Published: April 17, 2001
By Bob Jackman
BOSTON, MASS. – On April 8 the Museum of Fine Arts cut the ribbon to the exhibition “American Folk,” a blockbuster show of national significance. Twenty masterpieces from the MFA collection are sprinkled among another 140 worthy works from the museum’s collection and 60 works from private collections. The preponderance of works was created during the Nineteenth Century, although the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries are also represented. Antiques enthusiasts who visit New England between now and August 5 should consider attending this exhibition.
Curators designed the exhibition for broad appeal and high accessibility. Americana curator Gerald Ward commented, “The exhibition will be open in the spring and summer, and we want to reach the full spectrum of the population. Presentations are relaxed and engaging. The experts will have different experiences than the beginners, but everyone will find the exhibition interesting and stimulating.”
The curators adhered to mainstream folk art traditions that embrace a romanticized version of early America. Folk artists fashioned objects to speak directly with an engaging beauty and expressiveness, and that feature confers accessibility to the show. Although study can elevate connoisseurship, no training is required to experience the essence of these works.
Curators have avoided crossing new frontiers or displaying works that are artistically, socially, or politically edgy. They present the objects with a bit of information garnered from previous research, but without presenting new research. Curators have avoided suggesting daring new flavors for folk art taste, and their bent is sometimes more to realism than visual lyricism or poignant expressiveness.
The exhibition is a great experience. At one end of the experience spectrum, folk art connoisseurs feast their eyes on masterpieces and obsess over objects that relate to their specialized interests. At the other end of that spectrum, guests on their first museum visit find the exhibition pleasing and stimulating. Many parents and grandparents will utilize this beguiling setting to gently expose the next generation to the lure of art and antiques. While traditionally summer is a season of intense enthusiasm for New England folk art, this exhibition is likely to drive that interest to a frenzy.
Everyone discovers some surprises. Folk art specialists find some familiar objects that have been seen elsewhere in recent years, such as the star hooked rug formerly owned by Stephen Score or the Archer Baltimore quilt. However, there are other masterpieces that have not been exhibited in a generation, such as the Mary Wilson watercolors and Powers quilt, and these are like fresh discoveries.
As visitors enter the Gund Gallery they encounter a Baltimore quilt. Novice visitors notice that most of the 25 squares present floral bouquets of stunning beauty and realism. The central square features a dynamic Federal eagle and flowing American flag. A couple of other patriotic squares emerge. Lady Liberty stands within a lyre-form bouquet in the square above the eagle. To the bottom right is a powerfully graphic star. Two scenic squares charmingly depict lowland and upland hunting.
Experts recognize this as the Archer quilt (named for previous owners Joe and Mary Archer) that was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the show “Baltimore Album Quilts.” The MFA acquired the Archer quilt in 1999. Along with the quilt at the Metropolitan Museum, they are considered the two finest extant examples of Baltimore album quilts. Experts draw close to the masterpiece to savor the sophisticated synthesis of appliqué, background quilting, embroidery, and watercolor painting.
The Eighteenth Century Room
In the Eighteenth Century room, most of the pieces of furniture are painted chests, and all are intriguing. A unique example was painted using a stencil around 1720 in Connecticut. All the stencils were less than four inches long. Several different colors were applied over a black field. The painter applied white as his final color. Around the perimeter of each motif, he dabbed through the stencil on each of four sides to create a square. The effect was to create a loose gird of white squares that have abstractly colored interiors. The chest delivers a strong graphic statement.
Another rare object in this room is a circa 1795 bed rug attributed to Eunice Williams Metcalf of Lebanon, Conn. By today’s conventions, a bed rug would be thought of as a large, heavy blanket. Sometimes an Eighteenth Century family slept in a single bed, and in the cooler months their heat was conserved with a bed rug. This example has a dense, beautiful design that utilizes a scrolled running vine that connects floral blossoms that are each about 18 inches wide. It is a masterpiece.
This room also offers the first group of Fraktur and related watercolors in the exhibition. Drawings and watercolors are the most consistently lyrical component of the show. The Fraktur in this room underscore the historical role of the Pennsylvania Dutch and Germans in the folk use of the watercolor medium.
Watercolors were the recording medium of the first explorers and military surveyors. In the Eighteenth Century, naturalists such as Mark Catesby expanded the scientific use of watercolors. However, the Pennsylvania Dutch culture was the first in America to produce an extensive body of folk watercolors. A particularly fine example in this room is a birth and baptism certificate by Georg Friederich Speyer (active 1785-1800) with two mermaids at the tip of a heart.
