Published: August 28, 2012
Folk painting has always been primarily an anonymous art. Many of the most appealing naïve pictures are unsigned, the artists unknown.
Sometimes it seems that New England, in particular, is awash with interesting, sometimes fascinating, pre-Twentieth Century folk art portraits attributed to “anonymous” or “unknown artist.” Finding out who actually created these works is often a long and difficult task that may end up with conclusive identification or no positive attribution.
A revelatory and charming exhibition, “Deacon Peckham’s Hobby Horse,” at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) through October 8 features a painting that for years was displayed as “American Nineteenth Century” and whose creator was positively identified after a three-decade search by an intrepid curator. The 40¾-by-40-inch oil was donated to the NGA in 1955 by Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch along with more than 300 other naïve works.
In 1980, when the gallery began to compile a systematic collection catalog, newly arrived curator Deborah Chotner began looking at “The Hobby Horse,” finding that it “felt special” and wondering who painted it. She knew that both it and Deacon Robert Peckham (1785‱877) had been the subject of articles and discussions among American folk art enthusiasts for years, but no attribution had been conclusively established.
Chotner initially consulted experts in costuming and transportation and historical societies to gather clues about the painting’s geographic location and approximate time frame. She concluded it was New England around 1840. As she continued cataloging other works, she often returned to “The Hobby Horse.” “I never got sick of looking at that picture. We’ve sort of become like old friends,” she says.
Competing scholarly articles argued for and against Peckham as the artist. One contended that the deacon’s somber, dark adult portraits were too different from the bright likenesses of children to possibly be by the same artist.
Mindful of that reservation, Chotner researched child-rearing journals of the day and found that stylistic differences in children’s portraits were rooted in the idea that “the home was thought to be central in the formation of conscience †moral values.” In 2005, she spotted in an antiques trade publication a photograph of an unsigned boy’s portrait that was attributed to Peckham. After tracking down the owner and examining the painting, she concluded that the portrait of “Webster Tucker” was indeed by Peckham.
She then visited Forbush Library in Westminster, Mass., repository of a number of Peckham portraits donated by local families. Chotner found they had similar characteristics to “The Hobby Horse.”
In 2009, the attribution was officially recognized at the NGA, and Chotner began to organize the current Peckham children’s portrait exhibition. Built around “The Hobby Horse,” which National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III calls “one of the most beloved works in the gallery’s renowned American collection,” the display includes nine children’s portraits created by Peckham for central Massachusetts families toward the mid-1800s. They are exhibited along with a dozen charming paintings from the gallery’s peerless Garbisch American folk art collection.
The exhibition is curated by Chotner, the gallery’s assistant curator of American paintings, who also wrote the useful digital exhibition brochure.
Portraiture was by far the most prevalent art form among itinerant painters in the Northeast. Most of these nomads, who spent their careers on the road seeking commissions, developed distinctive styles and artistic messages. In general, their work was characterized by sharply defined forms, neatly organized compositions, generalized lighting, an absence of expressive brushwork and an overall flatness of perspective.
Peckham fits generally into these categories. His style was forceful, relying on intense, saturated colors, direct gazes and carefully delineated faces of his young sitters. He portrayed them in the detailed environments of their family parlors amid toys and period furnishings.
Peckham, born in Petersham, Mass., later settled in Westminster. He married, had nine children, was a passionate advocate of abolition (his home was reportedly on the Underground Railroad), an ardent supporter of temperance and a veteran deacon in the Congregational Church. His long and successful career as a portraitist of regional sitters suggests that he had the same creative energy that enabled his entrepreneurial neighbors to prosper.
Peckham started out as an ornamental and sign painter, but before long began painting vivid likenesses of people from Westminster and nearby towns. “Very few of the more than 50 portraits believed to be by Peckham are signed or otherwise documented, so attributions necessarily have been made on the basis of style and geographic or familial connections,” notes Chotner. His “works are recognizable,” she continues, “for their distinctive quality of hard light, their sometimes ‘too truthful’ naturalism, their crispness and their meticulous attention to detail.”
Peckham’s younger sitters, who all lived within 50 miles of Westminster, come across as individuals †capable of being dignified or rambunctious †living in comfortable homes. At the time they were painted, the primarily agrarian Westminster region was thriving due to sawmills, gristmills and workshops turning out chairs, copperware barrels, window blinds and other salable products.
The star of the show, “The Hobby Horse,” circa 1840, depicts an unidentified brother and sister, with the boy astride an elaborately decorated rocking horse, with his sister perhaps guiding the steed from behind. Chotner speculates that the boy’s sideways glance †unusual in Peckham’s oeuvre †may indicate he passed away prior to the painting.
The handcarved hobby horse on view, loaned by Historic New England, has a real animal hide, horse hair mane and tail, leather bridle and saddle and glass eyes. Since no substantial manufacturer of rocking horses operated in the United States until several decades later, the horse was likely produced by a skilled craftsman with British or German training. “Although antique rocking horses are still commonly found,” observes Chotner, “few of the age, beauty and complexity of this example survive. Even in its time, it must have been a costly rarity.”
