Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cooperstown Pursuit #2

By: Kate Betz, Manager of Public Programs
The story of William and Elizabeth Cooper’s arrival in Cooperstown has been the subject of many exaggerations and complications throughout the town’s history. In fact, so much has been made of their arrival that it was even thought to be a worthy subject of “Ripley’s-Believe it or Not.” Mrs. Cooper is, in their cartoon, the first person to stage a “sit-down strike” to avoid moving from her more comfortable home in New Jersey. (click to enlarge cartoon)
Though a good story, the cartoon lacks historical evidence. When William Cooper brought his wife Elizabeth to his settlement on the banks of Otsego Lake, the couple did indeed travel over rough terrain and uneven roads, even completing their journey by canoe. Elizabeth hated the journey so much that she refused to leave the town until a new road was cut. (No word on whether she was sitting down while delivering this refusal to her husband.) She did not have to wait for long to be able to travel on improved roads. By the turn of the nineteenth century, residents dramatically improved the rough road when “a good Turnpike Road westward from Cooperstown to the Chenango River” was completed, and a stage coach route between Cooperstown and Canajoharie provided travelers with frequent and reliable opportunities for travel outside of the quickly expanding town.
Cartoon: 20th century, Vertical File, NYSHA Research Library.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Floral quilts and children’s folk portraits

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
The quilt collection at Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum has particular strengths in several areas. It has a number of rare 18th century quilts, and a significant group of high-style whole cloth, pieced and appliqué quilts from the first half of the 19th century; among these, the all-white quilts are especially interesting. Also of importance are the many well-documented New York State quilts, a number of which have complete information on their makers, and are often accompanied by family photographs and documents. Other strengths include a large selection of crazy quilts and a number of utilitarian quilts of the type common to rural farmhouses in New York State. Throughout the collection there are single quilts of great rarity, beauty and interest.

Floral imagery is the most common subject matter in American quilts and is very common in other folk art as well. There is a strong association between children and flowers, where the latter symbolize the innocence and bloom of youth. Folk portraits such as Samuel Miller’s Picking Flowers and Eliza Smith by an unidentified artist, illustrate this usage. Birds, butterflies and bees are related images of nature and are often linked to fruit and floral imagery. This association appears in the Trade and Commerce Quilt Top and the Basket and Framed Center Appliqué quilt.

In using images of the abundant natural world and its blessings for mankind, American artists were following a tradition millennia old. The most immediate source of such imagery for quilt makers was in the lively Indian painted cottons that were wildly fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the European chintz copies of them in the 18th and 19th centuries. From them came the Tree of Life design that was to figure so strongly in decorative art of the time, and is to be seen in its full form on the Trade and Commerce Quilt Top.
(From 'Uncommon Quilts" by Jonathan Holstein, Heritage, Vol. 12, No. 4, Summer 1996)

Visit our Facebook pages to see more quilts and folk art from the collection.

From top to bottom:
Picking Flowers, ca. 1845, attributed to Samuel Miller (ca 1807-1853), oil on canvas, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0255.1961.
Eliza Smith, ca. 1836, unidentified artist, oil on canvas , gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0034.1961.
Framed Center with Applique Quilt (detail), ca. 1860, unidentified artist, cotton, gift of Mary Wise, N0155.1957.
Trade and Commerce Quilt Top, ca. 1835, Hannah Stockton Stiles (1800-?), cotton, glazed chintz. gift of Hannah Lee Stokes, N0222.1956.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Behind the Scenes and On the Road with the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
I’m often asked, “So, what do you do when the museum’s closed for the winter?”
The magic of exhibitions is what happens in the winter, behind the scenes. When Fenimore is closed from January through March, everything happens! Last year’s artworks are either stored or shipped back to their owners, a fresh coat of paint is applied, new artworks and labels are installed, and the lights are positioned for our annual April 1 opening.
Every year brings several new and exciting projects in the exhibitions department and this year is no exception. Fenimore Art Museum is organizing a national tour of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. The Exhibitions team recently dismantled the 2500 square foot gallery, storing every artwork in other locations, and embarked on the work for the national tour that will take us the remainder of the year.
We are preparing the artworks that will travel while the gallery is renovated and painted. Some need to be professionally photographed, some need a bit of careful conservation, some need new mounts. The list of artworks that will travel was decided many months ago.
Working with the museums that will borrow our exhibition is very exciting, too. They are as thrilled to host these amazing artworks as we are to share them with the nation. After all, the Thaw Collection is the premier collection of Native American Art in the world. But for me, the logistics of such an adventure are just as energizing. I love talking with the host museums about their needs and all the intricate details of our exhibition – from mounts that support the artworks, to crates that embrace them in transit, to providing digital images of them, to making travel arrangements for our team to install the exhibition at the host venues – I love it all.
Soon, we will re-install the artworks that will hold down the home front while the others are on tour. A gallery this large filled with three-dimensional art takes a while to regain perfection, but it’s fun work.
I’m honored to be able to share this remarkable collection of art with the nation. I hope you’ll be able to see it at one of the venues in the next three years. We’ll announce the venues on our Facebook page and our website soon. And of course, it’s always on view right here in Cooperstown!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Masterpieces of the Prado Museum with Google Earth

