Published: September 27, 2011
Jane Katcher, a retired physician who lives in Florida, collected for nearly three decades before going public with her passion for American folk art. Her debut coincided with the Fenimore Art Museum’s 2005′007 traveling exhibition “A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr.” Katcher lent to the show the 1799 painting “Comfort Starr Mygatt and Lucy Mygatt,” the solemnly tender portrait of a Danbury, Conn., man and his daughter that set an auction record for American folk art in 1988. Katcher and her husband, Gerald, who later acquired the picture privately, have since donated the work to Yale University Art Gallery.
The Brewster exhibition and “Made for Love: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana,” a small exhibit at Yale in 2007, coincided with the publication of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (Marquand Press, 2006). Commissioned by Katcher, the catalog of her collection contained 203 entries, plus essays by 11 scholars. Five of the original authors plus five additional contributors recently collaborated on a follow-up catalog , Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection, Volume II. To be published by Marquand in November, it contains 91 additional entries, most of them new acquisitions.
In conjunction with the second volume, “Inspired Traditions: The Jane Katcher Collection of Americana” is on view at the New York State Historical Association’s (NYSHA) Fenimore Art Museum between October 1 and December 31.
Mounted in one gallery, the 45-object display is a highly refined grouping of traditional mid-Eighteenth through mid-Nineteenth Century American folk portraits, sculpture, quilts, weathervanes, trade signs, furniture, baskets and Shaker objects from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Some pieces, such as the 1812 Washington Benevolent Society traveling desk box, formerly owned by Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little, are readily familiar. Others, such as a trade sign made for the Maine merchant Morris Lord, or the portrait of Annetje Kool, attributed to upstate New York artist Pieter Vanderlyn (circa 1687‱778), are relatively new discoveries.
“Our presentation focuses on the wide variety of ordinary Americans who made these exemplary pieces,” says Michelle Murdock, the Fenimore Art Museum’s director of exhibitions. “The people who shaped our country’s history left behind physical evidence of how they saw themselves on a routine, day-to-day basis. This evidence †the artwork †helps us today to understand more about our identity as a nation.”
“Jane Katcher is drawn to pieces that speak not just to her eye, but to her keen sense of the people who made and owned them,” said Dr Paul S. D’Ambrosio, NYSHA’s president and chief executive officer. “Time and time again, she acquires works that make connections on many levels. These pieces are windows into the lives of earlier Americans. That is really what inspired me to do the exhibition,” he added.
NYSHA’s collection of American folk art is one of the nation’s best. Begun with extensive gifts from Stephen C. Clark, it incorporates works gathered by Jean and Howard Lipman and brokered to the museum by the dealer Mary Allis in 1950. In 1995, the Fenimore Art Museum expanded its range, opening a new wing devoted to the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian art.
The current display and an accompanying symposium offer visitors the opportunity to compare Katcher’s collecting approach to that of Lipman, Little and other standard-setters. “Like Katcher, Lipman and Little were very interested in the history and background of objects. In my view, Jane combines Jean’s love of form and Nina’s interest in ornamentation,” says D’Ambrosio.
Like its predecessor, Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Volume II is a richly visual, painstakingly assembled tribute to the accidental genius of vernacular art. The two volumes indirectly document Katcher’s fertile creative partnership with her primary dealers, David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles of Woodbury, Conn. Katcher was clearly guided by advisors of exceptional expertise and an encompassing vision. They in turn were fortunate to mentor a disciplined, sensitive enthusiast. Katcher, whose medical practice was devoted to children, gravitates to exquisitely rendered, graphically arresting meditations on heart and home.
In her introduction and conclusion to Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Volume II, Katcher describes her interests and notes how they have changed over time. She writes, “Rather than seeing each object in aesthetic isolation, I find myself intrigued by how these works were used and appreciated in their original contexts. This curiosity has become increasingly important to my collecting efforts and serves as the focus of this book, which places an emphasis on new discoveries about the makers or owners for whom individual works of art were created.”
In a chapter titled “Continuing Themes and Connections,” Katcher singles out folk portraiture as a special love and says that she did not initially grasp its “essence.” Attributed to Rufus Porter (1792‱884), a miniature watercolor on paper portrait of Miss Cushing illustrates her affection for works both delicate and emotionally penetrating. Sheldon Peck’s (1797‱868) oil on panel portrait of a young woman holding a red book speaks to her growing taste for “difficult” likenesses.
Illustrated album pages, friendship tokens and rewards of merit form one of the most original and compelling areas of Katcher’s collection and reflect her sustained interest in childhood. Erin E. Eisenbarth’s relevant essay, “Educating America: Rewards of Merit in the Early Republic,” seems especially fresh and timely, while objects such as Celia White Pearsall’s handmade album of braided hair keepsakes speak to Katcher’s keen appreciation of intimate self-expression.
Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Volume II is loosely organized around the themes of family, makers and interpretations. The essays meander agreeably, offering a cornucopia of new findings to satisfy most folk art aficionados. The sampler approach encourages readers to pick and choose according to interest. For novelty, there is Robert Shaw’s excellent cross-cultural study of the Native American basketmaker Dat So La Lee and her patron, Nevada merchant Amy Cohn. Shaw writes an essay on Jewish folk art in the United States and the cultural exchange that made it possible.
Smiles and Schorsch’s essay on the artist and teacher Emeline M. Robinson Kelley, a Nineteenth Century maker of unusual boxes inset with watercolor panels, is a masterful piece of detective work that links the pioneer collector Edna Hilburn Little Greenwood with Lipman, Little, Katcher and the independent scholar Deborah M. Child over a period of 70 years.
D’Ambrosio uses Pieter Vanderlyn’s “Portrait of Annetje Kool” to delve deeply into Dutch settlement and cultural assimilation in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
In “The Devotion Family Dressing Table,” Richard W. Stevenson follows the history of a distinctive lowboy made on the occasion of Judge Ebenezer Devotion’s (1740‱829) marriage. Stevenson advances conservator Robert Lionetti’s intriguing theory that Joshua Birch, a Stonington, Conn., sawmill owner, influenced cabinetmaking techniques at the Shaker communities in Hancock, Mass., and Enfield, Conn.
Edited by Jane Katcher, David A. Schorsch and Ruth Wolfe and distributed by Yale University Press, the 452-page book contains 417 color illustrations and an illustrated map of Northeastern and Midwestern states by Michael F. Reagan.
Planned for September 30 and October 1, the Fenimore Art Museum’s 2011 Americana Symposium is devoted to the Katcher collection. The program begins on Friday evening with a reception and dinner. Presentations are scheduled for Saturday. Presenters and their topics are Richard Miller, “Two Weathervanes by J. Howard & Co.”; Eva Fognell, “‘It is Perfect in Itself’: Dat So La Lee’s Baskets”; Paul D’Ambrosio, “Reform and Redemption: Pieter Vanderlyn’s Portrait of Annetje Kool”; David A. Schorsch, “Father and Son: The Painted Furniture of George Robert Lawton, Senior and Junior”; Robert Shaw, “Jewish American Folk Art: Between Two Worlds”; Robert Wilkins, “Innovation and Sophistication in Shaker Design”; and Robin Jaffee Frank, “‘Forget Me Not’: James H. Gillespie’s Portrait of an African American Couple.” Jane Katcher will deliver closing remarks. To register, call 607-547-1453.
Katcher gives no indication of her ultimate plans, but hints that her collecting days are far from behind her: “The remaining objects discussed here demonstrate their connections to some of the ideas and continuing themes of the collection, and to yet-to-be-discovered treasures that, with luck, will one day be added to this inspiring assemblage.” She is to be complimented for making so many great works better known.
The Fenimore Art Museum is at 5798 State Highway 80, one mile north of the village of Cooperstown on the west side of Otsego Lake. For information, 607-547-1400 or www.fenimoreartmuseum.org .
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