An early Peckham portrait, “The Children of Oliver Adams,” 1831, shows the artist’s three nieces and a nephew. On the wall is a family listing of its children, living and dead.
The next year, Peckham painted portraits of his daughter, Ruth, aged about 7, and son, George, aged about 5. Each is primly dressed, with appealing faces, direct gazes and hints of their personalities.
“The Raymond Children,” circa 1838, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows the offspring of a Royalston, Mass., businessman. “Peckham’s style is forceful, relying on intense, saturated color, direct gazes and his characteristic delineation of the forehead and mouth,” reads the Met’s description. “He constructs a detailed environment for the children, who are surrounded by their toys within the family parlor, a document of Nineteenth Century furnishings.”
“The Raymond Children” was once attributed to Boston artist James Harvey Young, based on its striking resemblance to an unsigned portrait, “Charles L. Eaton and His Sister,” once thought to be by Young but now also attributed to Peckham.
The “Eaton” likeness, circa 1844, offers a quandary. On one hand, the carefully coiffed, well-dressed children directly engage the viewer with their eyes, are illuminated with a strong light from one side, and furnishings are delineated in careful detail †all characteristics of Peckham’s children’s portraits. On the other hand, the creator of this portrait employed more subdued colors and thinner application of paint than normally seen in Peckham’s works. For now, it is “attributed to” Peckham.
A particular charmer, “Rosa Heywood” features an angelic little girl, dressed to the nines in a blue dress, holding a rose and standing on a boldly patterned carpet. She looks ready for a party or some other festive event in her comfortable home.
“Webster Tucker,” the portrait Chotner discovered in an advertisement, depicts a well-groomed young gentleman with an impressive lace collar and books in one hand and cap in the other. The setting and colorful carpet suggest a well-to-do home.
The Peckham paintings, ranging from 1831 to 1844, are placed in folk art context by the complementary show of Garbisch-donated works from the NGA’s permanent collection. Starting in 1944, the Garbisches assembled the largest private collection of Eighteenth to late Nineteenth Century American naïve art, some 1,800 objects. Their gift of 300 to the NGA implemented their mission of sharing with the public works they acquired both for their visual pleasure and for their historical documentation of American life.
The delightful selection on view, eight portraits and four landscapes, genre scenes and a still life, document the talents, styles and varied subjects of other self-taught artists.
One well-known artist represented is Joseph Whiting Stock (1815‱855), who was born in Springfield, Mass., and was active around the same time as Peckham. Crippled at age 11 when his legs were crushed under an overturned ox cart, he used a flexible wheelchair that allowed him to travel around New England and New York. His children, well-dressed, looking straight at viewers and in comfortable surroundings with patterned carpets, look much like Peckham’s portraits. Stock’s journals, painting records and other material make him well-documented for a self-taught country painter.
At the other extreme, little is known about English-born John Bradley, who was active in Staten Island and New York from 1831 to 1847. His predilection for carefully composed, richly detailed children’s portraits, augmented with pets and bold colors, is reflected in “Little Girl in Lavender.”
The best-known artist on view, William Matthew Prior (1806‱873), was a native of Bath, Maine, who traveled around New England applying strong patterns, careful design and an aptitude for catching the individual features of sitters young and old. “The Bumish Sisters,” 1854, fetching in their off-the-shoulder dresses, pose amid toys and flowers, projecting distinct personalities.
Unlike many itinerant painters, Joseph Goodhue Chandler (1813‱884), who was born in Massachusetts and traveled extensively in the Connecticut River Valley, signed and dated his paintings. In “Charles H. Sisson,” he depicted a wholesome, buttoned up youngster playing with his toys with an idyllic view of presumably the family home as the backdrop.
Binghamton, N.Y., native Susan C. Waters (1823‱900) supported herself and her ill husband by portrait painting in New York and Pennsylvania. “Brothers,” circa 1845, depicting rather pious-looking siblings with a book and apple in hand against a panoramic background was painted before she branched out into well-received landscapes and animal pictures.
The most interesting landscape in the exhibition is “Ralph Wheelock’s Farm,” painted by Killingly, Conn., native Francis Alexander (1800‱881) at the beginning of his career. His charming, naïve view of workers among haystacks and buildings around the farmstead indicate this was painted well before formal art training that led to a more sophisticated style †and success as a Boston portraitist.
This rewarding, eye-opening exhibition, showcasing Peckham’s self-taught accomplishments along with some of his peers, underscores the deacon’s contributions to the rich history of American folk art. Perhaps this unprecedented assemblage of nine of Peckham’s children’s portraits, underscoring what Chotner terms his “singular, compelling vision,” will bring other Peckhams to light †paintings that will not require 30 years to determine their creator.
A digital, fully illustrated brochure authored by Chotner is available at www.nga.gov/hobbyhorse.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov or 202-737-4215.
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