Another masterpiece in this room is the circa 1750 Hannah Otis embroidery depicting Boston Common. Most Eighteenth Century schoolgirl embroideries were based upon a composition available at the school. Possibly smitten with the hub of activity on Boston Common, the country girl from Barnstable chose to embroider a large scene of her own design. The definition of her task was extremely ambitious, and the final product is a high point for creative needlework in colonial America.
Family Album and Domestic Life
In the room entitled Family Album and Domestic Life, the heavy emphasis is upon two-dimensional art. The painting that creates the most interest is Erastus Salisbury Field’s portrait of the Joseph Moore family. It was Field’s most ambitious portrait in complexity and size. It is almost eight feet wide. In this instance Field had unlimited access to the sitters and props since they were his neighbors in Ware, Mass. Field’s masterpiece of portraiture was donated to the MFA by its renowned benefactors Maxim Karolik and Martha Codman Karolik.
The presentation of this painting is exciting. American painting curator Carol Troyen commented, “We think visitors will find this alcove particularly interesting. The Hitchcock chairs, the stand, and the jewelry shown here are possessions that the family posed with for the portrait. Mr Karolik purchased the furnishings directly from the Moore family.”
Another exhibit presents a comparison between folk and formal furniture. It features a Massachusetts coastal chest-on-chest, and a Major John Dunlap chest-on-chest created in Bedford, N.H. This will assist some visitors in conceptualizing the differences that characterize the two schools. Visitors who arrive with a crystallized concept of the schools take delight with the consideration of the Dunlap’s extreme bundy legs and dense use of space. Then there is the yellow ochre and brown grain painting. The paint is about 40 years younger than the chest, but it is a marvel.
Another alcove is devoted to a half dozen watercolors by Mary Ann Wilson (active about 1800-1825) of Green County in upstate New York. The watercolors are lyrical expressions and great fun. They are also highly significant.
Little is known about Wilson. In 1943, 20 of her works were discovered along with a letter from the mid-Nineteenth Century that contained a brief account of Wilson’s life. By 1948 the group reached a New York City dealer who mounted an exhibit of the letter and watercolors.
Print and drawing curator Sue Welsh Reed described the path of the watercolors to the MFA. She stated, “By the 1940s the Karoliks were closely cooperating with museum curators as they continued to build new collections that would ultimately come to the museum. When the Wilson watercolors became available, Maxim Karolik worked with then-curator Henry Rossiter. They jointly agreed on Karolik’s purchase of six Wilson watercolors and the associated letter. Later they decided to acquire four more watercolors.”
This current show is the third public exhibition of Wilson’s work. The first was the New York sale, and the second was an exhibition at another museum. They are significant because Wilson was among the earliest folk watercolorists outside of the Pennsylvania Dutch community. Her palette seems closely related to that of the Dutch, and her introduction to watercolors may have been linked to the Dutch. That letter, found with 20 of her works, reported, “Their paints or colors were of the simplest kind, berries, bricks, and occasional ‘store paint.'”
Dealers should become familiar with her style since she apparently produced many more than the 20 works discovered in 1943. This show will create a substantial market for her work.
Land and Sea, Birds and Beasts
Outdoor objects and images are featured in the next gallery. Several of the walls are devoted to images of the land and sea. At the center of the room is a serpentine display that abounds with birds and beasts. Terrestrial beasts prowl along one side of the display. On the other side of the wall is a pond with decoys and other appropriate fauna. The end wall presents a barn façade with weathervanes.
One masterpiece in this room is a large (333/4 inches long) peacock weathervane from the 1860 to 1875 period. Construction details indicate that it is from the tradition of commercially manufactured and marketed vanes. In the manner of the time, the entire surface of the new vane was gilded. A bright, reflecting surface emphasized the silhouette of the bird.
Today the vane expresses a magnificent simplicity and elegance. Time, weather, and history have imparted to this vane a graceful lyrical essence that greatly exceeds the manufacturer’s intent. The surface has become a myriad variation of color, texture, and reflectivity. That surface superbly complements the bird’s form.
