Published: June 5, 2012
Since Dutch explorers arrived in New York City by sea in the early Seventeenth Century, the city has retained its essentially maritime character. Rollicking, robust and rowdy, it has evolved over the centuries, but no amount of construction can obviate its nature: it remains an island, surrounded by water.
In the Seventeenth Century and first half of the Eighteenth Century, the melody of fluttering sails and halyards snapping against tall masts harmonized with the screech of gulls and the shouts of merchants and seamen along the East River in Lower Manhattan. The East River was a natural, well-protected port for sailing vessels. Only with industrialization and the coming of large steamships later in the Nineteenth Century did New York’s maritime center shift across town to berths along the mightier Hudson.
The new exhibition “Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions” is a wide-ranging look at art objects made by artists inspired by the sea or who derived their livelihood from it, as well as objects with more distant connections to the seaport of New York. Organized by the American Folk Art Museum and drawn from the museum’s collections, it will open June 20 in four galleries at Schermerhorn Row in the South Street Seaport. It is a celebration of the New York seaport and of Schermerhorn Row itself, Peter Schermerhorn’s Eighteenth Century brick warehouses, now restored and serving as exhibit space for the seaport.
Built between 1811 and 1812 as a mercantile block of 12 brick warehouses, it was an important commercial center, built on landfill and home to six counting houses, various retail businesses, coffeehouses, restaurants and hotels that served the area. It was also a conduit for burgeoning international trade. By 1835, 70 percent of the nation’s trade passed through the port, rendering New York the arbiter of taste for the country.
“Compass” represents the collaboration among the American Folk Art Museum, the South Street Seaport and the City Museum of New York, a fortuitous entwining of art and history. Its approximately 200 objects set in an artistic, social and historic frame allow a multifaceted perspective of the objects and a consideration of their context. That they are drawn from the Eighteenth through the Twenty-First Centuries only widens the possibilities. That they are not all related to New York expands them further.
For Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum, “Compass” is a work of love. She says she grew up in the neighborhood and has always been drawn to the area she explored and enjoyed in her youth. She selected objects for the exhibit that resonate with the maritime nature of the port and has grouped them in four galleries given over to exploration, society, commerce and nature (wind).
Exploration is exemplified by a finely drawn schoolgirl map of 1835 that delineates the world, after an example published in 1831 by Connecticut geographer William C. Woodbridge. Depicting people and animals native to various parts of the globe, it suggests the importance of the study of geography and represents the lure of the world beyond Manhattan’s shores. Sea voyages of the period were commercial, for the most part, in search of oil and other critical commodities, and they afforded sailors the opportunity to experience exotic lands and lives.
Stories recounted by mariners and objects brought home from foreign lands only enhanced the attraction. Such voyages were arduous and lengthy, usually years long, giving crew the time to create scrimshaw and other small objects that remain of interest in the Twenty-First Century. Small carved or woven figures of exotic animals, such as orangutans and monkeys, tigers, penguins and even a polar bear, allude to the creatures observed in far-flung ports. In the same vein, Noah’s Arks, usually carved with animal bone by prisoners of war, had great appeal and several are on view.
The portraits of sea captains remind visitors that such images often held a place of surrogacy †when a captain was away for years or failed to survive a voyage †his image reminded his loved ones of him. Sturtevant J. Hamblin and William Mathew Prior painted a number of such images. An early Nineteenth Century mourning watercolor on silk attributed to Jane Otis Prior, sister of William Mathew Prior, of Bath or Portland, Maine, memorializes her father, Captain Mathew Prior, and her brother, Barker Prior, who were lost at sea en route to England. Portrait miniatures of loved ones, whether at sea or waiting at home, gave the holder a concrete reminder to treasure.
In Schermerhorn Row and all along the seaboard, coffeehouses and inns were an important element of social and business life along the waterfront. Many offered current newspapers and other periodicals, and they served as meeting places for social, political, business, religious and secular and military intercourse. It was in the Tontine Coffee-House at the corner of Wall and Water Streets that the New York Stock Exchange began life. Coffeehouses were welcome alternatives to taverns and advertised themselves by such objects as the E. Fitts Store and Coffeehouse painted pine trade sign, circa 1832, from someplace near Shelburne, Mass. Such signs gained increased favor throughout the late 1820s with the advent of the Temperance movement in which taverns stopped serving alcoholic beverages.
Coffeehouses were also the settings for musical entertainment; and, then as now, many writers and diarists did their best work there. One group of objects in the exhibition refers to the keeping of journals and diaries that often took place in the comfort of the coffeehouse. A sketchbook is one example. Another, signifying the variety of trade that took place in a coffeehouse, is a rare book of tattoo patterns hand drawn on waterproofed oil cloth for potential customers to view and make selections.
While the telling of tales was not limited to coffeehouses, marine mythology ran to stories of sea serpents, mermaids and leviathans observed at sea. Audiences on land were spellbound. A mid-Nineteenth Century painted wood and iron sea serpent is a fanciful example of the terrors a sailor might have conjured up at sea.
The section devoted to shopping illustrates the vast array of goods, plain and fancy, that passed through the seaport for sale there, to be shipped to the interior or for export. Public markets sprung up around Schermerhorn Row; as the pivot of commerce, New York City became the arbiter of taste.
A James Bard oil on canvas, circa 1865, is a portrait of the Hudson River steamer John L. Hasbrouck , which hauled freight and barges for more than 30 years. An 1848 overmantel “Situation of America” by an unidentified artist depicts New York City from Brooklyn and delineates the growing prosperity and architectural development of the city, particularly the waterfront. The paddle-wheeler Sun is seen in the foreground along with some railway freight cars, alluding to the brisk trade with the Midwest made possible by the Erie Canal.
Other articles of daily life on view attest to the volume and quality of goods shipped through the Port of New York in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. A glazed stoneware crock marked “Clark Brewer and Son” was used to store and ship tobacco and is an example of the multitude of inexpensive storage vessels for food, liquids and agricultural products. They were required in greater numbers as distribution of goods widened through new means of transport in the way of canals and roads.
An array of coffeepots and teapots on view is testament to the variety of form and embellishment available to most households. Most are tin; many are painted asphaltum (a solution of mineral asphalt suspended in varnish) over tin plate. It was not all coffee, though; a painted tea canister testifies otherwise. Tinware had been imported until the mid-Eighteenth Century when Edward Pattison of Berlin, Conn., began producing tin.
Trade was not limited to utilitarian objects. One group of objects includes a man’s top hat and eyeglasses, a lady’s bonnet with curls and a hoop skirt, indicating a popular taste for fancy goods.
The fourth quadrant of “Compass” explores the essential elements of seafaring: wind, water and weather. Since ancient times, the weathervane has provided artists a chance to display their talent and indulge their fancy. The aesthetic qualities of an exquisitely sculptural weathervane often obscure its function. The ship cannot sail without wind and the master needs to know its direction in order to steer a sensible course.
“Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions” will be on view at the South Street Seaport Museum, 12 Fulton Street, through October 7. For information, 212-748-8600 or www.seany.org .
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