Patriotic Motifs in American Folk Art
– What is more American than apple pie?
Eagles, flags and Lady Liberty, judging by the dozens of patriotic motifs that crop up on quilts and fire buckets, trade signs and weathervanes in a new book and a related exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum.
“Folk art with patriotic themes and familiar patriotic icons is the most popular form of American folk art,” says Deborah Harding,author of Stars and Stripes: Patriotic Motifs in American Folk Art.”The people who made these objects came to America from all over the world to celebrate their freedom. Despite their different origins, they were united by a mutual pride of country in a new land.”
The unifying power of these uplifting images is explored in “American Memory: Recalling the Past in Folk Art,” through December 29 at the Fenimore Art Museum, which displays the New York State Historical Association’s (NYSHA) varied collections of fine art, folk art and North American Indian art in 11 permanent and changing galleries. The exhibition considers the notion of collective memory and contrasts it with the ways in which folk artists represent individual experience.
“Folk art served to create an identity for the United States at a time when that identity, indeed the survival of the United States, was not a forgone conclusion,” says Paul S. D’Ambrosio, NYSHA’s chief curator.
The museum’s interest in folk art as a tangible representation of the American spirit dates to the late 1940s, when former director Louis C. Jones and the museum’s late benefactor Stephen C. Clark sought the best examples of such work.
Jones lectured and wrote on the subject of patriotic folk art, publishing articles such as “Liberty and Considerable License” in The Magazine Antiques(July 1958). His discussions referenced pieces acquired by NYSHA from Modernist artist Elie Nadelman, such as a painted canvas window shade, a 1948 gift from Clark, that is included in both the book and the exhibit. Probably one of several shades from a Connecticut tavern, the circa 1800-1810 painting on canvas is replete with neoclassical imagery.
“Lou loved it because it had every possible patriotic symbol, including an eagle, a flag, a bust of George Washington, a classically draped Liberty figure, a pine tree, a laurel wreath and a liberty pole and cap. It’s just a fantastic piece,” says D’Ambrosio.
“Folk artists express through their art the ordinary and extraordinary events that have shaped their lives and communities. Through the process of creating, folk artists make a permanent record of their cultural ideals, experiences and community heritage,” writes exhibition curator Michelle L. Murdock, who has arrayed 75 Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folk art objects in all media in the 2,200-square-foot Main Gallery. Shown on alternate sides of a stationary wall, the pieces fall under the headings of “National Memory” and “Personal Memory.”
“American identity, based on common heritage, individual liberty and representative government, is the prevalent theme of ‘National Memory,'” notes Murdock. “Beginning in the Eighteenth Century, American historical events and personages were often painted or drawn by trained artists and reproduced as woodcuts and engravings in popular magazines and newspapers. These images, and the accompanying articles, allowed the American public to know and remember the history of their country.
“Classical iconography — including Liberty, the pine tree and the eagle — was adopted by the United States and used to proclaim national pride and a connection to the nation’s democratic foundation,” she adds.
Show-stoppers include Frank Moran’s circa 1940-45 life-sized carving of Abraham Lincoln, acquired by NYSHA in 1967. The self-taught carpenter from Bakersfield, Vt., depicts the President as a ordinary person and a friend of the common man. He is seated in a simple country chair, his back erect, his hands on his knees and his brow furrowed with worry for his country’s well-being.
Another favorite piece among the 20 objects from NYSHA’s collection that are illustrated in Stars and Stripesis a political banner that endorses the Whig Party’s belief in the development of transportation and the protection of American industries. Possibly created for Henry Clay’s 1839 visit to Auburn, N.Y., the painting superimposes an American eagle and shield on views of the Erie Canal, the railroad and a paddle-wheeler.
By contrast, James Bard’s “Steamer Niagara Passing Fort Washington Point,” an oil on canvas portrait of 1852, is a highly personal view. Says D’Ambrosio, “The painting was probably commissioned by the ship’s captain, Albert DeGroot. It reflects the captain’s pride in the boat but also, I am certain, the artist’s enthusiasm for these great vessels and his determination to record them accurately.”
Communal memory and individual experience often overlap, as two paintings by the contemporary artist Malcah Zeldis reveal. Zeldis, a Tribeca resident at the time of the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers, documented this horrific national event in a very personal way in two oil on canvas paintings, “9-11 Number One” and “9-11 Number Two.”
“These are works of human empathy, not unabashedly patriotic. Zeldis participates on a very human, very emotional level,” says D’Ambrosio.
With its rich resources of patriotic folk art, NYSHA was a natural place for Deborah Harding to start when she began researching Stars and Stripes: Patriotic Motifs in American Folk Art.A former magazine editor who is the author of Red & White: American Redwork Quilts and Patternsand, with Manhattan quilt dealer Laura Fisher, Home Sweet Home,Harding is also a collector whose love of folk art and finished textiles is apparent in this new volume. Several pieces from her own collection, such as a crocheted antimacassar emblazoned with the Great Seal of the United States, are illustrated in the book.
Harding did a superb job culling, from a wide range of public and private collections, outstanding examples of patriotic folk and popular art. The sheer variety is staggering. Loosely divided into chapters on painting, sculpture and textiles, Stars and Stripessurveys signboards, banners, firehouse antiques, drawings, fraktur, cut paper, ceramics, toys and games, furniture, ribbons, tobacco novelties, quilts and coverlets, embroidery, hooked rugs, ship carvings, trade and other carved figures, weathervanes and other metal architectural ornament.
One of the most spectacular pieces she includes is an eagle, flag and shield carving by John Haley Bellamy (1836-1914) in the collection of Hyland Granby Antiques. Though not the most familiar of Bellamy’s carvings — that honor, says Harding, belongs to an eagle figurehead created for the USS Lancaster or to the artist’s many motto carvings — the sculpture is nonetheless a tour de force, the creature’s upswept wings and beak rising from the masterfully carved swirls of a draped flag.
Harding delves into the meaning and origin of American patriotic symbols, not all of which were universally acclaimed at inception. In 1794, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character;…” and “For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird….” For his part, Homer Eaton Keyes, first editor of The Magazine Antiques, disparaged Edward Savage’s “Liberty, in The Form of The Goddess of Youth; Giving Support to The Bald Eagle.” Keyes likened Savage’s 1796 engraving, the model for many subsequent Liberties, to a “night-club hostess,” dismissing the depiction as a “piece of patriotic bombast, dependent for its effectiveness on the limited sex appeal of Liberty and a miscellaneous group of popular symbols.”
Happily for the market, few agree with the curmudgeonly Keyes. Even before 9/11, prices for patriotic folk art were soaring. Illustrated in Stars and Stripesis the Grand Union flag that fetched $163,500 at Sotheby’s in 2002; the pair of eagle-decorated fire buckets sold for $90,500 at Northeast Auction in 2000; and the flag-decorated Parcheesi board and game board that went for $46,000 each at Skinner and Northeast in 2001.
“Memory creates communities, it is the important thing that binds people together,” says Paul D’Ambrosio, with ample insight into why these powerful, optimistic objects remain compelling from one generation to the next.
The Fenimore Art Museum is on Lake Road. For more information, call 888-547-1450 or visit the website at www.fenimoreartmuseaum.org. With 200 color illustrations, Stars and Stripes: Patriotic Motifs in American Folk Art is available from Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 300 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010; $75 hardcover.