Published: July 20, 2004
For some 25 years before Ralph and Martha Cahoon became famous for their whimsical primitive paintings, they had a successful business decorating furniture with traditional folk designs.
This first career – quickly eclipsed by their second – has been largely overlooked until now. But this summer, the Cahoon Museum of American Art presents the exhibition “In the Beginning: The Decorated Furniture of Ralph and Martha Cahoon,” running from July 27 till September 18.
An opening reception will take place from 5 to 7 pm Friday, July 30. Refreshments will be served.
The show features more than 40 pieces the Cahoons painted between 1930, when they met, and 1960, when their reputations as primitive artists really exploded. These pieces include secretaries, chests, tables, commodes and chairs, as well as such accessories as trays, a firkin and a wastepaper basket decorated with a picture of George Washington. Drawn from private collections in Maine and Rhode Island, as well as on Cape Cod, the pieces demonstrate the Cahoons’ command of Swedish, Pennsylvania-German and early American decorative styles.
The exhibition begins with a small selection of decorated furniture from the West Harwich shop of Martha Cahoon’s father, Axel Farham. That is where she apprenticed for ten years, learning stenciling and the decorative art of Scandinavian rosemaling. After she and Ralph married in 1932, she taught him the trade and they started a business selling antiques and their painted furniture from their home in Osterville. In 1945, they moved to the large Colonial house in Cotuit that has – for the past 20 years – been the Cahoon Museum.
Two highlights of the show are pieces that Ralph Cahoon decorated in 1946 with elaborate designs based on Swedish wall hangings. In one case, the main panels on a Victorian walnut secretary illustrate the biblical story of King Salomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the second, images on a 6-foot-long pine dowry chest exuberantly tell the tale of the Prodigal Son.
“In the Beginning” also shows how the Cahoons – particularly Martha – used motifs drawn from nature, including shells, birds, flowers, fruits and butterflies. Other pieces show their earliest endeavors at primitive painting. A trim-top table boasts a colorful farm scene, while a commode bears an engaging scene of a sailor on the shore. Some early paintings are also on view.
For comparison’s sake, the show takes a brief look at pieces from the Provincetown and New Orleans shops of Peter Hunt, whose decorative furniture also had a devoted clientele around the same time. He and Ralph knew each other and were undoubtedly acquainted with each other’s work.
“In the Beginning” was curated by Barnes Riznik of Osterville.
Five guest speakers have been scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition. All the presentations will begin at 10 am on Tuesdays. Admission to the museum is $4, free for children under 12. There is no additional charge for these “Tuesday Talks.”
Following is the schedule of the speakers and their topics:
August 10, “Scandinavian Rosemaling as an Art Form.” Christina Keune, an art historian and rosemaller from Arlington, Va., will speak on the tradition of rosemaling in Scandinavian decorated furniture. Developed in the late Eighteenth century, rosemaling (meaning, literally, “rose” or “flower” painting) is the art of embellishing furnishings or accessories with hand painted floral designs.
August 17, “Taking care of Cahoon Furniture.” Barrett M. Keating, a North Falmouth conservator, will speak on the care of decorated furniture in general and Cahoon Furniture in particular.
August 24, “The Shop Trade of Axel Farham and Ralph and Martha Cahoon.” Barnes Riznik, guest curator, will give a tour of the exhibition.
August 31, “Wall Stenciling and Painted Floors at the Cahoon Museum.” Ann Eckert Brown of Warwick, R.I., author of recently published book American Wall Stenciling, 1790-1840, will speak on the museum’s stencils. Some date back to the early 1800s; others were done by Ralph and Martha Cahoon in the late 1940s.
September 7, “Working With Peter Hunt.” Provincetown artist Carol Whorf Westcott will talk about her experiences decorating furniture for the flamboyant Peter Hunt (1896-1967), who had workshops in Provincetown and Orleans. His peasant designs started becoming very popular in the late 1940s.
The Cahoon Museum is at 4676 Falmouth Road (Route 28). For information, 508-428-7581 or cahoonmuseum.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm