Published: July 31, 2012
“Until 1986, when Juli and David Grainger, through the Grainger Foundation, endowed a folk art gallery at the Art Institute, American folk art traveled around the building, in and out of storage, or was installed with other collections,” writes Arts Institute of Chicago president and Eloise W. Martin director Douglas Druick. Now firmly situated in the limelight with an elegant and dedicated space of its own, the Grainger Foundation’s gift assures that American folk art occupies a prominent place within the larger context of the museum’s American art collection.
Opened in 2009, the gallery allows the museum to display a larger quantity of its stellar collection than ever before possible. Complementing the gift of the gallery, the Grainger Foundation has also provided funding for a newly released book honoring the collection and the exhibition, For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition, curated by Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski, is an explication of the collection with a view to the collectors, the objects and the artists who made them.
A coterie of visionary collectors of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries gathered the objects that formed the core of the impressive folk art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the decades after the Great Fire of 1871, the city of Chicago underwent a renaissance. Driven by civic pride, the city rebuilt itself and emerged as an architectural showplace and arts center. Part of that effort was the establishment of the Art Institute of Chicago, which began life as a museum and an art school in 1879. By 1893, it settled into its permanent home in the World’s Congress Building erected jointly by the city and the museum for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
During the same period, keen-eyed Chicago area collectors were gathering art from all points: the Midwest, New England, the American Southwest, Pennsylvania and beyond. The same figures were major supporters of and donors to the art institute. The earliest collectors began with ceramics, textiles and ephemera. Emma Blanxius Hodge started with pottery in the 1890s. With the help of her friend and mentor, minister Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, Hodge and her sister, Jene E. Bell, amassed a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of American and English ceramics that was ultimately donated to the art institute.
Hodge also had an abiding interest in textiles, particularly quilts, which she collected and then donated to the art institute, as did Gunsaulus, whose interest was weavings. Caroline and Martin A. Ryerson also collected textiles and donated them as well.
William Henry Miner and his wife, Alice Trainer Miner, also prodigious collectors, funded an addition to the art institute that they insisted be named in honor of Gunsaulus. Emily Crane Chadbourne, daughter of plumbing magnate Richard Crane, left Chicago after an unpleasant divorce to live in Paris, where she was part of the circle of Gertrude Stein, and in London, where she lived among the Bloomsbury Group. Her collection of French Impressionist paintings, textiles, furniture, glass, porcelain and folk art numbering nearly 2,000 objects was gifted to the art institute along with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Robert Allerton was another figure instrumental in the formation of the collection at the art institute. An artist himself, with substantial assets, he contributed the museum’s first Rodin sculptures and its first Picasso. He later donated a costume collection, textiles, wallpapers, Chinese ivories, German stoneware and fraktur and numerous paintings.
Elsewhere in the 1920s, Modernist artists such as Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Robert Laurent, William Zorach, Charles Sheeler and Elie Nadelman were drawn to the simple aesthetic of the primitive paintings and crafts they found in rural areas. They, too, began to collect. Artist Samuel Halpert was among them and his wife Edith, who owned the Downtown Gallery in New York City, began to show American folk art. She subsequently opened the American Folk Art Gallery.
Other institutions, such as the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Newark Museum, mounted exhibits of “folk” art. The notion of art by the common man had great appeal, particularly in the Depression when the New Deal brought many new artists to prominence. Newark curator Holger Cahill included more than 17,000 WPA watercolor illustrations of early American and folk art objects from between 1935 and 1941 in his Index of American Design , a good many of which were exhibited in Chicago.
The objects on view revisit the debate over the nature of “folk” art, whether it is a separate indigenous expression or mainstream art. They were selected to achieve a balance between what the museum terms “foundational folk art figures,” such as Wilhelm Schimmel and Ammi Phillips, and the scores of unknown craftspeople who created many of the objects in the collection. Illustrating the depth and breadth of the collection, “Kith and Kin” curators were guided by the aesthetic qualities of the objects and their creative expression.
An Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century New Mexican chip carved ponderosa pine chest prominently displayed in the exhibition was likely made by a member of the Valdés family of Taos County. It bears an incised asterisk, which Valdés family artists used to mark their work. Its design and construction, typical of the Valdés workers, hearken to Spanish traditions.
A late Seventeenth Century red oak box made in eastern Massachusetts is equally beautiful, but is a more self-contained piece, suggestive of Puritan traditions. It would have been a prized possession, a container of important objects, most probably a bible. It is carved exuberantly with intersecting lunettes and stylized floral elements and is related to an example attributed to the shop tradition of William Searle and Thomas Dennis of Ipswich.
A Taunton blanket chest with single lower drawer is attributed to Robert Crosman and is decorated on the upper panel with compass-drawn vines and birds. The initials “HB” may be those of Hannah Blake, a relative of the second of Crosman’s three wives. It may date from 1725, early in Crosman’s career. The three pieces possess similar construction techniques, executed with local particularity. Several Pennsylvania shranks on view demonstrate the vibrant color and techniques of their makers’ German traditions.
An 1893 Renaissance Revival oak desk by the little-known cabinet maker Ladislaus Zdzieblowski was a purely personal creation. Zdzieblowski became a naturalized American citizen in 1892 and embellished his architectonic desk with carved medallions of George Washington and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought in the Revolutionary War. He had studied woodworking in Nancy, France, and came to the United States to work as a furniture designer at the Pullman Palace Car Company. The desk was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and descended in Zdzieblowski’s family until it was given to the museum.
A donation by Elizabeth R. Vaughan, a circa 1853 watercolor scene, “Anniversary Picnic at Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts,” is a highly detailed view of what was probably a political event. Catalog notes point out that the inclusion of African figures in the scene suggest an antislavery event.
Early benefactor Robert Allerton donated a pair of portraits by Ammi Phillips of physician Cornelius Allerton and his mother, Mrs Reuben Allerton (Lois Atherton) of Pine Plains, N.Y. The severe portraits, circa 1820‱822, of the mother holding a religious newspaper and her son with a medical dictionary stand in stark contrast to another pair, circa 1827‱830, donated by Allerton. Jonas Welch Holman’s “Woman with a Book” and “Man with a Pen” were painted in Philadelphia and depict sitters dressed fashionably and situated elegantly with fancy chairs and heavily tasseled drapery.
Among Allerton’s many other contributions is a fine Baltimore sampler from the 1820s wrought distinctively with a three-bay Federal brick house, a wide lawn and a shepherd tending sheep before a flowing stream, all surrounded by a deep floral border.
From the Gunsaulus donations of weavings, one particular attractive work is an indigo and white double cloth coverlet woven by Jesse Hart of Wilmington, Ohio. Hart was also a carpenter and wagon maker and he inscribed his quilt, “If good we plant not, vice will fill the place; And rankest weeds the richest soils deface; wove by J Hart Wilmington Clinton County Ohio 1851.”
Men were no strangers to textiles: A dazzling jute rug woven with cotton and wool was felted and knitted with woven strips forming a “hooked” pile. It was made according to a pattern designed by Ebenezer Ross around 1890‱900. The central starlike design is geometric surrounded by floral scrolling.
“For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago” is accompanied by a catalog by Judith A. Barter, Field-McCormick chair and curator, department of American art, and Monica Obniski, assistant curator. It is published by the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press.
“For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago” remains on view indefinitely in the American Folk Art Galleries.
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