space and gives AARFAM access to the Hennage Auditorium and Museum Café at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
“From a programming standpoint, these are huge benefits,” says Weekley.
Featuring 11 new exhibitions, the galleries at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets will open to the public this weekend, February 3–4. The debut coincides with the 59th annual Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, February 4–8, this year dedicated to “The Arts of the American South.”
Guests enter the museum through the 1773 Public Hospital. Exploring a variety of themes, the new exhibits include beloved favorites as well as recent accessions, among them portraits by Joseph H. Davis of a Dover, N.H., man and his wife, and three watercolors attributed to Charles Burton depicting Richmond, Va., sitters. There are also spaces dedicated to the display of textiles and works on paper.
An initial exhibit provides an overview of the museum, introducing visitors to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who died in 1948, leaving her folk art collection to Colonial Williamsburg. The display includes two icons, “Baby in Red Chair” and an 1832 version of “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks, featuring a seated lion.
On view in the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation Gallery is “We The People: Three Centuries of American Folk Portraits.” More than 100 oil paintings, watercolors, photographs and a few sculptures illustrate changing sensibilities and artistic considerations between the early Eighteenth Century and the present, says curator Barbara Luck. One highlight is a full-length portrait of Deborah Glen dating to 1739.
AARFAM’s collection has grown over the years to include folk musical instruments. “Cross Rhythms” features banjos, fiddles, dulcimers and one-off instruments made to look like furniture or sculpture. The show was organized by curator John Davis and conservator John Watson, an expert in musical instruments. One unusual item is a “Hippoceros,” a walnut sculpture resembling a cross between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros that has a Victrola built into it.
Designed for children and families, “Down on The Farm” combines paintings of barnyard scenes and animals with folk sculpture, such as decoys and weathervanes. Young visitors are invited to share in the adventures of Prince, a carved wood terrier, as the dog roams the countryside meeting cows, pigs and roosters.
Furniture curator Tara Chircida illustrates a variety of decorative styles and techniques in “Exciting Expressions,” a display containing painted furniture. Included is a Maine dressing table painted to resemble rosewood, an Ohio wall cupboard, Pennsylvania German painted chests and a case piece by Shenandoah, Va., craftsman Johannes Spitler (1774–1837).
Linda Baumgarten and Kim Ivey collaborated on “Flowers, Birds, and Baskets: Pattern in Nineteenth Century Bed Coverings.” Twelve large quilts and coverlets join sewing tools and accessories from the collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl in the gallery funded by the Pennsylvania collectors. One highlight is a Baltimore album quilt of about 1850.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller did not collect quilts, but she did gather mourning embroideries, some of which are featured in “In Memoriam: Mourning Art in Early America,” celebrating the early Nineteenth Century fashion for remembering the loved and lost through individual memorials. The exhibit offers 60 embroidered and painted memorials and commemorative pieces, jewelry and other objects, many inspired by the death of George Washington in 1799.
“We See America” contemplates American landscape painting and considers why folk artists chose the subjects they did. “The railroads, natural wonders like Niagara Falls and a variety of other locations were important enough that Americans felt compelled to commemorate these views and share them with others,” Weekley explains.
“Chasing Shadows: Silhouettes from The Collection of Mary B. and William Lehman Guyton” unveils 100 of the nearly 250 silhouettes presented to the museum by the Guytons since 1994. The instructive arrangement offers different types of silhouettes, shows different techniques and showcases different hands. The final sections of the show feature silhouettes that were fully or partially printed, as well as Twentieth Century examples, says curator Barbara Luck.
Organized by Suzanne Hood, “Inspiration and Ingenuity: American Stoneware” gathers ceramics dating from the Nineteenth Century to the present and explores the evolution of decorative motifs and techniques. This is the first time AARFAM has displayed its stoneware collection as an entity, says Weekley.
Finally, “Conserving the Carolina Room” documents the museum’s ongoing conservation of a Nineteenth Century painted room that it acquired in the 1950s out of an 1836 house in North Carolina. Says AARFAM’s director, “It had a lot of overpainting. As a result of our work, the room is much brighter and lighter with more vivid pattern than before.”
While in town, visitors are also encouraged to tour the refurbished galleries of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, where a sampling of Colonial Williamsburg’s 60,000-piece collection of American and British furniture, silver, ceramics, paintings, textiles, weapons and prints dating from 1600 to 1830 is on view.
Among three new displays is an introduction to the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, “Pounds, Pence and Pistareens: Coins and Currency in Colonial America,” and “Canisters, Caddies and Chests: Fashionable Tea Containers of The Eighteenth Century.”
Continuing exhibitions include “Masterworks,” arraying highlights from the Colonial Williamsburg collections. “Revolution in Taste” features 2,400 artifacts, from tea cups to epergnes, that were available to Eighteenth Century consumers. “Lock, Stock & Barrel: Early Firearms from the Colonial Williamsburg Collection” offers Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century military and civilian firearms. “Artistry & Ingenuity” looks at Eighteenth Century cooking equipment. Finally, “The Murray Sisters: A Closer Look” studies the conservation of a late Eighteenth Century double portrait by French artist Bouché of two Maryland sisters.
Those eager for a glimpse of how the Rockefellers lived while visiting Colonial Williamsburg can tour Bassett Hall, containing folk art that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller chose for her private quarters. The simple, two-story Eighteenth Century house with its extensive gardens was a Rockefeller retreat between 1936 and 1980. Restored between 2000 and 2002, it now looks much as it did in the 1930s and 1940s, when Mrs Rockefeller spent part of each year there.
“Luckily, we found Mrs Rockefeller’s inventory for the house and were able to get things back in place as they were in her lifetime, complete with appropriate rugs and upholstery. She had the most incredible eye,” says Weekley.
The reinstallation of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is part of a larger plan for the development of Colonial Williamsburg’s museums, says the director.
“Eventually, there will be a new entrance for both museums and a larger, yet-to-be-built, addition. We are expanding in a fashion that ensures that we have adequate kinds of exhibition support space, public service space and educational space, as well as additional exhibition space. All these things are very important to make the core experience a good one for our visitors.”
Adds Weekley, “We were all a little wistful about moving. That is what happens when you have been in a building for half a century, but it was a good decision.”
For information, 800-HISTORY or www.colonialwilliamsburg.com.
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