When viewed closely, the surface reveals a history of use. Perhaps 20 years after the vane was installed atop a show bird barn, natural elements wore gilding off the most exposed upper surfaces. Probably oxidation products bled down the sides of the bird. The owner had the vane repainted with a thicker, more durable yellow paint imbedded with bronzing powders. Pigment and powder crystals in the paint subsequently weathered to create random flecks of mustard yellow and copper oxide green. With further exposure, the new paint crazed. Through fissures in that paint, the original gilded surface glowed through from beneath. “Good grunge” accumulated in some crevices and pits, and added flecks of blue, brown, and black to the palette of the surface. This vane exhibits a great natural surface with which connoisseurs are greatly enamored.
The vane has a reduced form that so appeals to the graphic school of folk art collecting. The only details are legs, ribbing in the tail, a tiny crown crest, and pierced eyes. Otherwise there is an uninterrupted graceful serpentine form. A gentle swell in the body of the form makes the form visually precious. The bird is almost flat, but its gentle swell is amplified by the great surface.
The myriad layers of colors, textures, and reflectivity each respond differently to light, and create subtle variations in the visual expression. On upper surfaces, tiny veins of exposed gilding reflect light and create highlights. In thin shadows, crevices trap light and effectively intensify those shadows. Consequently the visitor observes a dark mustard yellow object with marvelously subtle highlights and shadows that impart a beguiling beauty. Men manufactured this vane in a series of about 100 identical objects, but nature transformed it into a unique work of art with great beauty.
God and Country, Folk Art and Modernism
The magnificent star hooked rug formerly in the Stephen Score and Virginia Cave collections proclaims a patriotic theme in the next room. Since Antiques and The Arts Weekly described and illustrated that masterpiece recently (August 11, 2000), readers know its features and background.
This room also has a section that underscores the relationship between folk art and modern art. Generally, European scholars have written more about this important relationship than American scholars. Study of the relationship provides insight into the goals, inspiration, and models for some modern American artists. One example demonstrates that a 1920 sylvan watercolor by Marguerite Zorach bears a similarity to a 1773 embroidered picture.
Visitors familiar with modern art can use this link to assist them when interpreting earlier folk art. When visitors realize that folk art was sometimes created more as graphic and/or lyrical art, then they have an alternative to realism when interpreting some folk art.
As visitors reach the end of the gallery, they encounter one of the most creative textiles created in Nineteenth Century America. It is a circa 1896 15-section appliqué and pieced quilt by Harriet Powers (1837-1911) of Athens, Ga. Each square has a graphic narrative depicting the major elements of its story. Although flat silhouettes, these elements suggest motions and emotions. For example, Jonah is seen leaving the whale’s mouth. The postures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene demonstrate anguish and sorrow.
The narrative elements relate to powerful and memorable stories, probably passed along by oral history. For example, in 1833 there had been an unprecedented Leonid meteor shower. As it was occurring, some people feared that it was the end of the world. Powers created a square recalling the story of this event, and placed it at the center of her quilt.
For the meteor square, Powers chose a dark blue sky. She started the story within the upper right corner of the square with a large hand, the hand of God. Eight shooting stars with glowing tails fill the top of the square. Beneath that, two adults and two children have arms uplifted to gesture, “What is happening?” The image is completed with a rabbit and a cat standing next to fallen meteors.
Harriet Powers was kissed by an artistic muse. A former slave, she and her family supported themselves on a four-acre farm. Without formal training, she created a quilt with many colors that blend beautifully. The squares are well composed, and the elements are immediately recognizable. This masterpiece was created outside the mainstream tradition of American quilting, but possibly influenced by Arts and Crafts quilters such as L. Turner.
The exhibition’s most serious shortcoming is the absence of a catalog. In this case, the curators did not have the time to create a catalog. Gerald Ward commented, “If we had more time, then we could have produced a true catalog of the exhibit. [T]here is usually a three to five year planning period for a major exhibit. We put this exhibit in a little more than one year.”
In the absence of a catalog, the informal publication American Folk presents 60 objects with beautiful photographs and several absorbing paragraphs on each object. It also contains an essay by Gerald Ward that overviews the history of the MFA folk art collection. The 111-page book is appealing and whets the appetite.
Visitors should anticipate that this show will have the ticket issues associated with blockbuster events. Wise visitors will buy tickets, particularly weekend tickets, in advance. Walk-up visitors who purchase a ticket at 11 am may find that it grants the bearer admission at 3:30 pm. On some days tickets may be entirely sold out in advance.
The Museum of Fine Arts is at 465 Huntington Avenue. Telephone, 617-267-9300.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm