The world first came to know John Brewster Jr’s hushed, ethereal painting of Comfort Starr Mygatt and his young daughter, Lucy, when Sotheby’s auctioned the late Eighteenth Century portrait in 1988 for $852,500, then a record for American folk art.
The painting was consigned by New York dealers David A. Schorsch and his mother, Marjorie, who just a year earlier uncovered the canvas, one of the deaf-mute artist’s most important commissions, in Ohio, still with descendants. The Schorsches had long handled the best American folk art, but “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt” was the most significant discovery of their career.
Another leading dealer, G.W. Samaha, bought the picture and in 1991 lent it to the traveling exhibition, “Ralph Earl: The Face of The New Republic.” Early in 2006, “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt” resurfaced in the New York State Historical Association’s traveling exhibition “The World of John Brewster Jr, 1766–1854.” Jane and Gerald Katcher were listed as the painting’s new owners.
For all the collectors who enjoy the fraternity of the marketplace, there are others who pursue their passions privately. Beginning in the 1980s, Jane Frank Katcher, a pediatric radiologist and mother of three from Coconut Grove, Fla., quietly put together one of the best collections of American folk art in the country.
Katcher broke her silence this fall with the publication of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections From The Jane Katcher Collection of Americana. Published by Marquand Books in Seattle in association with Yale University Press, the book features “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt” on its cover.
Two pieces from the collection, a J.L. Mott Goddess of Liberty weathervane and a Baltimore album quilt, the cover lot of the 1987 Jill and Austin Fine sale at Sotheby’s, have already been promised to Yale University Art Gallery, prompting speculation that additional pieces from the Katcher collection may ultimately go to the New Haven, Conn., institution, known for American painting, furniture and silver, but not for folk art. In 2004, the couple established the Jane and Gerald Katcher Foundation for Education at the gallery.
“Jane has a very strong visual sense and a remarkable ability to put objects together in aesthetically pleasing and powerful ways,” says Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts at Yale.
From February 13 to August 26, Yale is presenting “Made For Love: Selections From The Jane Katcher Collection of Americana.” “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt” will be the centerpiece of the display, which features tokens of affection such as a miniature heart-shaped box of 1847, a variety of handmade paper valentines, a puzzle purse and Sarah Sawyer’s friendship album.
“Hand and Heart: Collecting, Curating and Creating American Folk Art,” Yale’s annual Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque Memorial Lecture and Symposium on March 30–31 will offer a keynote address by Steven Mintz followed by presentations by Erin Eisenbarth, Catherine Kelly, Sumpter Priddy III, Stacy Hollander, Stuart Frank, Elizabeth Stillinger, Paul D’Ambrosio and Jane Katcher.
Extravagantly produced but understated in its account of Katcher’s journey from novice to connoisseur, Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence arrays 203 objects, each exquisite in its own way. About half of the pieces are published for the first time. Detailed entries feature a bibliography and extensive provenance, mapping the movement of objects from families through the trade.
“One of the most important things Jane did was for dealers,” says Camden, Maine, ceramics specialist Rufus Foshee, who advised Katcher on her large collection of English pottery. “To my knowledge, there is no other book that honors dealers in this way.”
One of the book’s most lasting contributions may be as a record of the collaboration between Katcher and her chief advisors, David Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles, Schorsch’s business partner since 1995.
Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence provides a window onto the field. In its general conception and design, the book resembles American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to The American Folk Art Museum, no coincidence, perhaps, given that Schorsch played a significant role in building that collection as well.
The dealer credits his mother, Peggy Schorsch, now retired and living in Texas, as his first and finest teacher. He lists other great tastemakers: Mary Allis, Roger Bacon, Robert Bishop, Robert Carlen, Henry Coger, Barry Cohen, Robert E. Crawford, Ralph Esmerian, Austin Fine, Avis and Rockwell Gardiner, Theodore Kapnek, Robert Kinnaman, Joel and Kate Kopp, Judy Lenett, Alistair B. Martin, David Pottinger, Marguerite Riordan, Albert Sack, Harold Sack, G.W. Samaha, Bert and Gail Savage, Stephen Score, George Schoellkopf, Peter Tillou and Don Walters.
Katcher, Schorsch and Smiles spent three years working on Expressions of Innocence and Experience, recruiting a talented team to the project. Gavin Ashworth’s photography is flawless. The book was artfully conceived by John Hubbard, who also designed American Radiance.
Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence began with the casual suggestion that Katcher write a magazine article. It grew into a complex, interdisciplinary study of aesthetics and material culture. Edited by Ruth Wolfe, the book features essays by Jean M. Burks and Robert Shaw of the Shelburne Museum; Paul D’Ambrosio of the New York State Historical Association; Erin Eisenbarth, Robin Jaffee Frank and Patricia Kane of Yale University Art Gallery; Richard Miller of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg; Charles Santore, author of The Windsor Style in America; and Philip Zea of Historic Deerfield.
Given stacks of transparencies, contributors were invited to write about what interested them. As a result, the essays are a series of scholarly impressions, observations and insights that speak to the subjective, inherently personal, experience of looking at art.
“This book is not about me. It’s about the objects, chosen and dearly loved by me,” Katcher, an elegant, meticulous woman, said emphatically over a recent breakfast in Manhattan. If Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence has a single theme, it is love: the love of parents and children in early America; Katcher’s love of refined, nuanced art that acutely records universal but transitory human emotion; the artist’s love for his craft; and Schorsch’s prodigious, and perhaps equal, love for art and the business of art, a profession he embarked on at age 14.
Katcher identifies intellectual and spiritual growth as the most compelling rewards of collecting. She was in her teens when she made her first purchases, a pair of watercolors, on a Greenwich Village street. Originally a New Yorker, she spent weekends in the city’s great museums, admiring Gauguin, Rousseau and Picasso. She completed her medical studies in Chicago before beginning her career in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.
On weekend rambles in the country, she bought pottery, textiles and small folk art objects. The 1984 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art” opened Katcher’s eyes to the “power and majesty” of African art, which she began to seriously collect along with Northwest Coast and other tribal art in the 1980s. Her interest in contemporary art, which she also collects, abated as she learned more about untutored, unselfconscious works made for personal use.
“I never set out to build a collection,” notes Katcher, who describes her growth as the unexpected consequence of many hours spent talking to experts. Raymond Wielgus, a fellow collector of African art, taught Katcher “the basics of how one evaluates any object. These lessons have proven invaluable, and I perpetually hear Raymond’s voice reminding me of the tough and discriminating rules of connoisseurship by which I must play.”
Beginning in 1987, Katcher started acquiring handmade and hand painted American love tokens, remembrances and valentines, many of them from Carlson & Stevenson in Manchester Center, Vt.
“Her genius,” says Tim Stevenson, “was in completely focusing on schoolgirl art, not only for its aesthetic beauty but also for its importance in women’s history in this country. She wanted material that was in outstanding condition and contained written verse and the artist’s original information.”
The Katchers enjoyed long weekends in New York as often as their busy schedules allowed. Around 1990, Jane Katcher visited David Schorsch for the first time. The first important piece she bought from the dealer, now in Woodbury, Conn., was a dramatic spatterware teapot from the Deyerle collection. A schoolgirl-decorated worktable with a rare scenic view of Mount Vernon was the turning point in her relationship with Schorsch and Smiles.
“Eileen said unhesitatingly that we should offer the table to Jane. She bought it and that was really the beginning,” says Schorsch.
“It got to a point where it didn’t make sense to go elsewhere. David represented me so well. He has a remarkable and brilliant mind,” says Katcher.
Katcher uses the words nobility, economy of means, power, grace, spirit and unique vision to describe the art she finds compelling. Decorated with hypnotic swirls of paint, an otherwise crisply tailored bucket bench fits her criteria. The bench was a highlight of the Don and Faye Walters Sale in 1986. Similarly bold in conception is a Lancaster County slide-lid box. Known since the 1920s, it was auctioned by Freeman’s last year. A hanging wall cupboard by Johannes Spitler is strikingly original in its design and decoration. It made headlines when it was discovered in an under-stairs closet in 2004.
“I admire powerfully packed things that communicate in economical ways,” says Katcher. Forced to pick one piece, it would be “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt,” which Katcher first saw around 2000. “Six Children,” a Brewster oil on canvas of circa 1810, is a close second.
Katcher’s intellectual bent is reflected in her website, www.janekatchercollection.com, which provides new findings on objects as information becomes available. Says the collector, “One of my dreams is that the family depicted in ‘Six Children’ will be identified. We’ve been hard at work and have come up with nothing to date.”
Schorsch’s favorite works include “Mary Gay and Lucy Gay,” an arresting, circa 1780 portrait of two Suffield, Conn., girls, shown as if through portholes, and “George Weld Hilliard,” a severely abstract portrait attributed to Sheldon Peck. Of sentimental interest is a small yellow trinket box that Schorsch, exhibiting for the first time, bought at the Connecticut Antiques Show from Ann Timpson, who got it from Wayne Pratt.
“They sold it to me for $175. A week later I was in Ralph Esmerian’s office, showing him the box. He put on his jeweler’s loupe and a huge smile came across his face. He was smitten. Through a series of circumstances I was able to buy it back,” says Schorsch.
With the help of David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles, Jane Katcher did the all but unimaginable: assemble a breathtaking collection in a well-trodden field over a short time.
Is Katcher’s collection mature “There is probably no such thing, although I am to a degree limited by space,” she says, leaving open the possibility that she will continue to collect at the same pace.
Eileen Smiles says ruefully, “The number of Jane-quality pieces that come along each year is getting smaller, but her enthusiasm is undiminished.”
Will Katcher sell “It’s not even remotely on my mind. I hope that I have many more years to enjoy these beautiful things with my family,” says Katcher, adding, “It would please me immensely if my children wanted to live with some of these objects.”
“Zest and enjoyment are the marks of a great object,” Robert Shaw writes in an introductory essay, “Humanizing The Mundane.” Zest and enjoyment are also the hallmarks of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, offering these splendid treasures for all to share, at least on the printed page.