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
An exasperated technologist, speaking to a group of art museum professionals at a conference, once exclaimed, “when you speak about putting your images on the web, I can never tell whether you want them to look good or want them to look bad.” For more than a decade this has been a central contradiction of the approach to art on the web; we want to do the images justice, but don’t them to be so good that we inadvertently encourage piracy or leave people with the impression that a first-hand viewing is no longer necessary. The latter concern never made sense to me. Why would we print beautiful, full color images in books and magazines and not worry about the same reaction then? It has always occurred to me that the most reproduced works in the world (ie., the Mona Lisa, or, in the US, American Gothic) are also the most visited. Exposure creates artistic “celebrities” that draw hordes of admirers and create a retailer’s dream. Still, many art museums continue to have a schizophrenic approach to sharing their works electronically.
Now, a new partnership between Google Earth and El Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid has, I contend, laid this issue to rest. In a stunning new offering that speaks as many volumes about the emerging 3D web as it does about the virtues of public access to art, one can now “fly” through the Prado in Google Earth and access ultra-high resolution images of fourteen of the museum’s greatest masterpieces. You can view a promotional video of the project here:

No interpretive label could possibly express what one can now see in these works as one zooms in for a close up of Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, for example, and examine the agony and the pathos with which the artist rendered every face. Even if you have seen these works in person, you have never seen them like this. And you will want to go back and view them with new eyes after this experience. Here’s hoping more museums jump on this bandwagon. We will all be the richer for it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Sleighing in Otsego County

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Otsego County winters can be brutal. The cold, wind, and snow often combine to create arctic conditions. But what made travel different in the late 19th century was the lack of professional road maintenance, the necessity of keeping snow on the roads for sleighing, and the nature of the vehicles themselves. Most vehicles were open, travel was slow, and spontaneous changes in the weather could stop travel altogether.
The arrival of snow meant that buggies and wagons were washed off and put into storage and the sleighs were taken out. Sleighing was best if the snow base was solid and smooth, a condition seldom met in upstate New York’s variable climate. Bobsleighs and straight sleighs were built for strength but had low clearance. The straight sleigh, with its one continuous runner on each side, was less easily upset during tight maneuvers or deep snow.
Cutters were best for deep snow and would ride over the drifts like small boats. They were of more elaborate design, could carry less weight, and usually were purchased as a fancy sleigh for light travel. If conditions changed rapidly, travelers could be stranded without the proper sleigh or, even worse, with no snow at all.
Regardless of the effort, hardship, and inconvenience of snow travel, sleighing was a winter pastime that could be enjoyable. People appreciated the beauty of the winter landscape then as much as we do now.
(From Winter Sleighing in Otsego County by Timothy Hamway, Heritage, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1997.)
Left: Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine, ca. 1860, Artist Unidentified, oil on canvas, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Cooperstown, NY, N0321.1961
Right: Winter Carnival, 1986, by Janet Munro, mixed media on masonite, Gift of Mr. Jay Johnson, N0036.1986

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Art Speculations from the Non-Curator

By: Kate Betz, Manger of Public Programs
I grew up with two ideas of Rome in my head.

Idea 1: Rome was the birthplace of democracy and its great buildings (now relics) should be celebrated—nay, enshrined—as icons to be lauded.

Idea 2: Rome was full of drunken debauchery, violence, and anything except democracy.

Our museum curators recently showed me some of the amazing paintings that will be featured in this summer’s exhibit America’s Rome. To me, these paintings represent part of the dichotomy of Rome that has been a part of the American collective consciousness throughout my life. I think that Idea 1 is the inspiration that drove most of the paintings that I’ve seen of the exhibit so far. An amazing society grew and flourished right there where these nineteenth-century American painters stood painting landscapes. Though this society is gone, the remnants of it remain, and these remnants are still worth preserving.

As far as Idea 2 is concerned, I think that Rome as a debauchery is appealing for the same reason that I like to hear about the quirks of famous people. Call me crazy, but I like knowing that everyone has flaws and yet our society continues to function and progress continues to be made. Those Romans sure could party, but they could also create an unparalleled system of aqueducts and some really stellar philosophers along the way. Now, it is possible, of course, that the only reason I have this idea in my head is because I just finished watching Season 2 of HBO’s miniseries Rome last week. However, if Thomas Cole’s series Course of Empire is any indication, I think that these painters were struggling with the same thing. I could just be making this up, but these simply remain, speculations from the non-curator…

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Landscapes in the Folk Art Collection

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhbitions
Landscapes and townscapes have always been favorite subjects for folk artists. During both the 19th and 20th centuries, these scenes have expressed personal and communal values through the “look” of the countryside.

Views of early 19th-century towns and villages show thriving centers of commerce or evidence of prosperity and progress. These were the areas in which folk artists lived and worked, and knew well by experience. Late 20th-century folk art landscapes are more often based on recollections of experience, and communicate traditional values and nostalgic sentiment.

Poestenkill, New York by Joseph Hidley and Winter Village by Edwin Johnson appear very similar in composition, as they both incorporate clusters of buildings and people engaged in various activities. The intent of each artist, however, is very different. Hidley painted many views of his village in the 1860s, using the surrounding hillsides as vantage points and documenting specific buildings and the layout of the town at that time. Johnson, who resides in Fly Creek, New York, paints idealized composite views taken from his recollections of the many villages he has seen throughout his life in upstate New York.

Right: Poestenkill, New York, 1862, by Joseph H. Hidley (1830-1872), oil on wood panel. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0382.1955
Left: Winter Village, 1991, by Edwin Johnson (b. 1934), mixed media on masonite, Gift of Edwin Johnson, N0079.1991

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Americana Week in New York

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
Winter in NYC has always been an intensely social and productive time. In the 19th century, Hudson River School painters used to spend the winter months in their New York studios completing works they sketched on their fair weather excursions through the Catskills or Adirondacks, in between attending parties, dances, exhibitions, and other social events.

This tradition continues every January in Manhattan with Americana Week, which I recently attended as I do every year. This week includes major auctions at Sotheby's and Christies, antiques shows such as the American Antiques show in lower Manhattan and the prestigious Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side. It also includes a full round of get-togethers with fellow museum professionals, collectors, gallery owners, and auction house staff. It's a perfect time to share information about recent or upcoming projects and to forge collaborations and generate ideas that can prove valuable to the fulfillment of a project.

This year was a little more subdued than in past years, as one might expect. There were a lot of concerns about the economy and its effect on the market. Still, the range of material being offered for sale was remarkable; everything from weathervanes to medieval illuminated manuscripts to Northwest Coast Indian masks.

Of course, the great harvest of Americana week in New York is not the objects but the marketplace of ideas and collaborations. The booths at the Winter Show are stunning, but the chance meetings with friends and colleagues in the aisles are better. In less than an hour I was able to talk to an Indian art dealer about the upcoming national tour of the Thaw Collection, discuss the Fenimore's planned 2010 exhibition on John Singer Sargent with one of the premier gallery owners carrying his work, and encounter numerous pieces comparable to those in our collections.
All in all, it was quite a week despite the state of the economy. As one auction house executive put it, at one of the receptions when he came up to a group of us and - knowing what was on our minds - said simply "The glass is half full." Looking around at the gathering of bright, dedicated, engaged people, I couldn't help but agree.

Shield, c1860, Fenimore Art Museum, gift of Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, T0048
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